Friday, February 18, 2011

In Memory of The Intimidator

Seven time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion, Dale E...
Seven time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion, Dale Earnhardt, waits for his chance to load missiles onto an F-15 Eagle aircraft (not shown). Earnhardt was participating in a load crew competition at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. Location: LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, VIRGINIA (VA) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (USA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sunday's Daytona 500 will be the tenth one since the passing of Dale Earnhardt. I still remember first hearing the news on TV that he was gone. I remember yelling "NOOOOOO !!" at the top of my lungs at the TV and not sleeping that night. We, his fans, knew him as a hero - "The Intimidator." His fellow racers and their fans knew him as "Ironhead." They called him stubborn and hard-headed for never giving an inch on the racetrack. His fans thought he was just "determined" for the same reason. However you felt about him, you knew at the track on the weekends, he was a always a force to be reckoned with.

Neither NASCAR nor the Daytona 500 has been the same since the loss of Dale. There is currently no one within NASCAR who garners the respect that he did. There is no one to "coach" the young drivers or go to NASCAR brass when drivers have a concern that needs to be addressed. There's no one that has the following that The Intimidator had and continues to have since his death. I wonder sometimes how the sport would be different if he were still around. For instance, how many of the crazy rule changes, such as the boring Chase format would have been implemented ? How many times would he have "rattled" Kyle Busch's cage to straighten that spoiled brat out ? Would Jimmie Johnson have won five championships in a row, and if not, how many of those would Dale have won instead ? Would Dale Jr. have left DEI ? I think one thing's for certain - NASCAR wouldn't be as boring as it is now. Plus, there would still be someone with some charisma in the sport who understood how important the sport's history is.

I want to dedicate today's Freedom Friday to Dale's memory. Why ? Folks who have followed NASCAR for the last thirty years know that Dale is the perfect example of The American Dream. He grew up poor. His father, Ralph, was a racer, too. If Ralph didn't run good, sometimes the family didn't eat. Dale had one goal in life - to be the best race car driver he could. He wanted to win races and championships. He even dropped out of school to chase his dream. Later in life, he would admit that was the one thing he wished he could change. He worked hard and waited for his opportunity to race. When it came, he made the best of it. He worked hard, struggled at first, and then begin winning. He won NASCAR's Rookie of the Year Award in 1979 and his first Winston Cup Championship in 1980. Over his career, he would win 76 races and six additional championships. However, the one thing he wanted to win more than anything took him 20 years, but he never gave up on it - the Daytona 500.

I remember the first Daytona 500 that was televised live from start to finish in 1979. Richard Petty won after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked each other on the last lap, and then got into "The Fight." It put NASCAR on the map and started the sport down the path to success. Dale had a lot to do with that success, too. The connection he had with people was amazing. His work ethic resonated with all. His typical day was getting up before dawn to feed the chickens and other animals on his farm. Then, he went to the race shop to help on the race car. He had a Chevy dealership he owned and ran, too. His love of the outdoors as a hunter and fisherman helped him connect with people, too. If he was still here, I think he would love Austin Dillon's black #3 Realtree sponsored truck driven in the Camping World Truck Series. Folks all over the country felt like Dale was one of them. And, he was. However, even with everything he had going for him, the illusive Daytona 500 victory still drove him. It seemed like something always went wrong in that race. For instance :
  • In 1986, he ran out of gas while leading with only a few laps to go.
  • In 1990, he had a flat tire coming out of turn 4 to take the checkered flag on the last lap.
  • In 1991, he hit a seagull on the backstretch at nearly 200 MPH damaging the car.
  • In 1993, 1995, 1996, and 1999, he finished 2nd.
  • In 1997, he wrecked and flipped his car while racing for the lead late in the race.
Finally, in 1998, the frustration came to an end. He won the Daytona 500 in his 20th attempt. It's a day I'll never, ever forget. I still get tears in my eyes when I see the video (watch it by clicking here). If I learned one thing from Dale, on that day he taught me that you never, ever give up.

I attended many of the races he won at Talladega and at other places, many of them with my dad. Dale once said, "You can't let one bad moment ruin a bunch of good ones." He left us a bunch of good ones. They are the ones I choose to remember instead of that horrible day in 2001. I'm sure Dale wouldn't want it any other way. Dale accomplished a lot going from being a poor, high school dropout to being a champion race car driver and successful businessman worth millions. He showed that hard work and dedication pays off. It seems like many of us have forgotten that nowadays. I imagine that he'll be watching Sunday when another Daytona 500 Champion is crowned. I'll also bet he'll be wearing those mirrored sunglasses and big, sly grin he was famous for while clapping and cheering. After all, racing was what he loved, and The Daytona 500 is NASCAR's Super Bowl. I can see him now. Thanks for the memories, Intimidator.

NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, taken by offic...
Image via David Moran on Flickr

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