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Features
Third Place

Larger Than Life
Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene

          You 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.

          “Usually when 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 be.

          “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 age 49.

          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 exist.

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.

          “Picture back 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.’”

          Certainly, Earnhardt 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.

          “I don’t 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 right now.”

          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.

          “I don’t 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 that].”

          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 do.”

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 standpoint.

          “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.

          “And that’s what distinguished Dale. He did things routinely that some drivers only [do] once in a lifetime.”