(Note: The following is a reprint from February, 2001. I’m placing it here for my friend Amy, in Indianapolis (in 2009), and for those who may be new to NASCAR and needing some reference for understanding the average fan (if they are truly “old school”).
By Brian M. Howle
As this is being written, it is almost a week and a half since the tragic loss of NASCAR’s preeminent driver, Dale Earnhardt, in the February 18, 2001 running of the Daytona 500.
By now, even if you personally hate NASCAR, you know almost everything there could possibly be to know about the accident. And given the unparralelled coverage by the television media, you also know a lot about Earnhardt’s life; his tribulations and triumphs – on the track, and off.
So, for all of the “non-believers” out there (those of you uneducated in the ways of stock car racing, and in what it is that draws the ravenously loyal fans to the tracks in ever-increasing numbers), here’s my humble attempt to give you a little insight:
When the stock car bug has bitten you, it’s a done deal.
Once upon a rural Southern time, there lived a young freckled-face boy who was pulled into the world of stock car racing like a moth is drawn to a flame. He was a “spayshul” child; today, you would label him as ADHD. Constantly moving, the boy just couldn’t stay still for anything – not for all the tea in China …
Except on Saturday afternoons, between the end of winter and the onset of fall.
During those months, he would disappear for hours, listening to races on tinny-sounding AM radios. On particularly glorious days, his father would allow him to listen on the family car’s radio – which made it all the easier for the boy to slip deep into his imagination.
As the drawling announcers rattled along with race descriptions that rivaled an auctioneer’s pace, he would grip the steering wheel and hunker down in the seat, barely able to see over the massive steel dashboard, bouncing up and down on the seat right along with his favorite driver as the announcers painted moving pictures of a 2-ton stock car careening into a high-banked curve, as every imperfection in the unforgiving track shook and rattled the entire vehicle a thousand times a minute. He would glance out the side windows periodically, keeping tabs on all of the “bad guys”, and waiting for his hero to pull alongside.
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, his hero was #22, Glen “Fireball” Roberts.
“Fireball” was the quintessential prototype for today’s modern drivers. He was ruggedly handsome, amiable with the public, and – unlike the vast majority of his colleagues – well-educated and well-spoken. But above all else, he was a “Driver’s Driver”, and a man’s man.
As you might expect, the technology back then was not what it is now. In fact, they raced on everyday, get-’em-at-your-local-Firestone-or-Goodyear-dealer street tires. “Fireball” ran – and won – a Daytona race on one set of regular, street tires.
Although his car number – 22 – remained constant, he drove about every make of car that was contending at one time or another, starting out in Chevy’s (in the mid-’50s, NASCAR ran convertibles – driver safety was not an early priority), Pontiacs, and finally, Fords. His color schemes changed over the years: the Chevy’s were white and black; the Pontiacs were black and gold.
And then came the wondrous day that “Fireball” began driving a Ford, the boy’s most favorite make of them all. But when “Fireball” switched to Fords, he came up with a theretofore-unheard-of paint scheme that required a man confident in his masculinity: Lavender.
The purple 1963 and 1964 Galaxie 500s became the universe for the leetle freckled-face boy, and he gleefully shared in his hero’s every victory, and pouted in his hero’s every defeat. And more often than not – or so it seemed at the time – there would be victorious late Saturday afternoon celebrations that carried the boy happily through his busy week of school. Life was good.
On March 26, 1964, the little boy was listening to the World 600 race from the Charlotte Motor Speedway when the announcers began screaming the accounts of an horrific crash unfolding before them. A frozen chill ran down his spine when he heard “Fireball’s’ number called out – he had crashed hard, and his car had flipped, coming to a rest on its roof – in a time when safety bladders in racing gas tanks were just a glint in some inventor’s eye – the ruptured tank poured gasoline into the car’s interior, where it pooled in the roof panel and burned mercilessly. Paralysis and nausea and the fear or God rendered the boy immobile as they described fellow driver, Ned Jarrett, as he stopped his car on the track and hurried over to “Fireball’s” rescue, helping to pull him from the hellish inferno.
The newspaper accounts the following day didn’t do much to ease the boy’s aching heart. It was deadly serious, and the doctor’s would only say “wait and see”.
For the better part of the following month, the boy listlessly attended classes and avoided play with his friends. His hero was in trouble, and needed his daily complement of exhaustively long prayers to a kind and loving God, to heal his hero and make the world right again.
One morning the boy awoke to the sound of his father’s voice. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he looked up to his dad’s face to ask why he was being awakened.
“Son, I’m sorry to have to tell you this … but your buddy didn’t make it,” he said as softly as he could, knowing full well that his son’s little heart was about to break wide open. “He passed away during the night.”
The boy cried and cried for days, feeling as if the whole world had come to a terrible end. He didn’t know how to mourn the loss of his idol. And to make matters worse, his friends didn’t seem to share his pain – since they still had their heroes, all baseball or football players.
As with all things, the passing of time eased the boy’s pain and loss. He gradually found other drivers to cheer for, although none would ever covet the place in his heart held by his idol. Many years later, as an adult, the boy continued his passion with NASCAR, attending several races a year whenever possible. He found a new hero, a Huck Finn look-alike from the hills of northern Georgia named Bill Elliott, who drove – of course – a Ford. And like all young men, the day came when he met his one true love – a beautiful young Brazilian girl. Through no fault of her own, she was completely unaccustomed to this strange racing fraternity. Because, in her country, there was no NASCAR – but there was Formula One.
They each shared their love for racing in different arenas, but began to educated the other in the ways of their league. A mutual respect and understanding of rules and drivers was formed, and they spent alternating viewing schedules keeping up with Formula One early on Sunday mornings (usually from halfway around the world), and then afternoons bathed in stock car glory.
One of the first things she noticed – about a league that had no wrong in his eyes – was the man’s emphatic disdain and dislike for one particular driver.
“Why do you dislike the driver of that #3 car so much?” she asked in total innocence.
She patiently listened for the next hour or so as the man raved and ranted about the time #3 put this driver or that driver “in the wall’ on the last lap, using the ol’ “chrome horn” to push aside the competition to win yet another race, on the way to winning yet another Winston Cup title. It was clear to her that he did not care at all for #3. Besides, #3 drove a Chevy.
Now, it all made sense to her.
And then she explained to him a similar set of circumstances that existed in Formula One, where one particular driver seemed to have repeated conflicts – usually ending up with a crash – with her country’s national hero, Ayrton Senna. He smiled an understanding smile at this revelation; he had seen Senna drive.
Formula One, unlike NASCAR, does not have races rained out. Both leagues use wide, slick racing tires, but Formula One has “rain tires” with tread for dispersing the water. During one such race, the young man watched in amazement as Senna – unphased by the huge puddles of water that could send a car flying off the track with no notice – screamed through the pack and passed every single driver in the field – twice! Senna was fearless, bold, and extraordinarily talented. It was awesome to watch.
For the next few years they watched many races, and attended a few as well. One Sunday morning, he awoke to the alarm and switched on the television, as a Formula One race was about to begin in Italy. Early in the race, he saw the colors of their favorite blur across the screen after coming out of a sharp corner, never making the turn, smashing into the outer wall and then wildy limping along the retaining wall until it finally rolled to a stop. There was no movement from the cockpit as the announcers began to ponder the possible extent of his injuries.
The young man reluctantly awakened his sleeping beauty, and softly told her the sad news. They watched the replays and theorized on what had caused the crash, but it didn’t really matter what had caused it. Her country’s one true hero had been taken away, and it became a national week of mourning in Brazil.
Late that afternoon, as the young man watched the much-despised #3 win yet another race, he dejectedly reach for the remote to avoid having to endure the Victory Lane celebration. But before he could switch the channel, the driver of #3 clambered out of his chariot and faced the television reporters for the obligatory post-race interview. And then, the driver said something that the young man never expected.
Before he thanked his primary sponsor, his car manufacturer, his car owner, or anyone else, the first sentence out of his mouth was:
“This win is for Ayrton Senna, who was tragically killed in an accident in Italy this morning”, began the uncharacteristically subdued winner. “He was, without a doubt, the greatest driver in the world, and all of racing will miss him greatly.”
I have no doubt in making the statement that, for all practical purposes, a good 95% of the fans had no idea who this Brazilian driver was, or why this American racer was praising him. I know that without my beloved in my life, I probably wouldn’t have, either.
But at that exact moment, all the disdain and ill-feelings I had ever had about this Chevrolet-driving rascal melted away. I now saw a man who respected all forms of racing, and who kept abreast of them with a kindred interest.
That same driver lost his best friend later that year at Daytona, when Neil Bonnett crashed in the fourth turn during a practice session. And it had a solemn impact upon him.
Many other fans softened their dislike towards the successful icon of the sport. Once reviled and booed loudly at driver introductions, his well-earned nickname of “The Intimidator” continued to be legend on the track, but a different man began to show himself to the attentive public. A loving wife, a renewed involvement with his three older children – all of whom were driving stock cars (even his oldest daughter, for a time), and the apple of his twinkling eye, his eight-year-old daughter – all combined to cloak him in an evolutionary change of temperment.
Oh, sure he would still tap the rear bumper of anyone in his way, but even his staunchest dectractor would admit to you in a moment of unfettered honesty – no one, and I mean no one, could drive a stock car like Dale Earnhardt. And I doubt very seriously if anyone ever will again. Not like him.
And so, while those of us who grew up as young freckled-face boys or girls in small towns across the nation – listening to radio broadcasts of our fledgling sport – mourn the loss of the modern day NASCAR legend, I find comfort in knowing that somewhere up in Heaven, Senna is feeling a tap on his rear bumper. And when he looks in his mirror, he sees a grinning Earnhardt waving at him.
I just hope they’re both paying attention when “Fireball” passes them.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, February 28, 2001.