The Frontstretch: Full Throttle: Missing A Hero... Dale Earnhardt by Mike Neff -- Thursday May 20, 2010

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Full Throttle: Missing A Hero... Dale Earnhardt

Newsletter Preview · Mike Neff · Thursday May 20, 2010

 

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With all of the activity and hoopla leading up to inductions into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this month, there has been a lot of talk about the five men who made such an impact on the sport being inducted as the first class. There’s no doubt the Frances are the reason behind the sport’s current existence, pushing it to make the leaps forward that it did in its formative years. Richard Petty is not just King of the NASCAR record books; he’s personally responsible for the way the drivers interact with the fans, as well as the accessibility they can take for granted today. Junior Johnson not only made tremendous contributions in the driving and car ownership arenas, but he also was the reason Winston ultimately ended up with their name on the series.

All of these men have had an amazing impact on the sport; but when it comes to the impact on fans, Dale Earnhardt may have trumped them all as the most important contributor in the history of the stock car racing.

As NASCAR made the move from a regional Southeastern sport to a nationwide phenomenon, the drivers were still making minimal amounts of money, and souvenir sales were but a pittance. But then, Earnhardt’s forward-thinking ideas took control. Under the advice of his wife Teresa, the driver trademarked his name and took control of merchandise licensing so that he controlled who used his image. As Earnhardt became more and more popular, those merchandise sales skyrocketed, with an increasing amount of NASCAR faithful latching on to his successful marketing ideas. After switching over to a black car in 1988, the armies of fans who followed the Intimidator soon created a “blackout” of their own in the stands, from hats to shirts to jackets and everything else that they could carry, wear, or wave. For most of his career, and for several years after it was over, Earnhardt led the rankings of merchandise sales by NASCAR drivers. The reason for this amazing marketing success is the fact that the fans related to the seven-time champ as one of them. He was a man of the people, growing up in a mill town and just as likely feeding chickens and cows as he would be winning races on a Sunday.

Nine years after the Intimidator’s death, reminders and tributes pop up everywhere, like this special Dale Earnhardt tribute car showcased by Elvis at Las Vegas last March.

That common man personality, combined with his incredible ability to drive a race car, is why I was a fan of Earnhardt long before becoming a NASCAR writer. Growing up a fan of racing, I always enjoyed stock cars, but truly became a diehard fan in the ’80s when races were on ESPN and that No. 3 Chevy was a threat to win almost every single weekend. His exploits were the reason for turning on the TV on race weekends and going to the racetrack to see NASCAR in person. When he had a bad day, I had a bad day; when he won a race, the following week was the best. I bought my share of hats and shirts, owning every Winner’s Circle diecast 1/64th car that was ever produced for Earnhardt.

All of that changed on Feb. 18th, 2001. While my passion for the sport never died, and I’m now lucky enough to even write about it, things have never been the same for me since Earnhardt’s death. Every now and then, I still catch myself during the race looking for the black No. 3, hoping to see him coming through the pack to fight for the lead. Whenever I go to the track, I see his souvenir haulers and am reminded of the names all over the outside of them the season that he was taken from us. The entire racing experience, while still a great time, is always incomplete … and Dale Earnhardt not being in the field is the missing piece.

But not only do I miss the Intimidator, the sport most definitely misses having him at a time like this Hall of Fame induction and current economic crisis. He always had a sense of what was best for the sport; during his Hall of Fame biography show on SPEED, Bill France, Jr. and Brian France commented on how Earnhardt would give them counsel about things going on and the difficulties facing the sanctioning body. There is no doubt that the sport would be different today if he had not perished in that fateful accident. That’s not to say the Chase would not have been tabled, but there is no question there would have been some serious discussions between the Man in Black and this governing body. Many of the other things that have come about over the past nine years would have also been approached differently if Earnhardt was still alive. Without question Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would still be in the No. 8, and DEI would be a more important force in the sport than the merged company that they are now.

The sport of stock car racing is still the best sport on the planet, although it is much different than it was in 2001 and could certainly stand to be better. But as the sport looks to recover from declining ratings and attendance, the biggest thing it seems to be missing in my eyes is the man who was the conscience of the sport. Earnhardt may not have made the final decisions on what went on, but he certainly had some say in how the sport approached its problems – and that opinion would be appreciated now more than ever.

Despite the tragic reminders, it is going to be a great day Sunday when Earnhardt’s life and legacy is celebrated once again when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame. The man deserves every single accolade he’s about to receive, and he’ll be honored by the attendance of those once closest to him: Childress, Teresa, Dale Jr., and thousands of his dedicated fans.

It just sure would be nice to celebrate with him there in person, too.

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Richard
05/20/2010 09:48 AM
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Very nice piece. I was at Daytona that day, and miss him as much as my own father.

DansMom
05/20/2010 11:36 AM
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Wow Richard… Wow.

Don Mei
05/20/2010 12:23 PM
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Nicely done, Mike. I was never much for hero worship but the thing I absolutely admired in Earnhardt was his will to win. He would have been going for it if first place money was $50 instead of $500,000.

noel_w
05/20/2010 01:29 PM
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Dale did truly alter the landscape of the sport. He came at the perfect time. King Richard’s career was all but over. (yes the King did race until 1992, but he shouldn’t have, his final decade was completely non-competitive)
Dale was the perfect man to become the face of the sport. He was ruthless and relentless on the track. Somehow he made it seem that you were his most important fan when he signed an autograph. Maybe 10 seconds is all you spent in his presence, but it seemed different.
I have no doubt that had he survived the crash in Daytona, he would have retired by now. DEI would not be sharing it’s name with Ganassi. Maybe Jr.‘s career would be going somewhere. Anywhere?
What I’m not so sure of, is that NASCAR would run much differently today. Brian France seems to be a typical arrogant American. He seems to believe that history has no place in his world. He didn’t learn any lessons from his father or grandfather. The pursuit of a short-term profit drives him much harder than any long-term stability ever could.
I doubt Brian would give much thought to Earnhardt’s opinions, unless Dale could get him on the ranch and take him to the wood shed.

I agree with Richard, Dale’s death left a hole in my life, that no amount of time seems to fill.

VolcanoNacho
05/20/2010 02:00 PM
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Three fingers in the air

Susan
05/20/2010 02:10 PM
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Dale may not have been Tiger Woods or Sammy Sosa, but he was no hero. He was a bully on the track and that is apparently what appealed to the NASCAR demographic of the the 1970’s and 80’s. What we have here is the well-know “Death Phenomenon” when a person’s untimely death erases all negative connotations and raises him to “hero status.” Witness Michael Jackson, a suspected child molester who has never been more popular than since his death. I was never a Dale fan because I thought he could win without cheating, but whatver… it was his style and many macho types loved it. I would rather be allowed to choose my own hero, and it would not be anyone named Earnhardt. I certainly feel sorry for anyone whose life is left with a hole in it because of Dale’s passing. That is pathetic.

Marilyn
05/20/2010 02:23 PM
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Susan,,we are glad you are going elsewhere to choose a hero, YOU certainly have no place in Nascar,,,,you don’t even know what is going on!

dkcrasher
05/20/2010 02:48 PM
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Excellent, could not have said it better!!

dkcrasher
05/20/2010 03:21 PM
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WOW, I’m so sorry you don’t understand hero in Dale Earnhardt, Susan. Maybe if you knew more about the person that was Dale Earnhardt, I guess you missed all the thousands of stories of the good hearted giving this man did.He was a Great driver on the track but even Greater man off the track with all his time and money given to churches ,charitable organizations, and people. No Susan,you are the pathetic one to even mention his name in the same sentence with Michael Jackson, go find your drug addicted, wife beating, thug hero somewhere else ‘cause we sure don’t need you in NASCAR.

Frank
05/20/2010 04:29 PM
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Susan, feel free to choose your own hero, anyone you wish. That is your right. But if you call someone else’s choice pathetic it really shows your true character. Just go away. Far, far away. It’s easy to see you don’t care about anybody’s opinion except your own. DE may have been rough around the edges but anyone who saw him race will never forget him. Oh, I see. What we have here is the well-know “New Fan Phenomenon” when someone with no clue types mindlessly to try and impress others on the internet. Thank you Mike Neff. DE fans everywhere thank you.

janice
05/20/2010 04:49 PM
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2/18/01 was the day that racing died, for me. i still miss him. i know he’s rolled in his grave a few times over the past few years.

dale raced with a true passion. he NEVER had to search out sponsors. they were beating a path to his door up til his death, and several stayed out of loyalty after as well. dale understood the working man/woman. sure he had a life of luxury when he was killed, but he earned it. he worked day jobs when he first started out and raced at night and on weekends, mortgaged what he had. he was without rides and hustled to get a seat.

there are numerous stories of his charity. he’d do whatever was needed, but you didn’t hear about it in the press cause he didn’t want people to know. he’d pay to have church parking lots paved with one condition, no word got around town who paid for it. the little make-a-wish girl that gave him the “good luck” penny in 1998 when he finally won the 500, he kept in touch with her and her family. dale was like a gentle giant.

thankfully i got to spend time with dale over the years. he loved the fans. he just loved his sport, sometimes more than he should have in the early years. earnhardt took the sport to the next level when espn carried the races every weekend. it was so evident when he was killed. he was on magazine covers that no other race car driver had been on before…time, newsweek, national and international newspapers.

i so remember those souviner haulers during 2001. i sat and wrote on each one i saw. 2 weeks after his passing, when they were at ams, i was amazed at the little amount of white-space to write. tracks had memorial services the week of his death. 5000 of us race fans stood in the rain at ams on a wednsday to mourn him and celebrate his life. tears and stories.

in 2000 when he won at the spring race in ams…that place rocked, i had never experienced anything like that. in the fall of 2000 when he won at ‘dega it was the same way. i’m so thank ful i saw that last win.

sigh….miss him so very much. even after all these years.

VaBlueGrass
05/20/2010 06:11 PM
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Susan’s point was that when a popular figure dies unexpectedly, many times their “legend” is kicked up a notch.

John Lennon, James Dean, JFK.

Dale Sr. died and we never experienced the twilight of his career. It could have been as stellar, and successful as the first part… but we’ll never know. It also could have faded and been reduced to a DW “championship provisional show”. His “team” could have gotten run out of the show (with him in charge) like Petty.

With an untimely death, we see the trend of excellence and pontificate about the potential for 5, 10, 20 more yeas of the same. but there is no guarantee that would have occurred.

Tom Ham
05/20/2010 08:27 PM
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Not anywhere a hero.Not much of a family man either.Would kill anyone to win a race.

RandyGoldman
05/20/2010 10:11 PM
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I keep getting Talladega Nights and the ESPN documentary “Three” confused. The main characters are so similar, I cant keep them straight in my head.

Save me Tom Cruise.

noel_w
05/21/2010 07:49 AM
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@ Susan: Let’s see, almost everybody posting to this story still misses Dale. It seems that the pathetic ones are the people that just post to spread their poison.

@ Tom Spam: By all means, I am interested in learning from you. Please write a list of all the drivers that Dale killed while racing, and even feel free to include those seriously injured by him. Until then, you have nothing of any relevance to say.

@ Randy: You never have anything relevant to say.

BoxerShortsOnFri
05/21/2010 08:00 AM
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I personally miss sterling marlin. I feel like his career was never the same after “the incident.”

RandyGoldman
05/21/2010 09:02 AM
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“If we wanted our boys to grow up to be wusses we would have named them Dr. Qinn and Medicine Woman… Or Noel”

Mary in Richmond
05/21/2010 09:44 AM
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I didn’t follow NASCAR until the 2000 season. Learning more about Dale Earnhardt the man after his death made me wish I had started watching much sooner. Was he the perfect father when he was younger? No. But he grew as a person so you need to give him credit for that.

noel_w
05/21/2010 06:39 PM
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@ Randy: Did you mean Dr. Q-U-I-N-N? Once again you can’t even get an insult right.
Keep trying though, someday you might accomplish the feat.

I kind of feel sorry for you. How miserable is your life when you are such a total failure at everything?

 

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