Archive for Thursday, February 22, 2001

Remembering the Intimidator

February 22, 2001

America lost a hero Sunday.

For those who may not have heard, racing legend Dale Earnhardt died after his car hit the wall on the last turn of the last mile at the Daytona 500.

Officials say Earnhardt likely died on impact.

The tragedy cast a dark cloud over one of the racing world's most celebrated events.

To his fans, Earnhardt was more than a stock car driver. The seven-time Winston Cup series champion represented an image and attitude that race fans either loved or hated. He brought the sport into the national scene by creating a demand for exciting and aggressive racing.

Growing up in Massachusetts, I probably never would have watched NASCAR had it not been for the man known as "The Intimidator."

Ironically, my obsession with the sport grew after I saw the champion appear in a Brooks and Dunn music video. Not long after, I was watching races every weekend and using racing jargon such as "three-wide" and "drafting" on a regular basis.

Although I never had the privilege of meeting the famous driver of the No. 3 car, I have several fond memories of his triumphs.

Perhaps the 1998 Daytona 500 had the largest impact on me as a fan. Earnhardt had come very close several times to winning the race, which is considered the Super Bowl equivalent of NASCAR. Earnhardt's victory proved that frustration from past failures should never make one give up.

I also enjoyed watching Earnhardt master the draft like nobody else could at the premiere NASCAR track of Talladega. Who could forgot the "photofinish" victory in Atlanta last March over 2000 series Champion Bobby Labonte?

In NASCAR races, crashes are part of the game. I've seen crashes in just about every race I've watched, but I always assume the drivers will be OK. After all, stock car racing is the safest form of motorsports because of the cars' inside protection devices. When you hear that a driver is going to an ambulance, you assume it is for a routine post accident checkup. You always try to keep the bad thoughts out of your mind.

It is beginning to sink into my mind that I saw one of my boyhood heroes die on television.

Ironically, the driver who would win at any cost decided that he wanted his son, Dale Jr., or his good friend and Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver, Michael Waltrip, to win the Daytona 500.

With his 76 victories and seven Winston Cup championships, Earnhardt will be remembered in the sport of stock car racing forever.

The drivers should go forth as the "Intimidator" would have wanted them to do. However, the racetrack that many fans affectionately refer to as "Daletona" should be officially changed to the Dale Earnhardt Memorial Speedway in honor of his many triumphs and the immense tragedy that took place at that site.

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