One Helluva Ride: How Nascar Swept the Nation | By Liz Clarke
'That's the Toughest Man Alive Right There'
You can't possibly care about a sport that consists of cars turning left all day unless you care about the drivers inside. And no NASCAR driver stirred passions like the late Dale Earnhardt, who was revered by half the fans and reviled by the rest.
A California phenom named Jeff Gordon knocked Earnhardt from his perch atop stock-car racing in the mid-1990s. But the bullheaded Earnhardt roared back, finally winning the coveted Daytona 500, at age 46, after 19 fruitless attempts.
I got to know Earnhardt as a young sportswriter at the Charlotte Observer. Over the years, I learned he was far more complex than the "Intimidator" persona he brandished with such abandon on the track.
NASCAR's working-class hero was moody, mischievous, sentimental and, when out of his element, never quite sure he measured up. That was apparent when he traveled to Washington in June 1998 as the reigning Daytona 500 champion to speak at the National Press Club -- a venue he found far more intimidating than the high banks of Daytona.
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With his storybook victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, Jeff Gordon won the trophy that every stock-car racer coveted. But Dale Earnhardt won the second running of NASCAR's Brickyard 400 the next year. Then he went on "Late Night With David Letterman" and bragged that he was the first man to win a stock-car race at Indy, landing another well-placed jab at the youngster he loved to needle as "Wonder Boy."
The 44-year-old Earnhardt had a son older than Gordon, who was then 24. Earnhardt was also a grandfather, though "Grandpa" wasn't a nickname anyone in the garage dared call him. The Intimidator didn't particularly like answering to "Senior," either, for that matter, after his second son, Dale Jr., joined him in NASCAR's top ranks a few years later.
Despite their generational divide, Earnhardt and Gordon gave NASCAR a delicious pair of protagonists once again -- a contemporary Petty vs. Allison -- with starkly contrasting personalities and widely divergent appeal.
Earnhardt, just over six feet, loomed larger when riled. The 145-pound Gordon simply refused to grow. And when he got excited in a racecar, his chirpy voice seemed to jump an octave.
Outside of racing, Earnhardt loved nothing better than hunting and fishing. Gordon favored scuba diving and playing video games.
Earnhardt looked like a modern-day Samson in his open-faced helmet -- his bushy mustache obscuring everything from his nose down to his chin strap. Gordon's baby face totally disappeared behind his brightly painted, closed-faced helmet, which, when paired with his bright red-and-blue racing suit, made him look like a Ninja Turtle.