The first nine laps of NASCAR racing I ever sat down to watch happened to be the final nine laps of the 2001 Daytona 500. I don’t remember why it ended up on our TV that day, but my dad and I ended up watching Michael Waltrip take the checkered flag as a wreck ensued in the background through turn 4. The second the checkers waved, the TV went elsewhere. I was not brought up in a racing family and watching NASCAR was all but taboo in our household at that time.
That being said, the news the next morning that the great Dale Earnhardt had been killed in the same wreck that we had viewed in passing had a great impact the next morning at our breakfast table. No tears were shed, no grief stricken, but my dad wasted no time articulating to me what a tragedy the episode was and how significant a figure Earnhardt was to so many. Blissfully unaware that morning of just how dramatic an episode had rocked the NASCAR world, I’m perhaps fortunate that I wasn’t a diehard race fan that February.
Two years later, I started following NASCAR. Five years after that, I took my current role with Frontstretch. And in the time I’ve spent writing for the site and covering the sport of stock car racing, the true significance of the Intimidator, his impact on the garage and sport has been made clear as glass to me. From meeting throngs of his faithful to seeing the No. 3 carried on as many bumpers on I-95 as any other active driver out there today, no one has ever had to sit me down and explain what Dale Earnhardt meant. It’s impossible to miss being involved in this sport.
Dale Earnhardt was more than a racecar driver, a team owner or even a celebrity. He truly was “the man, the legend.” And just as Earnhardt the person, the impact that he had on the sport he dominated and the community around him was something bigger, the same can be said for his death on those high banks of Daytona, now nearly 10 years behind us heading into the start of Speedweeks in 2011.
That essence is missed, however, for Waltrip’s recent publication In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona, and the Day That Changed Everything, a deceptively titled autobiographical work that while sincerely grateful and in other cases enlightening, remains one that can scarcely be considered worthy or capable of authoritatively capturing one of the defining moments in professional stock car racing’s history.
For while Waltrip certainly lived a dream both in enjoying an extremely lengthy career as a Cup driver, rubbing shoulders with Earnhardt and just about every other big name that’s ever taken the wheel of a stock car, the entire story his autobiography tells reeks more of a starstruck roadie along for the tour (“I went around to the back and up to Dale’s private entrance like I always did,” says Waltrip of the day he was hired at DEI).
A work that takes the title The Day That Changed Everything instead is molded not around Dale, but the life story of a driver that for all his sponsor plugs and two Daytona 500 trophies has been utterly insignificant on the Cup circuit.
It’s almost depressing to read a work that again, taking its title from an event so significant, is so self-serving and autobiographical that the “Dale” side of it feels almost as the means for a driver to put his own story out on the national landscape. In describing the over 460 race starts he made before winning the 2001 500, Waltrip remarks, “Another driver might have given up. Not me.” Call me crazy, but I have a hard time believing there’s a lot of racecar drivers out there that would give up trying to win races if they had an owner ready to put them in a seat.
Following Earnhardt’s death at Daytona, Waltrip stated, “It was Dale’s time to go, and I was the perfect person to give him credit for what we had accomplished together.” Never mind the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still a DEI employee at the time. Never mind that Steve Park and Ken Schrader were also drivers that Earnhardt had given a leg up on the ladder. Never mind the scores of other DEI personnel who had given their all.
Intentional or not, insensitive on my part or not, Waltrip’s writing stings to read. It is, as Jeff Gluck noted, painful to peruse the demons that Waltrip has faced, both in dealing with the death of his father as well as his troubles off the track over the past few seasons. But it is also painful as a race fan, next-gen or otherwise, to decipher an autobiography that likely would have never been published had it not decided to mention Dale Earnhardt every other sentence.
In terms of blunt literary critique, Earnhardt’s death feels as if it has been wielded to facilitate the biography of a very average racecar driver. And in doing so, it goes so far as to diminish the events of that day in 2001, to reduce what truly was something bigger than Waltrip, I, or any single race fan can put into words.
What is perhaps even more unfortunate, heading both into Speedweeks 10 years after the death of Earnhardt and into the 2011 racing season, is that this reduction, this somehow continuing devaluation of the agony and ecstasy of stock car racing’s past into selling points has become the norm of NASCAR. And it’s perhaps the best explanation right now of how something that was once far more than a sport slowly devolving to be just that… a sport, and one that is struggling to keep up with other professional sports out there.
As mentioned previously, I got a late start into stock car racing. I wasn’t brought up around it, nor did I have any real appreciation for its cultural significance. That said, I don’t have to to realize that in terms of popularity, its national impact, stock car racing suddenly isn’t ranking so high on the food chain in its current form.
Following massive federal bailouts to save both General Motors and Chrysler, two of America’s “Big Three,” and at a time where Ford is surging ahead and has caught Japanese giants Toyota and Honda, the battle for car sales at a time where all auto manufacturers are redefining themselves is not being fought on the racetrack.
Instead, spec cars with different decal packages run around all day. Teams both large and small continue to fight losing battles in finding marketing partners to foot the bills, despite NASCAR racing just a decade ago boasting the largest growing fan base in America, consisting of many who wore brand loyalty as a badge of honor.
And this past Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, a significant portion of NASCAR’s established media couldn’t be found at the Atlanta Motor Speedway as the Nationwide Series competed under the lights… for they were at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic.
Racing’s not high on a lot of priority lists right now.
You’d think that would instill a sense of purpose for the very men who put the sport on the map in the first place. Instead, the essence of the struggle seems lost on the most important figures, to the point it almost seems as if many that have been around the sport for so long have retreated into a quiet contentment that they have been there and seen it peak.
At a recent meeting of the National Motorsports Press Association, at least 75% of a semi-annual meeting was dedicated towards discussing the content of the Association’s Hall of Fame. The evening before that meeting, at the NMPA Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, new inductee Dale Jarrett’s acceptance speech sounded less like the summary of an accomplished career and more that of a press release, with DJ stressing multiple times over the course of just a few minutes how vitally important it was for all in the room to support NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, a venture that is losing money.
The following days, throughout the sport’s Media Tour reports came rolling in of drivers, track presidents, NASCAR officials stressing a “need” for reporters to “put a positive spin” on the coming season as if five years’ of attendance and audience retreat would stop the moment bad words stop appearing on paper.
Who knows what it is. Maybe the economy really is that bad. Maybe the time for racing to be a culturally significant force has simply come and gone. Maybe concerns over fuel mileage and utility have made racing an obsolete means to sell cars. Maybe there just aren’t, as Waltrip coined him in his book, any more “Dales from Kannapolis” out there.
What’s certain is that in Feb. 2001, one of NASCAR’s all-time greats met a tragic end at a track he made his personal playground for 20-plus years. That horrible afternoon once seemed to propel the sport into the national consciousness for decades to come, a tragedy whose aftereffects confirmed Earnhardt’s legend as the driving force behind it.
Instead, that crash may have been the last significant moment that stock car racing has seen, a part of the past so many involved cling onto without another Earnhardt to take us forward. And, if that’s the case, one day this sport as it has come to be known may be gone in the blink of an eye.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.