Photo: Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrating with his legendary father, Dale Earnhardt, in Texas Motor Speedway's Victory Lane after winning the first NASCAR Cup Series race of his career on April 2, 2000.
By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(February 18, 2011)
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.—Yes, today is the 10th anniversary—if you want to call it that—of Dale Earnhardt’s death.
Ten years ago today Earnhardt died on the final lap of the Daytona 500, running interference for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars of Michael Waltrip, who won the race, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second.
For the most part, we have marked this anniversary by asking Earnhardt Jr. an endless stream of questions about that day and about how stock car racing has changed since his father’s death. Clearly uncomfortable with the topic—and unwilling to recall the agonizing details because of their intensely personal nature—Earnhardt nevertheless has answered those volleys of questions with consummate grace.
What is acutely obvious is that Earnhardt would prefer to remember his father as he was before Feb. 18, 2001. We should take that as a cue and do the same.
Let’s remember Dale Earnhardt as the larger-than-life figure who won seven Cup championships and 76 races in NASCAR’s foremost series.
Let’s remember the Intimidator as perhaps the most intensely competitive driver who has ever sat behind the wheel, as a man who would do whatever was necessary to win a race, even if it meant knocking an off-the-track friend into the fence. Earnhardt would always apologize—later.
Let’s remember a driver who inspired roiling passions among the fans of the sport. You loved Dale Earnhardt. You hated Dale Earnhardt. There was no in-between. There was no need in Cup racing for any other rivalry, because, as one man, Earnhardt embodied the extremes of emotion within the sport’s fan base.
Let’s remember Earnhardt’s unrelenting generosity. There are hundreds of stories about Earnhardt helping family, friends, neighbors and strangers in need. Most of those stories have never been told, because Earnhardt wanted it that way.
Let’s remember the man who would grab you in a tight headlock or tease you mercilessly because he knew you could take it.
Let’s remember the driver who had tears in his eyes when he climbed from his car at Indianapolis in 1996, turning it over to relief driver Mike Skinner. Earnhardt had fractured his sternum and collarbone in a violent wreck at Talladega and couldn’t continue at the Brickyard. After getting out of the car Earnhardt choked out the words, “This is tough—racing’s my life.”
Let’s remember a man who was tight with a buck and slow to trust anyone. He raced to put food on the table. So had his father, and Earnhardt never forgot those lessons. When you earned Earnhardt’s trust, however, you earned his friendship, and that was just as unwavering as his desire to win.
Let’s forget for a minute the 2001 Daytona 500 and remember the Daytona 500 from 1998. That was the pinnacle of Earnhardt’s career.
Let’s remember the greeting he got from every crewman on pit road as he drove past that half-mile-long receiving line and accepted congratulations from fellow racers who knew just how much that victory meant to him.
That’s the way I prefer to remember Dale Earnhardt, triumphant—finally—after 20 years of disappointment and frustration in NASCAR’s most important race. What Earnhardt meant to the sport was reflected that day in the recognition and admiration he engendered in his rivals as well as his friends.
On the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death, I’d prefer to remember his life.
And I’m not alone in saying that.