Death of Dale Earnhardt 10 years ago changed NASCAR, not necessarily for the better

Ten years after his death in a wreck on the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt is remembered for embodying the essential qualities of NASCAR.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 12:53 AM

Amid the most deafening spectacle in sports, they will stand in silence on Lap 3 of Sunday's Daytona 500, more than 150,000 strong, and raise three fingers in the air.

The Fox broadcast will fall silent, too, in salute to seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, who was killed 10 years ago Friday when his black No. 3 Chevrolet slammed into the wall at roughly 160 mph on the last lap of NASCAR's biggest race.

In the decade since Feb. 18, 2001,NASCAR has kept racing on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway. But for many, stock-car racing's soul died that day. And all the exhaust fumes, tire smoke, fender-banging and paint-swapping since have amounted to little more than left turns.

In many ways NASCAR has never quite recovered. Attendance and TV ratings have slipped, a product of the malaise affecting the economy at large but also, in the minds of some, the result of a number of missteps made by the sport in reaction to Earnhardt's death.

In its zeal to retool its image by expanding beyond its traditional Southern base to markets west of the Mississippi, NASCAR did not just forget its Southern roots but at times denied them. It created a safer car that, while cutting down on fatalities and serious injuries, took much of the excitement and spontaneity out of the sport. At least that's how purists see it.

Earnhardt was the fourth NASCAR driver to die in a wreck in an 11-month span a decade ago. But his loss, at age 49, was incomprehensible, coming at the speedway where his mastery was supreme. He was invincible, or so it seemed.

Earnhardt's death from what looked like an innocuous crash led the national news broadcast and got front-page treatment in the New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

By the tens of thousands, NASCAR fans streamed to tracks all over the circuit - in Atlanta; Bristol, Tenn.; Talladega, Ala.; Las Vegas and beyond - to light candles and weep, wanting nothing more than to grieve at a place where Earnhardt had triumphed, alongside others who shared their heartbreak.

The anguish wasn't confined to traditional stock-car markets but was played out in office buildings, factories, churches and bars throughout the country. And a somber procession of cars came day after day to Earnhardt's Mooresville, N.C., race shop, where fans young and old, most too torn up to speak, paused to lay flowers and tuck cards of condolence in the wrought-iron gates.

Earnhardt was the common-man's champion in a common-man's sport. He was also its unrivaled tough guy, representing evil incarnate to half the fans in the grandstands; deliverance to the rest.

He had a way of racing that bordered on desperate - as if the only thing that could save him from a life sentence of dead-end jobs was getting his racecar to the front, whatever the cost.

In a way, Earnhardt drove a racecar like the young Elvis Presley sang on the 1954 and 1955 Sun Sessions recordings. Raw. Untamed. Bordering on subversive.

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