During the Daytona 500, opening race of NASCAR's 2001 season, I was doing two of my favorite things: writing at my computer and listening to the radio so I could pull for my working-class hero, Dale Earnhardt. After several near misses, Dale had finally won this Super Bowl of racing in 1998 on his 20th try. Daytona was, they said, his Achilles heel. As soon as he crossed the finish line that year, he spun donuts through the infield grass in his black and red #3 Chevy before slowing down to receive handshakes and high-fives from all the other drivers and mechanics, his fiercest competitors, who had poured out of the pits to congratulate him on his way to Victory Lane.
When the green flag dropped two Sundays ago and the engines roared like angry hornets from my stereo speakers, I looked up at the framed photo of my grandfather, Papa Wilson, and blew his stubbly cheek a kiss. Grease monkey that he was, Papa planted the seed of stock car racing in my innocent soul. As a child, I listened to the races on the car radio while he worked on his '63 Impala. Papa always rooted for Fireball Roberts, an early NASCAR champion who drove hell-bent for leather until he was killed, ironically enough, in a fiery crash at Charlotte.
Zeroing in on the last few laps of this year's race, I ignored the computer and stared intently out the window at winter-bare trees as 30 drivers--all the ones who were left after a spectacular mid-race wreck had taken out a dozen or so cars--jockeyed at breakneck speeds for the money and the glory. You know the story: As the final lap came 'round, Earnhardt created a bottleneck so his son Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip, both driving cars belonging to Dale Sr., could battle it out for the win. He never saw them cross the finish line.
Mom called early in the evening to tell me Dale had died of injuries suffered in the last lap crash. A hush fell on my soul, the deep sense of shock and resignation that comes whenever I sense that the world has changed, and will never be quite the same. I phoned my dad, figuring if his firm voice couldn't stop my tears, nothing would. Long conversations with my brothers and a couple of racing buds helped it all finally begin to sink in. My grandfather never got over the loss of his favorite driver. After Fireball died, racing was just not the same. Papa still tuned in his radio every Sunday, but he didn't cuss and fume nearly as much. Now I know how he felt.
The following Sunday, I met my brother James and one of his pals at the race in Rockingham, the track known affectionately as The Rock. Scott had never been to a NASCAR event, and it's always fun to see someone catch the fever. I could tell by the fire in his eyes this was a longtime dream come true. James and I both remembered our first race, the Rebel 400 back in 1965, and we were just happy to witness his initiation.
It was the biggest funeral I've ever attended, the sky low and gray and full to bursting. Thousands of fans dressed in black, Dale's color of choice, packed the stands, and all around us were hats, T-shirts and flags emblazoned with the number 3. After the national anthem was sung, Darrell Waltrip, a veteran driver from an earlier generation, said the opening prayer with a broken voice, assuring all that Dale was at peace in Heaven. At peace maybe, I thought, but how could the pearly gates hold such a force of nature? When the starter waved his green flag and the cars all roared to full speed, I could hardly see them flash past for the tears in my eyes. As that old moonshine runner turned race-car driver Junior Johnson had said, everybody at The Rock will know "Earnhardt ain't in that race, and that's gonna hurt a little while."
The track was still damp from the morning's showers, and there was a nasty wreck before the first lap was through. Dale Jr. got bumped from behind and hit the wall much like his father had done just a week earlier, though at a slower speed. He climbed out and walked away from his mangled car, and everyone breathed again. After 50 laps in strengthening rain, the race was postponed until the next day. I wrapped my grief tenderly, as I would a family heirloom, and tucked it away.
The three of us partied at our campsite that evening, crazy with sorrow and a desperate desire to drink life to the very dregs. Grilled steak and a cold salad never tasted so good. We didn't speak of Dale, but his presence was heavy on us like the night dew. One of the strongest taboos in any culture is to leave the dead unburied. It was as if Dale's spirit was still wandering the world in search of a place to rest.
Fortunately the gods smiled, and the next day dawned clear and crisp, one of those Carolina mornings so perfectly divine my muscles yearned to run and skip like a yearling colt. The race was run, and at about the midway point, Jeff Gordon was a straightaway ahead of the rest of the pack. Gordon is the young blood who had threatened recently to steal Dale's racing crown the same way Dale had swiped it years ago from the aging legend, Richard Petty. But Steve Park, driving another of Earnhardt's cars, pulled off a maneuver that if Dale didn't invent he certainly perfected. At 150 mph he eased up behind Gordon and tapped his bumper just hard enough to make him let off the accelerator to keep from losing control, then powered around him to take the lead.
All too ironically, it was a bumper-tap applied a little too hard at speeds a bit too fast that cost Dale his life. Nevertheless, such electric moments are the rush racing fans live for. Park dominated the rest of the race, but towards the end Bobby Labonte, the driver who edged out Dale for last year's NASCAR championship, made a charge and finally caught Park on the last lap. They scraped fenders, and it was as if the world stood still. When they came barreling out of the last turn, the crowd roared as Earnhardt's car pulled ahead to take the checkered flag. I threw both arms in the air, three fingers on each hand extended, and yelled out my joy and my sorrow.
That moment felt for all the world like a small victory over death, a celebration of life, and a recognition of the thin line that separates them, for those who loved Dale and those who loved to hate him, and perhaps even for those who didn't understand him or what he was doing.