Skip to content

Rick’s Cafe: On Dale Earnhardt Sr., the crash, and being the last cowboy

Feb 17, 2011, 3:10 PM EDT

earnhardttat

If Jesus raced Dale Earnhardt Sr., who would win? Well, I’d imagine that the Son of God wouldn’t have to stop very often for tire changes. But don’t count out Earnhardt, whom many NASCAR fans consider divine in his own right. Or, call him the Elvis of motor sports; gone but not forgotten, often imitated, but also representing the end of an era. It’s been 10 years to the day since Earnhardt Sr. died in a crash at the Daytona 500. NASCAR has changed so much since then.

The story is told often, dog-eared and morose with a tinge of mystery, like a Poe novel. It’s about how Bill Simpson, owner of the auto racing safety equipment company Simpson Performance Products, warned Earnhardt Sr. one day in 2001 that if he continued to wear his seat belt improperly, it would lead to disaster. Earnhardt’s response?

“You worry about your own damn business, and let me worry about mine.”

Accurate or not, it still serves as auto racing’s most notorious example of foreshadowing. Not long after that alleged conversation, on Feb. 18, 2001, Ralph Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would be dead. One of NASCAR’s first modern legends was killed in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, an event still frozen in time for racing fans; a “you remember where you were and what you were doing” moment for gearheads. For even if you thought that Earnhardt was the King of all Ass****s, as many did, you could never deny his influence on the sport.

Earnhardt Sr. was NASCAR in the 1980s and ’90s. He won the NASCAR Winston Cup Series a staggering seven times, is the only six-time winner of the Busch Clash, was the ESPY’s “Driver of the Decade” for the 1990s, and remains the only driver to win both Rookie of the Year and the Winston Cup championship in successive seasons (1979-80). But in addition to his trophy shelf, Earnhardt’s lasting legacy was his prickly, Southern personality. He wasn’t called The Intimidator for nothing.

Earnhardt, the son and grandson of stock car drivers who learned about cars in his father’s garage in Kannapolis, N.C., was a brawler on the track who thrived in the rough-and-tumble that came with the job. If he couldn’t drive past you he might drive over you. My favorite Dale Earnhardt Sr. quotes, in no particular order:

“You go back to the start of time. One cave guy was fighting another cave guy because his club was bigger than his or his woman had longer hair. That’s competition.”

“God created bumpers for a reason.”

“Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won’t climb up there and eat that candy ass.”

Others’ quotes about him were just as pointed: Earnhardt was not well liked by his peers. But for the most part, he was respected. And as polarizing as he was, a great many NASCAR fans adored him.

But it was that Yosemite Sam side of his personality that led to his demise, in the opinion of many. There are still questions concerning the details of Earnhardt’s death in that Daytona crash. The main focus was the car’s seat belt system, specifically the webbing on his lap belt, designed by Simpson and ruled in a subsequent NASCAR investigation to have broken on impact. But Simpson still claims that the system was installed improperly by the driver — Earnhardt reportedly liked it off-center to provide better comfort — a fact that the investigators would not confirm or deny.

Earnhardt was a maverick when it came to the newer safety devices, choosing to wear the old-style open-faced helmet because, he said, it helped him feel the draft of nearby cars. He also typically had his seat positioned further back in the car than other drivers. It’s said that his helmet also played a part in his death.

The 2001 crash helped touch off a flurry of safety rule changes in NASCAR, among them SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reducing) barriers and the HANS (Head And Neck Support) device, the latter of which was available to Earnhardt, but which he declined to use. The device, and the newer, closed-face helmets, are now mandatory in NASCAR races. Adjustments were also made to the cars in the form of a higher roof, wider cockpit, and a driver’s seat located more toward the center of the vehicle.

But beyond safety regulations, Earnhardt’s death was also seemed to mark the end of an era. Grease-stained, southern characters such as Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty are gone, and NASCAR has even begun racing at new tracks, abandoning some traditional ones.

“It will never be the same because you’re not going to replace someone like that, but the sport is in a better position,” Dale Jarrett told ESPN. “A lot of that still comes — even five years down the road now — from the things that Dale did and was doing and was putting into place at that particular time.”

A decline in popularity in the early 2000s forced a change in attitude; my friends who are fans say that it’s less a good-old-boy sport now, and more of a corporate one. This past July the Great Clips 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway increased its ticket prices by $5, to $30 each, and tickets to other bigger races are $40 and up. A lot of fans are simply priced out.

But NASCAR is more popular than ever now. It’s also a lot safer, shinier, sleeker; more palatable to a diverse audience. Foreign drivers crossing over from Indy Car and Formula 1 have helped fuel the change. Danica Patrick’s flirtation with it has helped. But mostly, the sport has simply evolved. It’s in the mainstream now. It has a cartoon mascot. In 2003 Jeff Gordon became the first NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live. Could you imagine Earnhardt doing that?

“People want that good-looking guy that can go to their boardroom and talk and say all the right things and is going to do all the right things on and off the race track,” Dale Jarrett told ESPN. “That wasn’t necessarily Dale Earnhardt.”

Today, being a Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan is more of an attitude than anything else. He’s a touchstone to a simpler time, to the sport’s Southern, back roads roots. In honor of that, you may want to tip a glass today in memory of NASCAR’s ‘last cowboy.’ Or, curse his name and drink two. Earnhardt doesn’t give a damn what you think of him, as long as you’re buying.

***
Rick’s Cafe Americain appears each Thursday. Contact: Rickchand@gmail.com.

Latest Posts
  1. Turning out the lights…..

    Mar 31, 2013, 10:37 AM EDT

    super-bowl-black-out Getty Images

    Since this will be the final post in the history of Off The Bench, I feel that this post can’t just be a simple post about an NFL player buying segways for his teammates or an improbable buzzer beater from a high school basketball game. I’d like to echo the sentiments that Rick featured in…

  2. Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels has one epic mustache (picture)

    Mar 31, 2013, 7:13 AM EDT

    Comments Off
    images Getty Images

    As Opening Day of Major League Baseball is just around the corner, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels will be getting the starting nod against the Atlanta Braves. If you have been following the Phillies during spring training, you might have noticed that Hamels has been growing a rather impressive mustache. Below are just some photos…

  3. ‘Triple your fun’, Vanderbilt baseball team pulls off triple steal (video)

    Mar 30, 2013, 12:16 PM EDT

    Comments Off
    Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 9.22.30 AM

    Back in 2012, Vanderbilt University’s baseball team pulled off a successful triple steal in a game against Florida in the SEC Tournament. Earlier this week, Vanderbilt pulled off that rare feat again in a non-conference game against Lipscomb University. With runners on first and second, Commodore manager Tim Corbin called for the steal and before…

  4. Mexican soccer fans pelt USA fans with beer during World Cup qualifier

    Mar 30, 2013, 9:04 AM EDT

    Comments Off
    Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 9.07.03 AM

    Back on Tuesday, the United States men’s soccer team traveled to Azteca Stadium to face Mexico in a World Cup Qualifying match. After the match ended in a draw, a group of happy United States fans celebrated the 0-0 score in the upper deck of the Azteca. As chants of USA got louder and louder,…

  5. So long folks, it’s time for me to take off

    Mar 28, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

    helicoptercat Reuters

    In case you haven’t heard, Easter Sunday is the final day of Off the Bench: this blog will cease operations as of 11:59 p.m. on that date. So the day after March 31, there will be no new posts on this blog. The timing is fine: I see no reason people would wake the next…

  6. Prediction Machine tells us who wins in a game between the ’13 Miami Heat and the ’72 LA Lakers

    Mar 27, 2013, 3:19 PM EDT

    LeBronWilt Getty Images

    So the Miami Heat have won 27 straight, and have an excellent chance of breaking the NBA record for consecutive wins, 33, set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. Here’s a pretty good breakdown comparing the two teams. But if you’re like me, it’s not enough to know that Thor and Hercules were both very…

  7. Breaking: Jim Belushi not good at hockey (video)

    Mar 26, 2013, 2:35 PM EDT

    JimBelushiHockey

    Life as a lesser Belushi can be frustrating at times, I’d imagine: even though you occasionally get to be in films like Trading Places and be married to Courtney Thorne-Smith. Also you get to participate in Shoot-the-Puck contests at Chicago Blackhawks games. Jim Belushi was born in Chicago, so I sure hope he makes this…

  8. This loss stung more than most: Lauren Davis encounters angry wasp at Sony Open

    Mar 25, 2013, 5:39 PM EDT

    2013 Sony Open Tennis - Day 7 Getty Images

    If you’re a fan of vintage tennis posters — or, you know, hot chicks — the you may be familiar with ‘Tennis Girl’. That’s the photo of 18-year-old Fiona Butler showing her mostly bare backside, shot by her boyfriend, Martin Elliott, and made into an iconic, best-selling poster in the 1970s. Lauren Davis of the…

  9. Man wins full marathon while pushing his daughter in a baby stroller (video)

    Mar 25, 2013, 9:00 AM EDT

    Gusher Marathon AP

    But that’s not even the most incredible part of this story. Iram Leon, 32, won the 2013 Gusher Marathon in Beaumont, Texas on Saturday despite the fact that he has terminal brain cancer. He ran the entire race while pushing his 6-year-old daughter Kiana in a stroller, winning with a time of in 3:07:36. That’s…

  10. TCU’s new horned frog statue might scare the children (picture)

    Mar 24, 2013, 3:38 PM EDT

    tcu-mascot-3-by-4-getty-images-ssport-ethan-miller Getty Images

    Honestly, I didn’t think that a statue of a horned frog would scare me but the latest edition to the TCU football stadium might cause me to look under my bed for the next couple of days. On Saturday, TCU unveiled the newest edition to Amon G. Carter Stadium as a bronzed horned frog will…

  11. Craig Sager wears Cosby-style sweater to bar in Kansas City (picture)

    Mar 24, 2013, 10:55 AM EDT

    Comments Off
    craig-sager Getty Images

    There might not be a individual in sports known for his wacky fashion sense than Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager. Over the years, Craig has provided the world and a bunch of NBA players cannon-fodder for his strange color combinations and for those of you who think that Craig just wears those zany outfits…

  12. Serbian basketball fan isn’t the greatest shooter but does know how to work a crowd (video)

    Mar 24, 2013, 8:33 AM EDT

    Comments Off
    Screen Shot 2013-03-22 at 4.37.27 PM

    At almost every college/professional basketball game these days, one lucky fan is brought out onto the court to win some sort of cash or prize by making a number of shots or a half-court shot. For most, the pressure is pretty high but for one Serbian basketball fan attending an Adriatic League basketball game between KK Igokea…

  13. Shane Victorino gets gift of Louboutin sneakers from Brandon Phillips

    Mar 23, 2013, 1:45 PM EDT

    Shane Victorino Getty Images

    After playing together for Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, it appears that Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips became fast friends with Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino. Back on Friday night, Phillips took to his Twitter account to show off a pair of size 6.5 Louboutin sneakers that he bought for…

  14. Florida International’s basketball court next season might resemble a beach (picture)

    Mar 23, 2013, 10:55 AM EDT

    Comments Off
    floridapalms Getty Images

    Over the last couple of years, it appears that college athletic programs have been trying to one up each other in trying to create the most creative-looking football field or basketball courts. Back on Wednesday, Florida International men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino revealed the latest possible crazy basketball court design on his Twitter account. The…

  15. Lock and load, it’s youth baseball fundraising time: league raffling off AR-15 rifle (video)

    Mar 23, 2013, 10:09 AM EDT

    LLAR14 Getty Images

    Over in Atwood, IL, all systems are go for a fundraiser in which an AR-15 rifle — the same type used in two recent school massacres — will be raffled off to benefit the local youth baseball league. According to the people involved this is all perfectly kosher, and one lucky fan will be heavily…

  16. Soccer goalie takes motorcycle ride back to his own net (video)

    Mar 23, 2013, 8:35 AM EDT

    Soccer Goalie

    While it’s normal for soccer goalies to come up on corner kicks to create an extra attacker, it isn’t normal for them to take motorcycle rides back to their own goal. Sadly, there isn’t a whole lot of information about the below video except for the fact that it occurs during a soccer match on…

  17. Harvard stripped of four National Quiz Bowl titles, is filled with shame

    Mar 22, 2013, 6:46 PM EDT

    Harvard banners hang outside Memorial Church on the Harvard Getty Images

    Bigger gathering of villainy: the cantina in Mos Eisly spaceport, or Harvard University? The basketball team may be riding high right now, but things are not going so swell back on campus. This past August Harvard officials announced that 125 students were under investigation for allegedly cheating on a take-home test. And now, Harvard has…

  18. Twitter chooses its latest villain: Mississippi’s Marshall Henderson

    Mar 22, 2013, 4:22 PM EDT

    Comments Off
    marshallhenderson AP

    Don’t those dual hair parts kind of resemble devil horns? Isn’t his trash-talking style kind of evil? Is his shot selection from the pit of hell? Yes, yes and yes. Every good story needs an antagonist, and the NCAA Basketball Tournament has theirs in Mississippi guard Marshall Henderson. What we have here is not exactly…

  19. Sim Bhullar is a large basketball player, and I mean it. Anybody want a peanut?

    Mar 21, 2013, 4:12 PM EDT

    Comments Off
    Sim Bhullar, Joel Wright AP

    Anybody wondering what Andre the Giant would have been like as a college basketball player, look no further than Sim Bhullar — New Mexico State’s 7-foot-5, 360-pound freshman from Toronto. Bhullar, the tallest player in college basketball, has 85 blocked shots and led the WAC in field goal percentage at 63.2 percent. Hey, it’s not…

  20. Ronald McDonald pregame hockey speech will supersize your spirit (video)

    Mar 20, 2013, 3:45 PM EDT

    Comments Off
    ronaldmcdonald

    This video proves once again that great champions are made to order, not born. The Allen Americans of the Central Hockey League, a Double-A affiliate of the Dallas Stars, had their Fourth Annual McDonald’s Night at Allen Event Center in Allen, TX, recently. This of course called for McDonald’s-themed uniforms (later auctioned for charity), but…