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.
My response to Hunter S. Thompson’s column on Dale Earnhardt…
Dale Earnhardt’s death has really bothered me a lot. It has affected me personally in a way that seems at first rather trite, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it is totally apropos. The last time I recall feeling this shocked by someone dying, it was Eric Wright. Don’t laugh, but the similarities are there: I was a big fan of both of them and had expected to be enjoying their entertainment for a lot longer. Granted, probably no one else in the world would ever put Eazy E and Big E into the same hero-pool, but I’m an eclectic guy. And it hurts just the same to look at my autographed picture of Dale or hear Eazy bust one of his wack-ass rhymes. But with Earnhardt, it’s much worse. He died with honor, doing something heroic.
That said, what can we take from Earnhardt’s death? What can we learn? Well, most importantly, racing is fucking dangerous. But unlike a lot of dangerous things, it doesn’t become less dangerous the more you do it, but actually more dangerous. Novice racers aren’t allowed in the biggest, fastest cars. Novice racers just physically can’t get the car to perform at its most dangerous level, what is referred to as 10/10ths. But Dale Earnhardt wasn’t just a 10/10ths driver, he drove at a Spinal Tap 11. The guy was the hardest-charging, most talented and driven driver out there. He would do anything to win. That’s why he was my favorite. That’s why meeting him and having lunch with him in November was one of the coolest things I have done in my life. That’s why I am so upset about his death.
But I’m also upset because the guy was a classic horse’s ass who raced in the classic horse’s ass series. He wore an open-faced helmet. He refused to wear a HANS device (neck and head support). Yeah, they were restrictive. Yeah, they would change his field of vision. Yeah, they weren’t part of the “good old days.” But neither are the cars, the restrictor plates, the aero package, or the entire show. The sport has changed and some of this new stuff might have saved Earnhardt’s life, just as some of this new stuff is probably what contributed to killing him. We’ll never know if an unrestricted engine with full horsepower would have allowed him to get the traction or miss the bump and not crash. We’ll never know if his head injuries could have been prevented by the safety equipment he wasn’t wearing. It really doesn’t matter anyway; he’s still dead.
People die racing. They always have and they always will. But this time, it feels different because it is. To understand, you have to understand NASCAR in a way that the mainstream media will not report. NASCAR is a redneck organization. These guys are not terribly smart, they are not business people, they are not professionals, they are not even city people. The motherfuckers at FOX are. So are all the others that form the financial interests in this sport—they’re also cold-hearted business people and they’re also motherfuckers. The people that run NASCAR do it because they love racing—you would too if you had the chance to drive a car at over 150 mph. (It’s the most exciting thing in the world to race cars, even to watch them in person. Go to a race and see for yourself.) Thing is, racing cars isn’t cheap so you need money to pay for it. That’s where the motherfuckers come in and they’re slowly but surely ruining the sport—shifting the focus away from what made it great, the racing. They want more, always more—more greed, more control, more stupid fascination with numbers and quantitative bullshit at any cost, even the cost of sport, fun, and life. They’re doing the same thing to the NFL, the NBA, etc., but that’s another story entirely.
Sure, despite the redneck nature of NASCAR, there are a lot of smart people within it, mostly talent and genius on the race teams. The smart people, like Dale Earnhardt was, say things like “Restrictor plate racing ain’t racing” and speak out about the fact that 40+ races per year are too many. Smart people like Roush driver Jeff Burton push for mandatory use of the HANS device and the same high-tech seats that they use in open-wheel cars. But these guys are not the people who make and enforce the rules. These guys aren’t the ones that ink the deals with the motherfuckers. These guys aren’t the ones that see their job as protecting the financial interests so that there is a NASCAR. These guys are just the people who are dependent on NASCAR for everything in their lives. It’s like working for a boss that treats you bad, but there’s no other job in town. NASCAR drivers can’t just go somewhere else to race—there’s no other stock car series with any money to support a guy.
So what do I think about Thompson’s column? Well, he’s right on. The WWF crap, the Street Fighter mentality, is certainly to blame, but as you can see from what I’ve written, it goes a lot deeper than that. There’s a lot of factors that make Dale Earnhardt’s death tragic. Whether the motherfuckers are directly to blame, no, I don’t think they are. But Earnhardt’s death is a symptom of a bad scene that’s brewing. Where safety, driver consideration, fan consideration, the honesty of the sport, and the rules are all being held up to the wrong God. It’s not NASCAR’s history or the feeling of riding the high bank at 180 mph that’s going into the decisions. It’s how many times can they say DuPont in an interview and how much it’s going to cost the network that’s driving things. It’s crap like Fox’s digital erasure of sponsorship on the cars in the broadcast of the Twin 125’s that’s giving everybody headaches, instead of suspension setups. It’s the inability of an organization of people just plain out of their league to deal with the bloodsuckers and vampires. Because this scum will pounce on anything good and new and honest and real and make it packaged for the masses, selling this now-unreal reality to people who don’t even know what real is because they’ve grown up with nothing but TV fakery all their lives. It’s sad too, because if anyone needs something to believe in, it’s NASCAR fans. And it’s being ripped away from them by the motherfuckers.
So what will/should happen now? I don’t know. But I really believe that people know—even the WWF fans know—that life is precious. That life and death aren’t something that you fuck with, that you sponsor, that you market, that you sell. NASCAR fans may be rather uneducated. NASCAR fans may be unpolished. But they aren’t sickos. They’re hurt and a lot of them are going to walk away. A lot of them are going to say that this has gone too far. A lot of them are going to want the motherfuckers to back the fuck off and let the sport be what it is, not continue to try and twist it into Survivor in Cars.
One of the biggest reasons why NASCAR is so popular is that it hadn’t become a made for TV crap-spectacle in the same fashion as other pro sports leagues. Not as bad anyway. It was still somewhat honest, in that the people who participated in it were real. The owners were real. The cars were real. It wasn’t the WWF, the XFL, the NBA, or something created to make people rich. It had pure motivations—a love of thrills, speed, danger. So when you hear people explain Dale’s death away with that famous phrase of his, “That’s just racin’,” ask yourself if that’s really true. Is NASCAR just racin’, or is it a bunch of motherfuckers lining their pockets with whatever they can get their hands on?