Dale Earnhardt’s death toward the finale of the 2001 Daytona 500 cut short the life and career of a guy who not only transformed the style of NASCAR with his ruthless driving skills, but was one of the sport’s most prominent, respected, and marketable faces. Indeed, in the weeks and months after his death, Dale Earndhardt, Incorporated promotional items formed a web of legacy support. The Intimidator even in death, Earnhardt’s likeness, #3 logo, and near-constant association to principal sponsors Budweiser and Chevrolet were probably even more prominent than in his prime. This was due in part to the sport’s ever-advancing popularity, and its diversification into markets that wouldn’t know a camshaft from a mineshaft. One of NASCAR’s most famous drivers would have to profit from such a rapid, cash soluble expansion, even posthumously. But after awhile, all the Dale worship became a bit off-putting, even for famously fanatical NASCAR fans. Entire back windows of Monte Carlos were devoted to Earnhardt’s triumphant silhouette, with urgent script heaping praise on the mustachioed millionaire road pilot. Sales of Dale bar mirrors no doubt sky rocketed. And the market for Earnhardt-affiliated fashion leather jackets? Well, let’s just say DEI was doing just fine, even operating one driver down.
Now, two years after Earnhardt’s untimely demise, comes the Dale Earnhardt Tribute Concert. Held on June 28th, 2003, the charity event honored Dale Earnhardt, Inc.’s recent establishment of the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, dedicated to the children’s and wildlife issues that its namesake supported in life. It brought together Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Delbert McClinton, Sheryl Crow, Hootie & The Blowfish, Goo Goo Dolls, Alabama, and what looked like the entire left arm-tanned state of Alabama to join Earnhardt’s widow Teresa, his son Dale, Jr., and Michael Waltrip (both DEI drivers) in a music-filled, staunchly patriotic tribute to the Intimidator’s legacy, both on track and in life. The first non-racing event ever held at Daytona International Speedway, its enormous stage faced out across a throng of thong-clad girls and suntanned dudes, many of whom spent the show with their arms aloft, three fingers out. It’s unclear whether the salute was meant for Dale or Goo Goo Doll Robbie Takac’s staunch support of the mullet hairstyle. But from the moment Teresa Earnhardt launched the show with a cue for the F-14 Tomcat flyover, until its swollen finale that featured fireworks and exploding confetti to the strains of Brooks & Dunn’s “Only In America,” it was clear that The Dale Earnhardt Tribute Concert was as much a reaffirmation of broad, Lee Greenwood-style patriotism as it was a dedication to one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.
Though Alabama’s introductory walk through “America the Beautiful” was certainly tasteful, what was it saying? It’s true that NASCAR, as a sport, is perhaps more enwrapped in Americanism than, say, the NBA. After all, what’s more American than souped-up engines and egos competing at high speeds while eager spectators fuel up with domestic beer and chili dogs? But it was the dual sentiments of Dale Earnhardt himself and America herself competing for time on the massive stage’s monitors that soon became problematic. The concert was sponsored by longtime DEI supporters Kraft/Nabisco, in association with Chevy and GM Goodwrench. (Bud, Coke, and BASS Pro Shops were along for the ride.) That’s some big time money being bandied about, but it’s some of the same money that fuels the NASCAR machine. The organization is steeped in tradition, and recalls many of the values that are often described as distinctly ‘American.’ But NASCAR is also a mind-numbingly expensive business initiative that generates boffo revenue, and establishes brand loyalty like it’s going out of style. If Ricky Craven drives the #32 Tide Pontiac, well darn it, we need to use Tide laundry detergent. In June, Nextel struck a deal to supplant RJ Reynolds Tobacco as the top-of-name sponsor of NASCAR’s premiere cup event. What defined Winston cigarettes as a brand will now help Nextel reach 75 million people worldwide, and give NASCAR an avenue to even more race fans outside the traditional archetype, sitting on top of his RV inside the oval, encouraging nearby ex-cheerleaders to pop their tops. Given all of this, the patriotism soaking the concert more than the intermittent rain could almost be seen as another way to solidify the brand, just as the concert itself likely sold a tidy amount of commemorative caps, T-shirts, and those ever-popular bar mirrors emblazoned with the Intimidator’s famous logo.
Besides the shape-shifting video montage of primo Earnhardt racing footage and shots of a shimmering stars and stripes that formed the stage backdrop, the musicians present for the most part dedicated their sets to Dale. Sheryl Crow’s performance of “Steve McQueen” was appropriate, with its allusions to the famously macho actor and speed, even if her lip-synching during the song’s vocally processed midsection was glaringly obvious and irritating, since she sang the rest of the song commandingly. The Goo Goo Dolls seemed out of place, with Johnny Rzeznik’s complicated hair falling under the glare of the Florida humidity and race fan indifference to the AAA strum of “Slide.” Kenny Chesney seemed to break through best to the audience. Though his band of oddly-shirted (the violin player was wearing a Def Leppard shirt?) Nashville dudes laid down a predictable groove, Chesney himself used the lip of the stage like a catwalk, driving the cowgirls in attendance into a frenzy with hits like “Young” and “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” (Despite its ridiculous premise, the latter isn’t bad for Nash Vegas-style country.) As Chesney finished out his set, the foreboding Daytona skies opened up with a blast of sideways rain. Oh, luckily I have this gargantuan cowboy hat on, thought Kenny. He just kept right on singing, even laughing his way through a duet with Little E. They likely compared groupie horror stories backstage.
The Tribute to Dale Earnhardt drew to a close with a lurching performance from Brooks & Dunn. Now, these guys are the best-selling duo in country music history. And Kix Brooks, for his part, cracked everyone up with some great old fishing stories about he and his buddy Dale. But what the hell is wrong with Ronnie Dunn? He looks like a pair of leather pants being piloted by a poofy haircut and a goatee. Sallow, sad-eyed, and sounding uninspired, Dunn thankfully let Brooks take center stage for a song dedicated to Earnhardt’s widow. Though their set didn’t actually end the real, 6/28 event (Hootie & the Blowfish did), B & D’s star-spangled performance of “Only in America” did close out Fox Television’s July 10th broadcast of the show. As the duo harmonized on the chorus – Only in America, where we dream in red, white, and blue – the crowd sang along, flashed the ‘3’ sign, and reflected the glitter and glimmer of the fireworks display in their upturned Intimidator bar mirrors. Silver, red, and blue confetti swirled in the hot Florida air, spotlights played off of the cavities in Dunn’s cheeks, and American flag images swirled into shots of Dale doing his thing on NASCAR tracks all over the country. It was the event’s shining moment, and in its imagistic overload of patriotic country music and blind racing fervor, it said more than enough about America to let the people at Kraft/Nabisco know one thing: their larger portion’d food may have made America fat, but it’s not what made it stupid.
Be sure to read Jeff Sabatini’s reaction to the death of Dale Earnhardt from February 2001.