They will fire up the engines at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday for the spectacle that heralds the start of stock-car racing’s season each February.
For me, 15 years after Dale Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash, the Daytona 500 represents an end.
I knew nothing about NASCAR as a young sportswriter hired by the Charlotte Observer in 1990. It was the hometown paper of most of the sport’s drivers, whose teams were based nearby. Apart from a compulsive work ethic and fear of failure, my qualifications for helping with race coverage were thin: I had heard of Richard Petty. I could drive a stick. And thanks to Bruce Springsteen, I knew that Junior Johnson once rode “through the woods of Caroline.”
It was a sport I came to love despite the deafening noise and outrageous fuel consumption. Distinctly American and peculiar to the South, its roots were in moonshine running and its lifeblood, the ingenuity that comes with having to make something out of nothing. For a history major drawn to vernacular, it was like being sent to cover a county fair, cultural artifact and sporting event all at once.
At the heart of auto racing lies a fundamental question: Does the driver win the race, or does the car?
Earnhardt, who won seven NASCAR championships before his death at 49, was the last of an era in which man — rather than machine — made the difference.
A high school dropout and twice-divorced father of three by age 24, he was mired in debt as he struggled to fund a racing career while holding down a paying job at a textile mill. In time, he made a name by taking cast-off cars and roughhousing his way to the front. With success, he progressed to better teams and a coal-black No. 3 Chevrolet as menacing as he.
To casual sports fans, NASCAR is just endless left turns. But if you watched Earnhardt in his day, every turn was a fist in the air. There was a defiance in the way he raced, as if raging against every clock-punching job he ever had.
He had plenty of haters. He could be a bully on the track, wrecking cars without leaving a mark. Such was his self-taught mastery of aerodynamics. He could force inexperienced drivers into bone-headed mistakes through sheer intimidation. If all else failed, he would give someone a shove, spin them out and roar off unscathed.
And nowhere was Earnhardt’s supremacy more evident than at Daytona, the 2.5-mile superspeedway where aerodynamics are as important as horsepower. Earnhardt, his rivals said, could “see the air.” He would set up cars in front of him, probing for weaknesses as he closed on their right rear, then left, turn after turn, plotting each move like a chess master.
He was much the same in interviews, probing for weakness so he could gain the upper hand. He tested rivals; he tested reporters. Those who passed muster were rewarded with loyalty and respect.
“He has a heart about yay big,” fellow driver and close friend Ken Schrader told me about Earnhardt early on. “But he doesn’t want anyone to know it.”
I got to know him in fall 1993. Assigned to write a major Earnhardt profile for the Observer, I arranged to spend a few days shadowing him, starting at sunrise on his farm just north of town, where we jumped in his truck and rode to North Wilkesboro Speedway for practice and qualifying for an upcoming race. I spent the morning and afternoon scribbling in my notebook and asking little, detailing the way he sat in his racecar; explained its handling to his mechanics; joked with Schrader; patted the Chevy’s hood as if tucking in a baby; and kept tabs on his son Dale Jr., who was trying to qualify his own car in a lower division race.
The next day I tagged along for Dale Earnhardt Day in his home town of Kannapolis, which celebrated its famous sporting son with speeches, tributes and a commemorative towel produced by the textile mill where he had worked.
It was the first of several visits I made for interviews over the years. Apart from a racetrack, Earnhardt was most at ease on his farm. We would ride around the property in his truck, stop to check on the chicken coop, feed the fish in his pond and watch them thrash about the surface while talking about racing, his plans for Dale Jr. and his vision of the future.
In between, he would ask about my job, pleased each time I moved to a bigger paper. He would warn me not to go drinking with the other sportswriters since I “had the sugar” (the southern term for diabetes). And I would tell him he ought to start wearing a closed-face helmet as other drivers were doing for safety’s sake, rather than the old-school, open-faced one that made him look like Speed Racer.
Months would go by before we would cross paths. But he always would say hello in the garage — not with words but by swerving his 3,400-pound racecar within a few inches of me, sneaking up shark-like from behind, the engine off, grinning through the windshield.
From time to time, I’m invited to speak with sportswriting classes. And I try to mention a few basics. Don’t try to become an athlete’s friend. Don’t root in the press box, except for there to be no overtime. Be prepared for anything: a power outage at the Super Bowl, an earthquake during the World Series, a death on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
I understood the possibility heading into the 2001 race, having covered the deaths or funerals of far too many drivers: Clifford Allison, Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Neil Bonnett, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and more.
To this day, Earnhardt’s doesn’t seem real, even though every frame is indelible.
Rounding the final turn, not far off the leader’s pace, his No. 3 Chevy was pinched in a three-wide thicket, took a hard right turn and slammed into the Turn 4 wall just before Michael Waltrip sped over the finish line, with Dale Jr. second.
As confetti erupted, I stayed fixed on Earnhardt’s car. And all I knew about death on a racetrack flooded my brain.
His car stopped abruptly rather than somersaulting 10 or 12 times. While spectacular crashes look horrific, they’re actually safer for the driver, dissipating the force of the collision over several seconds. This crash, over in a split-second, was bad.
Earnhardt didn’t lower his driver’s-side window-net, the signal to on-rushing safety crews that you’re conscious and okay.
“Lower the net,” I thought. “Lower the net!”
Schrader was first to Earnhardt’s car, rushing up to peer inside. He was ashen when TV cameras caught up as he walked back to the garage, saying simply, “We have to pray.”
I called The Post’s sports department and explained to Courtney Crowley, the young editor in charge that Sunday, that Dale Earnhardt was hurt. Seriously, I added. If he died, it had to be an A1 story, I said, just in case Earnhardt’s significance wasn’t clear to those above her. And I asked her to call me the moment anything moved on the wire. I knew NASCAR wouldn’t confirm a death quickly; more likely the confirmation would come from the Daytona hospital where he had had been taken.
And I started writing, trying to keep worry at bay.
I pictured the story as a stack of building blocks. Stack paragraphs, one after the other. Keep it simple. Put an XX for anything you don’t know.
“Michael Waltrip fended off a late charge to win Sunday’s Daytona 500,” I began, “a race that was marred by a last-lap crash involving seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt . . .
“Rushed to nearby Halifax Medical Center, Earnhardt suffered XX and is expected to miss XX.
Next graph. Don’t worry. Stack paragraphs.
Before long, my cellphone rang.
“I’m sorry,” Courtney said. And I wept as she told me to write a news story/obituary for the front page and a second piece, an appreciation of Earnhardt’s life, for sports.
Cry later, I told myself. Next graph.
After filing, I went with a longtime friend and fellow reporter to a Daytona bar, where a waitress with a tear-streaked face took our order. We barely spoke. Nor did the fans around us, most of them men. Most weeping, too.
The days that followed were a blur, though I wrote about it all. The NASCAR news conference disclosing Earnhardt’s seat belt had broken. The mounds of bouquets, cards and stuffed animals that appeared outside Daytona’s Turn 4 and back at his North Carolina shop. The funeral at Charlotte’s Calvary Church. The next Sunday’s race at Rockingham, N.C.
It was as if everything about NASCAR — everything about the sunrise and sunset, too — had gone from Technicolor to black-and-white, “The Wizard of Oz” in reverse.
Years later, for all the kaleidoscopic paint-schemes of the cars and colorful helmets and uniforms, NASCAR drivers blur in my mind. I can’t pick out the one driver who demands to be watched. Who’s the driver hell-bent from childhood on coloring outside the lines?
Something larger died with Dale Earnhardt in February 2001.
He was living proof that man trumped machine. Living proof that the most powerful American resource is determination. Proof that being your own man — making your own way, no matter where you start — is its own reward.
Stock-car racing’s soul died at the 2001 Daytona 500.
Part of me died, too.
Liz Clarke is the author of “One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation.”