(Inspired by the film documentary Dale and the book Angel In Black)
It’s been 20 years since I last clocked out of a Medford, Oregon plywood mill- but as the offspring of a working man and often surrounded by the sweaty, gritty presence of blue collar men and women, I know their existence well. They’ve been the lifeblood, the fuel of the American economy and they built our country without fanfare and with little appreciation. No matter though, the working man doesn’t ask for much- just a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work and a little fun at week’s end to take his or hers mind off their toils and troubles for a spell.
Such people may find an exhilarating outlet from life’s drudgery in auto racing- with NASCAR as the car of choice. Formula One, Indy Car and some of those others has machines that looked too much like space ships and had drivers whose names were too hard to pronounce.
NASCAR had a way of feeling close to home. Founded in the South and often played out on tracks of dirt in those early years, NASCAR was raw and unsophisticated, with a certain John Wayne swagger. Some 30 years after Bill France Sr.’s vision for an auto racing body came to life, a racer would come along who embodied what NASCAR was all about- his name? Ralph Dale Earnhardt.
No Johnny-come-lately, Earnhardt was the son of a man who walked away from the mills of Kannapolis, North Carolina to follow his heart’s desire. Ralph Earnhardt was a short track racer of regional renown. The need for speed was passed on to the third of five children, and from the time he was barely big enough to reach the pedals, young Dale knew what he wanted to do with his life- follow in his father’s footsteps.
Many a working man or woman knows the pain of the death of a dream. Factories, mines and mills are filled with workers who had other plans for life, but life got in the way- hardships, bad choices, or just a wrong turn or two had left many a young person settling for something a little less. In Dale Earnhardt they would find a hero, someone who overcame the brushes with life’s walls to break through to NASCAR glory.
Dale dropped out of high school to pursue his dream, unable to be persuaded by the pleadings of his parents. At a time when many of his peers were making career decisions and attending college, Earnhardt took over the care of his family in the wake of his father’s untimely passing at the age of 45. Married in his late teens, the rough cut racer found himself bearing the responsibilities of fatherhood. His single-minded pursuit of a racing career would ultimately result in the failure of two marriages before his NASCAR Cup racing career even got off the ground. When he ran well, he could get by. When things didn’t go well, it had to have been tempting to give up the dream and make a more serious go of his job as an auto mechanic.
By age 28, the perseverance paid off with Rookie Of The Year honors in 1979 and an unlikely championship run in 1980 at “stock car” racing’s highest level. Even as the rough hewn heroes of the day went, with his bushy hair, dirty tee shirts and jeans well beyond their best years, Earnhardt looked the part of one crawling a little bit past his speed- perhaps a flash in the pan.
Tests and trials would test Dale Earnhardt’s mettle in those early years. Racing not for fun, but to survive, he wasn’t adverse to using his front bumper to gain an advantage. That aggressiveness, coupled with his steely visage, earned Dale a villainous persona. Such methods were alternately good and bad for his standing with the sport. Earnhardt went bump-to bumper with the more established and popular likes of Bill Elliott, Geoff Bodine and Darrell Waltrip early in his career. While some decried Earnhardt’s usage of the chrome horn as bad sportsmanship, others declared admiration for a man who could go chin-to-chin with failure and not back down- even getting back on his feet after a knockdown.
Even Dale’s friendship with aspiring car owner Richard Childress would be put to the test. After a bad string of races, Childress tried to talk his friend- a kindred spirit who had also lost his father young- to quit his team and find success elsewhere. Displaying that rare quality of true loyalty that the common man finds so endearing, Dale would have none of it, forging in steel a lifelong bond and ultimately one of the most formidable owner/driver pairings perhaps only equaled by Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon.
Through 7 championships and 76 victories NASCAR fans found a true icon in Dale Earnhardt. To be a legend, you have to be a winner, and he was certainly all that. Opponents and fans alike believed Earnhardt could “see air,” walk away from wrecks that would take the lives of mere mortals, and make maneuvers like the “pass in the grass” that other drivers only thought about, but never tried. Earnhardt was Abraham Lincoln, Elvis, William Wallace, General George Patton and Michael Jordan rolled into one.
His fans and friends cheered for him with unswerving loyalty, and even his fiercest foes conceded a begrudging respect. They got it. Behind the “The Intimidator” image was a man, if he let you get to know him, of great generosity, honesty and a genuine affection for children. While success brought many fine things his way, in his heart, “Ironhead” was still that blue collar guy from Kannapolis. Though Buddy Baker once said that Dale could give “an aspirin a headache,” with an eagerness to help, he was the guy you’d want for your next door neighbor.
If you understand this, then you understand why Earnhardt’s memory is still very much alive and well though we are coming up on 8 years following his untimely death in the 4th turn of the 2001 Daytona 500. As I have recently passed the 2nd anniversary of my own father’s death and I’m also dealing with the unexpected passing of a friend three weeks ago, I can now better appreciate why so many are still talking about Dale Earnhardt as if he were alive today. Dale Earnhardt is the “Soul of NASCAR” in my humble opinion, and we do well to keep his memory alive. It’s a spirit of determination, perseverance and fearlessness that we do well to emulate whether we race cars, run businesses or repair faucets.
It’s that same spirit that made casual fans like me serious fans. True- there was no one like him before, and there never will be another like him to come. Dale Earnhardt was an original. Yet- by keeping his memory alive- the hero never dies. The legacy lives on.
That’s why I heartily recommend the movie Dale and the book Angel In Black to fans everywhere. It’s inspiring, in some ways thrilling and in other ways heartwarming. Any non-fan who’s been quick to criticize the sport we know and love would then gain a greater insight into the soul of NASCAR.
Dale Earnhardt may have died but what he stood for does not. May his memory not leave us only longing for the past, but may it inspire us to fight on to stand strong, never back down and go forward with heads held high, much like Dale’s dear friend Richard Childress- who pressed on though he did not want to.
At the risk of being a sap, may I suggest clicking on this link to “Looking For a Road” by Brent Keith- the theme song to Dale.
Special thanks to my wife “JuneBug 88″ for my own copy of Dale.
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF JAMES STUART KIDD (1958- 2008)