2/20/2001 – Dale Earnhardt Will Be Missed

For starters, I’m not really qualified to write anything about the death of Dale Earnhardt. I’ve been involved with the NASCAR community for little over a year, and given that, what do I really I know? Everyday, however, I learn something new about NASCAR. So instead of giving any type of opinion on what happened, I’m simply going to relay my brief exposure to “The Intimidator.” He’s a figure like I’ve never seen, and while I knew he was an icon of the sport, I had no idea just how big of an icon he really was.

Two personal experiences stand out in my mind with regards to Dale Earnhardt. Both occurred last season in my first tour of duty with the NASCAR community.

Cycle back to North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham last February. It was the beginning of the second season within a season. You see, there’s Daytona which seems to last for months, and then everything else thereafter. First round qualifying was underway and cars were hitting the track one after the other for their one hot lap to post a time. The stands were surprisingly full for a Friday afternoon, especially I thought for a track that’s 60 miles off the main highway from Charlotte. Robby was one of the last cars to qualify so we were patiently waiting in line on pit lane watching the starting race field assemble itself.

Midway through qualifying, and out of nowhere, the crowd erupted. Everyone stood up and let out a cheer. It was the kind of cheer you’d hear for a home run at Fenway Park or a touchdown run in the Super Bowl. In racing circles, it was a cheer you’d hear when something spectacular happens on the track.

I learned right then standing next to Robby’s car that something spectacular included Dale Earnhardt leaving pit lane for a qualifying attempt.

“What’s the big deal?” I thought.

They cheered him all the way around for his warm up lap and stood on pins and needles until he crossed the stripe, finishing his timed lap. And in this instance, his time put the #3 car on the top of the charts leaving everyone in the grandstands in a fit of pure hysteria.

Like a broken record, this fan reaction continued at each and every track I visited for the next ten months. Honestly, I can’t think of any one athlete that has more of a following than Dale Earnhardt amongst his sporting community. Not Sammy Sosa. Not Tiger Woods. And really, not even Michael Jordan. It’s pretty remarkable how widespread Earnhardt’s legion of fan support really is, and I would venture to say that few who follow NASCAR would argue with me.

The second experience that sticks with me came at the Bristol night race. Robby had qualified 12th. Everyone on our team felt good about his chance to make some noise in the race. It was getting close to race time and pre-race festivities were underway. Drivers hadn’t gotten into their parade-lap trucks yet, so Robby and I were were standing talking with Mike Arning, Tony Stewart’s PR Rep, just killing time, waiting for everything to officially begin. I noticed Dale Earnhardt in the distance walking to his truck when he made an abrupt turn towards us.

He approached Robby and put his arm around him.

“Robby, you’re doing a great job this weekend,” Dale said. “If I can give you any advice about this place, it’s just to stay consistent. Consistent, consistent, consistent. You do that and you’ll be fine.”

Mike and I just kind of stood there, a little star-struck.

Earnhardt has this presence about him. For one, he’s pretty damn tall. And he’s got those Gargoyles going. Whoever nicknamed him “The Intimidator” was right on the money. Seriously, when’s he’s walking up to you – the first thing you think of is that you hope you haven’t made him mad about something! But hearing him talk to Robby, and from what I’ve heard from people that work with him, that’s not at all Dale Earnhardt.

After Dale told Robby he’d be fine in the race, he did something that gained my utmost respect. He turned with Robby to the crowd and kind of gazed at the stands. And if you’ve ever been to Bristol, especially for the night race, you’d know how unreal it is. 150,000 fans neatly tucked into a bowl that’s 20-plus stories high. Every fan being as rabid about NASCAR racing as the fan sitting next to them.

“This is what it’s all about,” Dale said. “Right here. I love this place – look at all these fans, it always amazes me.”

Robby agreed, then Dale patted him on the shoulder, wished him a good race and headed off for his truck.

Mike looked at me and said, “Well, there’s our 20 seconds of fame.”

“Exactly.” I thought to myself.

I guess what got me in that instance was the fact that Dale didn’t need to come over and say anything to Robby. But he did and he made a special trip to do it. It was genuine and it was a vote of confidence for Robby.

The bit about the fans I thought was tremendous. There were no media around with microphones, and no sponsors standing next to him. And for that matter, Mike and I may as well have been two ghosts. It was Dale in an honest moment, sharing his appreciation for an empire that was built by NASCAR’s fans.

The sad thing is that now he’s gone.

I haven’t been doing the NASCAR thing very long, but he’s been a constant every time I’ve visited an event. A presence bigger than any of the others. He’ll be missed and probably never replaced, making next weekend at Rockingham an eerie event. It’s hard right now trying to imagine the black #3 Chevy not rolling out for qualifying like it did last year. But while I won’t see the black #3, I do imagine the cheers will still be there – as tremendous as ever for another Earnhardt, he of the red #8.

From everyone at Team Gordon, we express our sympathies to the Earnhardt family.

– Kinnon


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©2001 Robby Gordon.