Friday, May 8, 2009

A black-letter day

Feb. 18, 2001 started innocently enough with the preparation for the Daytona 500. I regularly watched the Great American Race on TV back then, partly to see if Dale Earnhardt would win it again. I don't know that I was a big Earnhardt fan, but I'd met the man and written about him for newspapers, magazines and web sites. And I'd written a book — Racing Families: A Tribute to Racing's Fastest Dynasties — with Dale on the cover.

But 2/18/01 would be memorable.

It's well documented. On the last lap of the 500, Earnhardt was running third behind his two Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers, Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr. Earnhardt plowed into the turn-four wall as his drivers headed toward the finish line.

For long minutes I watched tensely as they talked to Mikey and Junior and others on TV. It looked like an innocent crash, but I'd seen such crashes before. One year at Talladega, Jimmy Horton and Stanley Smith crashed. Horton's was spectacular, as his car sailed over the wall. Smith's looked like a fender-bender. Horton was almost unhurt, and Smith nearly died. He never raced again.

On top of that, I remembered Neil Bonnett's 1994 crash in the same spot. It was similarly unspectacular, and Neil died.

Darrell Waltrip talked absently on TV, hoping that Dale was all right. But I was worried. The crew was so slow getting Earnhardt out of the car, and the ambulance seemed unhurried en route to the hospital.

A friend of mine — a big Michael Waltrip fan — called because he knew I was one of the few people he could enjoy the moment with. A half hour or so later, my wife called and said that TV was reporting that Earnhardt was dead. I called my friend back, and he argued that Earnhardt COULDN'T be dead.

A few minutes later, the TV station I was watching announced Earnhardt's death. I went into the bedroom, sat on the bed, and cried.

But I didn't have time to mourn. The sports editor of the local newspaper asked me to write a story about Earnhardt. Did I know any big-time drivers not in Daytona? I told him that Buddy Baker had lost his TV gig and was at home in the Charlotte area. I called Buddy, and his wife said he had locked himself in a room to mourn alone, but she'd ask. A few minutes later, Buddy came to the phone and said sadly, "How ya doin', partner?"

We talked for 20 minutes or so — it was therapeutic for both of us — and I quickly wrote the newspaper story. Then I went back to mourning.

A few days later, several family members were eating together at a restaurant — great fish and chips — but I was sitting quietly. One of the women put her arm around me to console me. She thought I was thinking about Dale. Maybe I was; I don't remember.

But I had little time to mourn. I learned that Cumberland House Publishing wanted to add an Earnhardt entry to its series of books about late, great athletes. They'd had writers do interviews with friends and colleagues of greats like Walter Payton, Pistol Pete Maravich and others.

That led to two months of intense interviews and story collecting about the Man in Black. The series was always positive in its portrayal of the athletes, so I didn't focus a lot on Earnhardt's rough reputation. I did have some stories about the shark-in-the-water aspect of Dale, but lots of them came out funny. The book was published in late 2001 as "I Remember Dale Earnhardt."

I went through the process again in 2007 when I updated IRDE, and it became "Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr."

Some days Earnhardt was likable. He'd grab your arm and share a laugh with you. Other days he'd totally ignore you. You never know which Dale would come around the corner.

I no longer watch NASCAR races from flag to flag. Sometimes I don't even turn the TV on. I didn't watch the Daytona 500 this year. Who cares about it? It's no fun without Earnhardt.

Sometimes I get confused and think that he's still alive, but those moments are quick and fleeting. But, in a way, my musings are correct; he's still here. He's alive in my head and in the heads and hearts of fans and all of those who knew him.

Today I thought of him again. Eight years and counting.

(This is a reprint of a blog entry I wrote on Feb. 18, 2009, the eighth anniversary of Earnhardt's death.)

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

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