by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
February 24-25, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt., Feb. 24, 2001 -- Some people wonder why auto racing is the most popular spectator sport in the U.S. It's simple. Most of us can't dunk a basketball, hit a 90-mph fastball or run 100 meters in under 10 seconds. All of us drive cars.
It's not that much a stretch to go from jockeying your sedan on a crowded highway to imagining what it would be like to be in traffic if you were going three times as fast on a high-banked race track.
In a car-crazy nation such as ours, we've all at one time or another been seized by the need for speed. But since most highways in America are either too crowded or too well-patrolled by the cops to put the pedal to the metal; we have to make do with the vicarious thrill ofwatching skilled drivers perform the kind of feats of automotive daring wewish we could perform on the Interstate.
That's why on the third Sunday in February, as I have for years, I was in front of the tv watching the Daytona 500 - the kickoff to the NASCAR season. It was a great show with 44 lead changes in the first 170 laps and some spectacular driving.
Part of the reason why the racing was so good was due to aerodynamic changes that NASCAR put in place to tighten up the field and make races on the high speed ovals such as Daytona more competitive. The result was the lead pack of 30 cars sometimes ran three and four wide through the high bank turns, all inches apart as they sped along at speedsof more than 180 mph.
And in the thick of the action, as always, was Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt has been the most successful NASCAR driver over the past 20 years, and he won 76 races and seven Winston Cup titles by usually being the most aggressive driver on the track.
Folks called him "The Intimidator," but many of his peers called him "Ironhead," for his stubbornness and his willingness to bang any car in front of him to get to the front of the field. When you saw his black Chevy in your rearview mirror, you knew you were in trouble.
Earnhardt never gave anyone an inch on the track, and never apologized for his hard-headedness. He also didn't fear the inherent dangers that come with racing. Columnist Caulton Tudor of the Raleigh(N.C.) News and Observer recalled talking to Earnhardt in 1983 when hisreputation as a reckless daredevil was starting to build.
Earnhardt was asked about why he took so many chances.
"If you're going to be afraid to run hard out there because you're afraid of dying,you might as well stay in bed all your life," he replied. "You could strangle on a biscuit and die at the breakfast table. Naw, I ain't afraid."
At this year's Daytona, Earnhardt drove hard as usual. At age 49, he was not thinking about retirement. Now, he owned a racing team and his son, Dale Jr., was one of his drivers. But the urge to race and compete still burned inside him.
On the last lap of the biggest race he could see Michael Waltrip, the driver he hired for this year's campaign, in the lead on his way to his first victory in Winston Cup racing. Dale Jr. was right behind Waltrip on the way to his best finish at Daytona. And the black No. 3 car was in third, blocking for his stablemates as Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace and Kenny Schrader were all fighting to get past.
But bad things can happen at 180 miles an hour. Earnhardt's car got bumped by Sterling Marlin near the final turn. The black car jerked down toward the apron, then climbed back up the steep 31-degree banking. Earnhardt looked like he was going to get out of trouble, but he then got clipped by Schrader and went head on into a concrete wall.
On tv, the crash didn't look that serious, especially compared to the 19-car pileup that happened on lap 174. The car of Tony Stewart went cartwheeling through the air, but he walked away from the wreck. Surely, old Ironhead was going to walk away from this one.
He didn't. Earnhardt was killed on impact. The official cause of death was massive head trauma. Despite the heavy-duty construction of stock cars, there is not a lot that can stop the violent snap of the neck and skull that usually happens when one hits a large immovable object at high speed. [Investigation revealed that Earnhardt's safety belt had snapped - the first instance in 52 years of that happening on the NASCAR circuit.]
Some drivers have been starting to use what known as a HANS, or head and neck harness, to reduce the impact of those impacts - impacts that killed Winston Cup drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin last year.
Earnhart wasn't interested in wearing one. He still raced with an open facehelmet and felt confined wearing the HANS.
It's sad that the only time most people notice auto racing is when there's a high-profile tragedy such as the death of Dale Earnhardt. Unlike most professional athletes, race drivers are humble, down-to-earth and appreciative of their fans. And racing fans return those feelings of loyalty. Few fans are more devoted than NASCAR fans. That's why the outpouring of grief for Earnhardt was genuine, heartfelt and widespread.
The cynics may question why anyone in their right mind would willingly strap themselves into a car and drive at three times the speed limit against 30 or 40 other drivers all wanting to cross the finish line first. The rush that comes from doing something you love, especially when it's tinged with a bit of danger, is something few of us get to experience. But adrenaline is more addictive than heroin and cocaine.
There was nothing Earnhardt loved better than racing. His father raced, his son races, and Dale Jr.'s progeny will likely find themselves behind the wheel. It's an all-consuming passion, and every driver from the little quarter-mile dirt tracks in the backwoods to the Formula One circuits in Europe understands.
It's a passion that racing fans understand, too. They love the speed and the danger, but they don't want to see their heroes get killed and it hurts them deeply when they do. Everyone mourns, but the drivers then get back into the cars and the fans stream back into the stands to cheer them on.
Some will never understand. I pity them. Those are the people who have no idea that life without passion is not life, that life is about risk-taking, and that the only thing one can do when tragedy strikes is to press on the best way you can.
I'm sad that we lost Dale Earnhardt. He was a good father, a savvy businessperson and the best racer of his generation. He was tough and fearless and backed down to no one. And like many people who know and accept the risks of their chosen professions, he lived and died doing exactly what he wanted to do. You can't help but admire a person like that.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for morethan 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).