I Lost my Favorite Punch Line
by Jon McClintock, SFX
The Earnhardt Connection
(February 25, 2001)
"No, no, Earnhardt's not dead! That's God. He
just thinks He's Earnhardt."
I loved that stupid joke about stock car racing in
Heaven. Maybe it's a comment about fans of Hisself that we enjoyed the imbedded slap at
Earnhardt's arrogance as much as his detractors.
Now God is the victim of His own Silly Season, looking for a
new ride in that never-ending competition between Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Fireball
Roberts and others.
I'm a little lost, too - watching this week's practice times
and race running-order crawl across the TV screen, always reminded there isn't a black 3
There isn't a Dale Earnhardt anymore. An American Original is
gone. The Ironhead I emulated....the man who taught us so much about The Will To Win.
The record book is closed. Suddenly that burning passion I
felt for Himself eclipsing DW's 84 career wins isn't so important. The 8th Championship
might have always bothered me, but then Bill France, Jr. settled the Debate of The Giants
in a single clause: Dale Earnhardt was NASCAR's greatest driver.
I'm sorry, Richard. You didn't have the good fortune of going
out in a whale of a way. You've given us a wonderful family and four lifetimes of
memories. But Earnhardt left us at the very instant he finished imparting one of the many
life lessons I took from his career.
I'm sorry, too, for all the fans who hurt so bad after
Daytona. Oh I've cried more than my share; I lost a week of my life in a haze of disbelief
and pain - a pain worse than I ever knew. (Sorry Dad, but you would have loved Earnhardt,
too.) God bless those writers who struggled through tears to report without a pause for
pain, who still haven't seen an end to SpeedWeeks.
The reporters, while exhausted, may have been lifted by an
out-of-body feeling that numbs when you're covering something awful. It helped me during
marathon reporting about Davey and Alan's passing, or the Ernie Irvan vigil. One gets into
such a groove - always rewriting or looking for the latest angle - and there's not much
time left to feel. That can be good.
The fans... No matter where you live, you've no doubt been
surprised at the extent of continuing coverage of Dale's passing. Your neighbors no longer
have to ask why you have a number on your pickup truck or car. The width, if not depth, of
interest in NASCAR racing surprised even the most cynical of us. And it's the newer fans
to the sport - especially those who decided to especially love or hate Dale Earnhardt -
with whom I have special empathy.
I can't imagine what it was like to learn - for the first
time over the long, last week - that you'd missed the opportunity to see an artist at work
year after year; that there really was some awesome substance to this thing called
You can't imagine the glee and anticipation some of us
diehard lovers of Hizzelf brought to the TV set and grandstands on Sundays. We'd memorized
Hisownself's moves. Half the joy of being an Earnhardt fan was anticipating when He'd
split through a two-wide at Bristol rather than wait, passing under-braking at WGI or
SPIR, and diving low in turn 1 at Daytona, Talladega and Pocono mornings promised an
impossibly brilliant pass at the end. At Darlington and Rockingham, you just KNEW someone
passing Earnhardt high in the turns would find Earnhardt passing him back three seconds
This guy was a magician. In later years, His supremacy was
apparent in reading and righting an ailing car's woes. We fans were getting used to Dale
starting from deep in the field and knew, as a matter of faith, that He would be a
top-five contender shortly past the crossed flags.
I was asked in a TV interview "Why were Earnhardt fans
so fiercely loyal?" The obvious answer would be something about admiration for his
image as One Tough Customer, the first moniker from the Wrangler car days.
"All of us saw something in Earnhardt that we either
identified with, or wished was a part of our own character," said I. "He was
doing things on the track we wished we had the courage to do in our daily lives. He knew
what He wanted, knew how to get there, and was absolutely miserable if he didn't pull it
off. We were miserable, too."
I'm quoting myself because we're talking about the very
foundation of why I loved the guy. It's very personal. His confidence was my confidence.
It's something I incorporated into my personality - perhaps my character, over the years.
Dale called it The Will To Win and it manifested itself in racing to win at nearly any
cost. It's one of the reasons I've never felt much attracted to team sports. An individual
can have values and goals and be motivated by them; a team will always have a weak link
over which the team has no control.
Earnhardt had one helluva team, but they were an extension of
one incredibly motivated man.
This is where others have told you about Him fleeing an
ambulance upon noticing the black 3 was only mildly damaged and sitting on four good
tires. It's the spirit that empowered his team to change a transmission in nine laps in
that ohsoclose 1990 Championship year to salvage a few points.
It was a lesson in perseverance that we could only try to
comprehend week after week. Earnhardt had to win the 1989 Atlanta finale and lead most
laps to hope to beat Rusty Wallace for the Championship. He did his part; Rusty, some say
sadly, did his. Ironhead's no-apologies style was outrageous and splendid, and in two of
my several lives (as a political consultant and as a reporter) I watched, learned and
emulated. Week after week I'd return to class on Sunday for a refresher course, and rarely
left without enlightenment.
School dismissed on February 18, 2001, but unlike other
institutions this was no "Casual Friday" or day when you watch the clock until
the final bell.
Earnhardt saved one of his biggest lessons for last. Perhaps
The Teacher understood it was time, that we were ready for a new Earnhardt, one who had
aged and was planning his own elegant exit from the driver's seat into the more sedate
life of team owner. The only thing he got wrong was the length of the exit.
We saw Hisself, ten laps to go in the Daytona 500, making
that wonderful black 3 as wide as he always did. Old-timers saw the finish evolving. At
first it was unbelievable, the notion that He wasn't looking for a line to push Him to the
front; rather he was holding back the flood.
He was as reckless as ever, guarding the lead of his #1 and
#15 cars like a mama bear, shutting down ambitious drivers behind him in a ruthless way.
It was an incredible sight, the driving and moves as outrageous as his early years. Any
mere mortal would have wrecked with seven to go.
But on He pushed, fast as He had to be, slow as He could. The
man who more than once crashed Himself and others going for the win was presenting a final
lesson. One Tough Customer was One Tough Team Player. None of us saw THAT coming.
Thank God Earnhardt was so good in the air that no one (else)
was hurt. Thank God for taking all of the man who slammed the wall that day. A hobbled
Earnhardt, aging and debilitated, just wouldn't do.
And thank you, God, for a moment in time amid all the noise
and bustle, when we saw the love of a couple and their last kiss.
Thank you for Dale Earnhardt.
And good luck in that never-ending stock car race in Heaven.
You'll need it.
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
e c t i o n
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