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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.
That common man personality, combined with his incredible ability to drive a racecar, 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 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.