News - 'One of them deals'

Can NASCAR survive loss of biggest star?

We've lost Dale Earnhardt.

With these words NASCAR President Mike Helton confirmed my worst fears, along with those of millions of other stock car racing fans who had witnessed Earnhardt's wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Almost a month later, the shock still makes it difficult to watch a race, although I have been a hardcore fan for over 12 years. This past weekend, the Winston Cup circuit was at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but without the Man In Black to cheer for I just couldn't bear to go.

The wreck in Daytona seemed like a thousand others, where the driver climbs out of the car, waves to the crowd, then starts planning his strategy for next week's race.

But such was not the case that fateful February afternoon. The Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the NASCAR season, and Earnhardt himself tried 20 times to win the big one, finally succeeding in 1998. It was the crowning moment in an already extraordinary career defined by seven championships (tying the legendary Richard Petty), 76 victories and over $40 million in winnings.

The 2001 race was even more special for Earnhardt, whose Dale Earnhardt Enterprises Inc. fielded three entries in addition to his Richard Childress-owned Goodwrench Chevrolet.

In an uncharacteristic Earnhardt maneuver that ultimately led to his death, he was blocking other cars from his third-place spot and watching two of his DEI cars battling for victory when the accident occurred. Eventual winner Michael Waltrip barely beat teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. across the finish line, and neither of them had any ideaa that their boss had hit the wall head-on in turn three.

To understand the significance of Earnhardt's death, one must look at how his career and NASCAR's growth complemented each other. In the early days, stock car racing was considered a trash sport, a bunch of Southern hicks racing around in circles.

The first big national boost for the sport occurred in 1971, when R.J. Reynolds became the primary sponsor, and the circuit became known as the Winston Cup series. Earnhardt followed his father Ralph into the sport in 1975, and soon became notorious for his "intimidating" racing style. He was a no-frills "win at all costs" sort of driver, and soon became a champion in the sport. Fans either loved him or hated him, but nobody ignored him.

NASCAR grew in the '80s and early '90s with cable television exposure and a flood of new advertising money. Drivers became spokesmen for their sponsors, and "image" became an important factor. Earnhardt never changed his personality or driving style, but he was one of the first drivers to trademark his name and image, which gave him control over his own merchandise sales. It has been estimated that racing paraphernalia with the "Earnhardt" name earns around $500 million a year.

As Earnhardt entered the 2001 Daytona 500 hoping for an unprecedented eighth championship, NASCAR was itself entering a new era, including a multi-billion dollar network television deal similar to other sports such as professional football and baseball. The setup was perfect for the Daytona 500, and NASCAR delivered an amazing show — but joy turned to grief on the last lap.

The loss of the sport's biggest name launched a new wave of criticism. Still shocked by three track deaths last year, NASCAR faces charges of inadequate safety precautions and lack of concern for the drivers. The organization has resisted knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy, but the issue is unlikely to go away quickly.

Like virtually every fan, I was keenly affected by Earnhardt's death. I had to force myself to watch last weekend's Cracker Barrel 500 on TV, but I stuck with it to the heart-stopping finish. In one of the most amazing racing events I have ever witnessed, rookie Kevin Harvick beat Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds.

Harvick was driving Dale Earnhardt's car.

Somehow, that race has allowed me to start enjoying the sport again, and I know I am doing it in honor of Dale's memory — just like Harvick said when he climbed from the car. I know that Earnhardt himself would have been on that track even if his own son had died at Daytona, and he would want others to continue. I can almost hear him now, saying, "It was just one of them deals."

He would be right, of course. Life — and racing — goes on.??

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