TweetBowles-Eye : Why The Earnhardts Will Never Be The Same ... And Why It's Time To Leave Junior Alone
Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Wednesday May 16, 2007
It's six years later, but the memories are still crystal clear. Just like anyone who had anything to do with NASCAR at the time, I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when tragedy struck.
Sophomore year of college, in my dorm, I watched intently to see the last laps of the Daytona 500 unfold. With Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in position to battle for their first ever trophy in the Great American Race, Junior's father dropped back to third, blocking every which way he could to keep the rest of the pack at bay and keep the cars he owned up front in position to win the race. Ironically, the Intimidator had broken with tradition; instead of going for the win, he was busy intimidating the rest of the competition behind him to give others a chance to experience Victory Lane. As the cars barreled towards turn three, the anticipation of the finish line was at hand; it was at that pivotal moment where the No. 3 car lost control and jerked hard to the right, and the world of NASCAR was changed forever.
No one forgets those moments afterward; Ken Schrader looking haphazard in a post-race interview, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. running through the garage, the FOX broadcast suddenly unsure of everything that was happening. I had to run to a meeting that night, but I remember looking at my roommate before I left, muttering with the fear millions thought but may never have vocalized.
"This is bad," I muttered as I walked out the door. "Hope Earnhardt's not seriously hurt."
He wasn't. He was dead.
I bring this up because this tragedy is the type that can never be forgotten, and you better believe it has anything and everything to do with what we saw this time one week ago. Of course, that was when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. reached the podium, stared blankly into space, and calmly but collectively announced the Earnhardt family we'd all grown to love was effectively breaking their racing world in two. It's an announcement I'm still shocked by; while fellow SI colleague Lars Anderson had the announcement pegged, my sources told me up until the very last minute a deal was still on the table, one everyone hoped would be the magical fix to a family rift long past the point of being mended. I truly feel the outcome was in flux until the very end; as D.E.I. President Max Siegel said at the time, "Even when he addressed the employees, he was conflicted (about his decision)."
Well, Junior's subsequent movement towards free agency has since exploded on a national scale not seen in NASCAR since his father’s death catapulted the sport towards a whole new attention level during the beginning of 2001. For the past week, the level of media coverage has bordered on the insane; just type in "Junior free agent" on google and 18.1 million links pop up. It's a natural obsession: like the unexpected deaths of so many other famous people, such as Princess Diana, John Lennon, and John F. Kennedy, Jr., people will be forever focused around the unspeakable tragedy and the family they left behind, the ones forced to cope and move on from such a terrifying loss. Deep down, I think it's a fascination with our own loved ones and the possibility that we, too, could someday be in their shoes that drives us to focus on the grief of others more famous than we will ever be.
It's because of that fascination and subsequent media frenzy that I can't help but feel sorry for Junior, because he needs his personal space more than he's ever needed it before. What we're watching here is continued repercussions from a tragedy that continues to affect him long after he'd like to let go. Unfortunately, Junior is realizing that he can't ever let go, because what happened then continues to shape his life far into the future. As he explained himself that Thursday morning, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was the glue that held Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated together. More importantly, it was the glue that kept both himself and Teresa capable of getting along.
Junior tried to play the politically correct stepson in his press conference, saying, "If he (Dale, Sr.) were still here we would, I think I’d be in a different place right now. He was very good at — he was a great race car driver, but he was totally focused and devoted to the company and getting out of the company what he expected and for the most part he was able to do that. After he passed and as years went by, you know, it would be difficult for any one individual, much less a group of people to try to maintain that vision."
Not only would it be difficult to maintain that vision, it would be different to maintain bonds and relationships that were strained at times but always kept alive with a common bond for a man everyone loved. Losing a father on a national scale is something you never really get over; a reverberating tornado of change that touches down and just keeps twirling. Sometimes, you lose someone that's so integral to the survival of the family structure, a patriarch whose sheer personality alone is enough to keep everyone in line, and then you find yourself powerless as grief and the different ways you deal with that loss begin to tear everyone apart.
We've seen this type of family catastrophe happen in NASCAR before, albeit on a much smaller public scale; Bobby Allison, one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, wound up divorced from wife Judy after their lives were torn apart by the deaths of two sons in a racing accident and a helicopter crash. Eventually, they got remarried, but only after years of being apart and finally dealing with what happened individually, in their own way. Maybe that will happen in this case with Junior and Teresa, and maybe it won't; but at its core, the division death and grief has produced in its wake is what this story is all about. Sure, Earnhardt, Jr. wants to go win a championship, and D.E.I.'s equipment has struggled at times; but in all reality, everyone knows that these issues alone would not be enough to break apart a family that was getting along. Instead, we're witnessing a public, tragic family divorce in the wake of excuses that just don't cut it.
In a sports world where we're always trained to witness the happy ending, a harsh reality has been thrust upon us all that will be no such thing with the Earnhardts. Of course, natural feelings leave everyone involved with NASCAR both sad and sorry for that; everyone knows that regardless of what anyone says, Teresa and Junior living separate racing lives would never have been what both devoted dad and husband would have wanted if he were alive. Regardless of whether you feel that Junior's making the right move, you can put yourself in his shoes and live vicariously through him, feeling the disappointment and regret in his voice that life took an unexpected turn, and in the end, will never be the same.
With the recent penalties being announced this week that throw the No. 8 team into further disarray, Junior will now be more scrutinized than ever as we head towards the Memorial Day festivities at Charlotte. To this media member aware that athletes, no matter how high a pedestal we may put them on, have their own feelings and own lives to handle like any other human being, that makes me privately frustrated. I just wish for the next couple of weeks all of my media brethren would just take a deep breath, calm down, and let this story breathe. Junior needs to be left alone; more than ever, he needs some time to get himself together.
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