Larger Than Life
Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene
notice them before you pull off the highway and onto the race
track property. Black flags emblazoned with that familiar No.
3 flap in the warm breeze. Hundreds of them fly atop high-end
motorhomes and beat-up family sedans alike. At many tracks,
they outnumber those of today’s NASCAR Nextel Cup stars.
It’s been five
years since the death of Dale Earnhardt, the man known as “The Intimidator” for
his rough and rugged driving style. Five years. And yet the flags still wave.
They wave in silent tribute for the man who many consider the greatest stock-car
driver of all time.
a driver retires or dies, the allegiance switches to another driver,” says
H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. “For
instance, when Richard Petty retired, a lot of his fans went over to Bill Elliott.
Out of sympathy, I think, most of Dale Senior’s fans went over with [Dale
Earnhardt] Junior. Not all of them have stayed there. I think they are still
looking for a driver because these are the older fans, maybe over 40, that
work on backhoes, run shrimp boats, things like that. [He was] the working
man’s driver. He was the last working man that we had, or appeared to
“He was real salt
of the earth, [and] there is a tremendous, tremendous opening right now for
a young driver who truly is like that. [But] you can’t fake that. You
have to come along and do what he did.”
What Dale Earnhardt,
killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, did was help shape an entire
sport. He shaped an entire culture. With hammer and tong, perhaps, but nonetheless
his presence and his actions – on the track and off – helped push
NASCAR into the consciousness of America. He was at times hero and villain,
singular star and yet spokesperson for many.
“When he talked,” Don
Hawk, Earnhardt’s former business manager, says, “it was like E.F.
Hutton. Every-body else benefited from it.”
To NASCAR’s credit,
the sport may have stumbled in the aftermath of Earnhardt’s death, but
it didn’t cease to exist. Far from it. In the years that have elapsed
since that fateful day, NASCAR has become larger than most could imagine, boasting
a fan base today of 75 million. Its popularity has grown by leaps and bounds,
thanks in part to network TV packages and new tracks in new markets that take
the sport to more fans.
It’s also a far
safer sport today, thanks to advances such as the HANS device and SAFER barriers,
developments that were spurred in the wake of Earnhardt’s passing at
Other drivers have done
their part as well, hoisting the sport on their shoulders and helping to carry
it forward. But for many, there’s still an undeniable absence on the
track and in the garage, an emptiness that some say may never fully cease to
A VOID IN THE GARAGE
No one will argue that,
in his prime, Earnhardt had the ear of NASCAR. When it came to competition,
his was a voice that commanded attention whether the issue concerned a new
rules package or simply a change in protocol at the track.
Because of his success
on the track – in the Cup series, he won seven championships, 76 races
and more than $42 million; he won 21 Busch Series races, 11 IROC races and
was that series’ champion four times – and his popularity, Earnhardt’s
concerns about the sport carried much weight.
when he got out of his race car and something was bothering him,” Hawk
says. “And he started walking to [the race officials’] hauler.
You watched a herd of people just watching him go, and they were saying, ‘What
on earth is going on? Who’s he going to see, and what just happened?’
“There was just
a mystique. ... [The officials] didn’t do what he said all the time.
But they would say, ‘You know what? The guy’s pretty smart.’”
was not the first to enjoy such status. Comments and ideas from anyone who
enjoyed success on the track and generated interest in the sport were welcomed.
Richard Petty, the first and to date only other driver to win seven titles,
held NASCAR’s attention for nearly three decades. Junior Johnson, 50
times a race winner himself and a six-time champion as team owner, was no less
a force inside the garage.
“Any time a guy
wins and is a champion three, four, five times – or in Richard and Dale’s
case seven times – and they want to voice their opinion, you [listen]
to what they have to say,” says Jim Hunter, a former track president
who now serves as vice president of corporate communications for the sanctioning
body. “Dale had NASCAR’s ear from the top down – Bill [France,
former CEO], Mike [Helton, president]. The other competitors knew that. They’d
say, ‘Well, why don’t you go talk to them?’ Because everybody
knew NASCAR would listen.”
It wasn’t only
NASCAR’s ear that Earnhardt had. He had the ear of the competition as
well. His were not only 500-mile lessons doled out on the race track but lessons
of conduct off the racing surface as well.
“I think a lot
of drivers don’t understand that it’s OK to be, out of the race
car, somebody different than in the race car,” says driver Jeff Burton. “As
a matter of fact, it’s not only OK, it really is mandatory if you want
to be a productive person in a society. Dale understood that. Go back and watch
all the [incidents] Dale was involved in. How many times did he lose it on
TV? How many times did he have something bad to say about somebody?
“He’d say, ‘Aw,
that’s just racing’ and walk off. Now, three weeks later, the guy
that was ‘just racing’ with him got spun out. But he handled it
in a way that wasn’t confrontational.”
And when things didn’t
suit Earnhardt, Burton says, “He didn’t stomp his feet and cry
and pout. He’d say, ‘Well, that’s racing’ or, ‘We’ll
come back next time.’ He didn’t lose it. He knew that when the
race was over it was time to be somebody different. I think a lot of people
don’t understand that.”
“He would come
and find you,” says fellow driver Elliott Sadler, “sit you down
and explain to you not really how you’re supposed to race on the race
track, but the things you’re supposed to do as a gentleman ... away from
the track. [He’d explain] that we have so many great sponsors in
our sport, and it’s why our sport is what it is today.
think we have that [today]. You see a lot of kids come in with a lot of attitude
and a lot of ‘I’m the new savior of the sport,’ I think,
because they haven’t had that talk that we all had. We’re all working
together with great sponsors, trying to win races. We’ve got a healthy
sport, but it would be neat to have another Dale Earnhardt to step up and kind
of take the reins and be a voice of all the teams and drivers in the garage
There are voices offering
input and critiquing the direction of the sport. But the general feeling seems
to be that because the sport has changed, there’s no longer that need
for a single voice speaking on behalf of the masses.
know that we need a leader,” says two-time champion Tony Stewart, one
driver who many say could fill a part of that void. “The closest person
to a leader that we have is probably Jeff Gordon. He’s probably the best
representative we have for our sport as far as how to deal with the media,
how to deal with the race fans, the sanctioning body. And I think he learned
a lot of that from Dale.
“I would prefer
not to be that person. It’s hard enough just to do the jobs that we have
to do, let alone have that responsibility of having to feel like you’re
responsible for everybody there.”
That power of persuasion,
Petty says, is diluted now.
“I was fortunate
enough to have done a little bit of that,” Petty says. “[Dale]
did that, Darrell [Waltrip] did it to a certain extent. But there’s not
been that many people that you could put into that category.
“If you look now,
Jeff [Gordon] would be it, but Jeff’s personality doesn’t let him
project that. He’s done the most of anybody that’s out there, but
from a standpoint of him taking the lead, his personality [isn’t like
Stewart, Petty says,
has the opportunity “if he stays around and wins another championship
or two and keeps winning races like he does, because he’s more outspoken.
He doesn’t mind telling you from time to time, and he’ll act up,
and he’ll throw a punch now and then. So he’s got a strong personality.”
IN A STATE OF FLUX
Heading into the 2001
season, the future looked bright for both Richard Childress Racing and Dale
Earnhardt Inc. Car owner Richard Childress had seen Earnhardt bounce back to
finish second in points the previous year to Bobby Labonte and still had high
hopes for former Craftsman Truck Series champion Mike Skinner in Cup. At DEI,
the Earnhardt-owned organization entered its fourth full Cup season with three
career wins and three drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Park and Michael Waltrip,
who had joined the group during the offseason.
In the five years since
Earnhardt’s death, RCR has won just eight times and has had 16 different
drivers in its cars at one time or another. That’s fewer wins than Hendrick
Motorsports (43), Roush Racing (41), Joe Gibbs Racing (20), DEI (19), Penske
Racing South (14) and Robert Yates Racing (13) during that same time. Only
twice since the 2001 season, in ’01 and in ’03, has an RCR driver
finished in the top 10 in the point standings. Its drivers have yet to qualify
for the Chase For The Nextel Cup, the 10-race title playoff that began in 2004
and features the top 10 drivers.
Childress realizes the
sport has changed, and those changes have affected the competitive balance.
But he knows what put his team in a tailspin, too.
“Any time you
lose a key figure,” he says, “it has a big effect. Dale and I talked
a lot, not just about the things we were planning to do that year but in the
years to come, too. It probably hurt both our organizations. I think if Dale
were still here, RCR and DEI would both be a lot stronger.”
At DEI, the burden of
carrying that team has been shouldered – often unwillingly – by
Earnhardt Jr. Expected to take his father’s place within DEI, if not
inside the sport, Earnhardt Jr. is still wrestling to stay centered on his
own career path. DEI’s growth and development, meanwhile, have been slowed
as the organization struggles in its search for leadership.
“We lost our leader,” Tony
Eury Sr., director of competition for DEI, says. “It’s just like
it’s a space there that can’t be filled. There have been times
when we have second-guessed ourselves, asked ourselves, ‘What would Dale
have done different? What decision would he have made?’
“We want to keep
the team operating the way he would have wanted.”
More importantly, Eury
Sr. knows the team needs to succeed. “If we can get that first championship,” he
says, “we’ll feel like we’ve [done] what he wanted us to
WIN ON SUNDAY ...
As executive director
of General Motors Racing, Herb Fishel enjoyed a close relationship with Earnhardt.
He saw the driver evolve from a rough-and-tumble Saturday night racer who had
no qualms about putting a fender to a fellow driver, into a corporate savvy,
successful car owner and champion. And one who still might occasionally put
a fender to a fellow driver.
“I think Dale
earned credibility and respect from people who didn’t necessarily like
some of his actions,” Fishel says. “I think when people can begin
to respect a driver that they don’t necessarily like, simply because
of his tenacity, his skill, his determination and character, I think that says
he’s pretty special. I don’t think today that we have a driver
that’s done that. And I think that’s the gap that he left, the
void he left.
“There were times
I wasn’t very happy with what he did [on the track]. Yet I think he knew
when he stepped out of line, and in his own way I think he always worked to
amend whatever he did. To his credit, he could never quite contain – and
you wouldn’t expect him to – that instinct to win at any cost.”
An Earnhardt victory,
Fishel notes, may not have had medicinal properties, but during slumps in the
sales arena, the automaker was boosted by his success on the race track. Even
if sales didn’t improve, morale within the company enjoyed a jump.
“The years when
GM would be struggling with sales, struggling with market share,” he
says, “there were so many Mondays that Dale’s success the previous
weekend was one of the few things that the company had to rally around.”
Unlike victories by
today’s Chevy drivers? Gordon, Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Fishel says,
all enjoy good relationships with Chevrolet. Each brings his own personality
to the sport. “But it’s different,” he adds.
SALE OF THE CENTURY
The numbers on the race
track may be impressive, but some say they pale beside the numbers off the
track. Souvenir sales can account for a healthy portion of any driver’s
revenue. For Earnhardt, that revenue was said to run as high as $30 million
a year. Estimates once put sales of his merchandise anywhere from 25 to 40
percent of the sport’s total during a given racing season. In other words,
nearly one half of all souvenirs sold were Earnhardt-endors-ed products.
In the world of die-casts, dealers say his sales figures ran
between 50 and 75 percent of the total market. For Action Performance,
his products accounted for 20 percent or more of total sales.
Likely the first to use a special paint scheme to promote a
special event, Earnhardt soon had others, once again, following
in his path. In 1995, he debuted a special silver Monte Carlo
for that year’s running of The Winston all-star race.
It was a tribute to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s 25 years
in the sport. Other special schemes followed each year, including
an Olympic tribute in 1996 as well as a rather colorful entry
in 2000 designed by artist Peter Maxx. And with each new paint
scheme came a new die-cast for collectors.
“Kyle Petty once
told me, ‘It really bothered me when you began to negotiate for Earnhardt,
and you started escalating trading card deals and die-cast deals,’” Hawk
says. “He said, ‘The money started getting bigger and bigger, and
Earnhardt started taking a bigger piece of the pie. For a while, I was jealous,
I was envious. I was mad.’”
But, Hawk says, Petty
soon came to see the bigger picture. What was good for Earnhardt also happened
to be good for the sport. And all those involved in it.
He says Petty then told
him, “I actually turned the corner on it when I realized every time you
guys go up $100, I go up $25 [in profit]. And I’m thankful for that.”
A LEGEND PASSES
It was a bright, vibrant
sunny day. No one in the crowd of 200,000 at Daytona International Speedway
could foresee the storm clouds that were quietly gathering on the horizon.
Three hours, five minutes and 26 seconds after it began, the 2001 Daytona 500
was over. Fans stuck around to celebrate Michael Waltrip’s stunning victory
in a DEI-owned Chevrolet. Others began streaming out of the speedway, no doubt
already dreading the long journey home. It would be hours before the darkest
cloud of all covered the 2.5-mile speedway, hours before word of Earnhardt’s
demise became public knowledge.
His death changed NASCAR.
From a safety standpoint, from a competitive standpoint and from a business
“The dang guy
was a powerful force,” says Hawk. “He was intimidating by the way
he talked, the way he walked, the swagger. But he backed it up.”
And in doing so, he
created a mystique that, to this day, continues to hang like a vapor over the
sport. Drivers who raced against him know they raced against one of the very
best. Younger competitors who didn’t get that chance want to know what
it was like to compete against an icon.
“I compare him,” says
Fishel, “to Michael Jordan. What they had was the ability to, when everything
seemed lost, with no chance of victory, they just had that ability to reach
inside themselves and do something spectacular, something great.
what distinguished Dale. He did things routinely that some drivers only [do]
once in a lifetime.”