Sunday, February 19, 2006

Remembering a legend and cultural icon

The year was 1984 or 1985. It was an early summer Sunday afternoon, and I was laying on my parents' couch, sick with something that had given me a fever. The only thing interesting on TV was a NASCAR race. I had watched NASCAR before, but never closely. I didn't even know who any of the drivers were. So I went about picking out a favorite driver with the logic of a little kid. The car I chose was yellow and blue, just like the colors of my favorite baseball team, the Brewers. The car was sponsored by Wrangler Jeans, the brand of blue jeans my parents bought for me. And the car's driver, Dale Earnhardt, had the same first name as my father. So I watched a race intently for the first time, and my newly minted favorite driver won. I was hooked as a Dale Earnhardt fan from that moment forward.

When I first became an Earnhardt and NASCAR fan back in those days in the mid 1980's, I desperately wanted a Matchbox car of my favorite driver, but they were very hard to come by. A couple of years later I received as a Christmas gift what would be a prized possession-a Dale Earnhardt remote control car. Fast forward to 2001. I was working in retail management at that time, and NASCAR was huge. It seemed the drivers were on every item imaginable, from die cast cars to shirts to playing cards, and we stocked it all. People would figure out when trucks would come into the store and then they'd be their the next morning to get first crack at the new die casts that arrived. In 15 plus years, NASCAR had gone from a southern sport broadcast on WTBS and ESPN to a national past time, and much of that was built on the back of a driver who was now in the twilight of his career: Dale Earnhardt.

Five years ago today, I was closing the store. I was irritated because it was the third straight year that I had to miss the Daytona 500 because of work. I snuck into the break room to catch the last three laps of the race. It was some of the most exciting racing I had seen in a while. I watched as Earnhardt held off two lines of traffic as his son and his employee pulled away and raced towards the finish line, and I watched as his car wiggled and the veered into the wall. The crash did not look all that serious, but I had a bad feeling about it and remembered thinking as Darrel Waltrip cheered on his brother and the camera followed Michael's car, "they are going to be sorry for that exuberance if Earnhardt got killed." I then left the break room to go about my work.

Sometime after 6 o'clock, my front end supervisor that night approached me and said, "did you hear Dale Earnhardt died?" I was a bit shocked because even though I had a bad feeling about that accident, it was not comprehensible that the Intimidator could have died in a race. After helping her with whatever it was that she needed, I went to the back of the store where our electronics department was, and I turned all of the TV's over to ESPN News to see what was going on. Over the next 10 minutes, on of the stranger nights I've experienced began to play out. You see, within 10 minutes of me turning on ESPN News, the news of Dale Earnhardt's death had spread around the store and about 25 to 30 people had gathered around the televisions. I left the group and walked the store. There was not a customer to be had anywhere in the store except around those televisions.

Within 30 to 45 minutes, everything that we had one the floor with Earnhardt's face, name, or number was gone. Sunday nights were typically very quiet in our store, but on this Sunday night we were like Grand Central Station. I worked at pushing out every Earnhardt product we had from the backroom to the sales floor. By 8 pm, we were sold out of everything, from the smallest of key chains to the largest of die cast cars. Some people thought they were making an investment they could sell on eBay, but most came in because they had to have something of Earnhardt's that night, something physical that they could hold and relate to.

Until that point, I had still thought of NASCAR as a minor sport and Dale Earnhardt as a minor celebrity, even though he and the sport were favorites of mine. Even though I was in a racing town, I underestimated how big NASCAR had become and how big a part of the culture Dale Earnhardt had become, especially in rural areas, blue collar areas, and small towns. I did not think I would ever see a sports celebrity's death receive such a reaction, especially a race car driver. In a way, though, Dale Earnhardt and his life symbolized the American Dream for a lot of people. Here is a guy who didn't do well in school, who scuffled about in his younger years, and who was not a polished public figure. Still, with hard work he became the most successful person in his sport and he became bigger than that sport. In his later years he tried to rectify some of his mistakes from his younger years. A lot of people identified with that, respected it, idolized it, and wanted to emulate it. That is a sign of a life well lived for a guy from North Carolina who just wanted to race cars. He touched the lives of many people who never met him, and 5 years after his death still does.

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