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

Feb 17, 2011, 3:10 PM EDT


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:

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