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

By Liz Clarke
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.

"The first thing Elvis had to learn to transcend, after all, was the failure and obscurity he was born to," critic Greil Marcus wrote of Presley in his 1975 book, "Mystery Train." "He had to find some way to set himself apart."

Those words could have been written about Earnhardt, too, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade. By 18, he was a father, trying to support a family by pumping gas at a filling station while the world passed him by. He later found work in the cotton mill that dominated life in Kannapolis, N.C., his home town, but sunk deeper in debt by the day.

Elvis found his escape in a dime-store guitar; Earnhardt, behind the wheel of a stock car that he and his brothers and sisters assembled from junkyard parts. They'd build it. He'd crash it. And they'd rebuild it again until Earnhardt honed the only trade he felt called to do. And in the years that followed, the hardheaded former mill worker gave voice to the voiceless with every lap he led, even if it was an unchained howl of, "Give 'em hell, Dale!"

But while Elvis became of parody of himself, Earnhardt never did. A millionaire many times over by the time he tied Richard Petty's record seven NASCAR Winston Cup championships, Earnhardt kept racing with the desperation of a man with no options until he rounded that last turn of the 2001 Daytona 500, the checkered flag in sight.

Definition of a great driver

It's difficult to pinpoint what makes a great racecar driver.

Earnhardt, for starters, had uncanny peripheral vision, essential for fending off challengers on either side.

Some believed he could even "see the air" - nowhere more important than on NASCAR's biggest tracks, Daytona and Talladega superspeedways, where the aerodynamic draft, if manipulated correctly, could suck a car to the front. Misread it, and the draft would punt you to the rear. And rookies and veterans alike followed Earnhardt's tire tracks, trying to learn what was instinctive to him.

No fan needed special expertise to see that there was something different about the coal black Chevrolet. Most cars followed the same path around the track, collectively leaving behind a thick band of charred rubber. Earnhardt would poke his Chevy's snout high and low looking for a faster route. On short tracks, he'd clear cars out of his path with a shove to the bumper. On superspeedways, where the consequences of wrecking were more severe, he'd move them aside without making contact, getting just close enough to disturb the air around them.

He could be a bully. And he exuded such an intimidating air that he had some races won the moment he climbed in his car.

"Maybe you sped up, maybe you eased off, maybe you blocked," NASCAR's 1988 champion Bill Elliott once wrote about the effect of seeing Earnhardt's black No. 3 looming in the rearview mirror. "But that bit of concern, that hint of indecision, played right into Dale's game plan."

Even at 49, Earnhardt hadn't lost his touch on NASCAR's massive superspeedways. Four months before his death, he pulled off a victory at Talladega (the 76th and final victory of his career) that defies comprehension, charging from 18th to first over the final five laps.

Rounding Daytona's fourth turn for a final time on Feb. 18, 2001, Earnhardt was the meat of a three-car sandwich, with Sterling Marlin on his left and Ken Schrader on his right. It was clear he couldn't win from that position. But running third, he was fighting with everything he had to block the onrushing cars as his second son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., battled Michael Waltrip for the lead - both in racecars that Earnhardt owned.

Most eyes were fixed on the finish when the No. 3 was turned sideways, then shot up the banking and slammed the wall. As Waltrip celebrated in Victory Lane, Earnhardt's radio communication fell silent. The driver's-side window-net stayed in place-a troubling sign, given that racers know to lower the net immediately after a crash to signal rescue workers that they're conscious and alert.

Without power or steering, the No. 3 slid down the steep banking and came to a stop, so battered that track workers had to shear its roof to extricate the driver. And when they covered the car with a tarpaulin and loaded the body into an ambulance that headed out of the track in no apparent hurry, it was clear to those familiar with racing's rituals that Dale Earnhardt was dead.

"All that stock-car racing was, ran through his veins," said veteran race promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, an early champion of Earnhardt's. "He was the beginning. The genesis. It was all there. And now it's gone."

Losing touch with its roots

A decade later, a significant segment of NASCAR's audience is gone, too.

For some, the sport died 10 years ago at Daytona, and they've never been back. But the slide in NASCAR's TV ratings and attendance reflects more than that.

Historically derided as a sport of ne'er-do-wells, stock-car racing for decades craved the legitimacy of major league sports-the status of competing in major media markets, the marketing tie-ins with Fortune 500 companies and, above all, a coast-to-coast audience. And its founding family launched an aggressive campaign for mass acceptance well before Earnhardt died.

But in retooling for the future, NASCAR disregarded too much of its past.

Races were stripped from beloved old tracks in the Carolinas and relocated to gleaming speedways in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. By 2005, NASCAR had more annual races in California than North Carolina.

"We believe strongly that the old, Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence," NASCAR President Mike Helton proclaimed in a 2006 speech in Washington. Though he quickly qualified his comments, many longtime fans were insulted.

But NASCAR's most profound misreading was in trying to make its redesigned racecar the star of the sport, rather than its drivers.

While the so-called "Car of Tomorrow" is safer, the boxy vehicle bears little resemblance to the sleek Chevys, Fords and Dodges that preceded it. And though NASCAR insists the competition is better because of it, many fans complain that it has turned races into single-file parades and stifled mechanics' ingenuity.

In some respects, NASCAR has responded to fans' discontent. At the start of the 2010 season, the sport's competition director took the reins off drivers' behavior, proclaiming, "Have at it, boys!"

But the unpopular car endures, with a tweak here and there.

Since Richard Petty signed his first autograph more than 50 years ago, stock-car racing has thrived on the cult of personality. It's the men, not the machines, who have built an allegiance with fans.

The racecars themselves were never the story. They provided the soundtrack - a thrilling, deafening, distinctly American soundtrack - to what lies at the heart of stock-car racing: common men performing uncommon feats behind the wheel of racecars that, at least at one time, looked like the ones in the family garage.

Of course to millions of sports fans, NASCAR is simply an annoyance. They stumble on a stock-car race on TV and see nothing but cars going around and around to nowhere.

But to Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR led past the textile mill's gates and farther than he ever dreamed. And with every high-banked, hair-raising turn he made in that black No. 3, he took legions of fans along for the wild ride.

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