The media is great at remembering anniversaries, mostly because those dates give us something to write about. Just recently there were articles commemorating the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, and about President Reagan's 100th birthday. This past weekend brought us another such reminder: 10 years have passed since stock-car racing giant Dale Earnhardt was killed in a wreck during the last turn of the 2001 Daytona 500.
As someone unfamiliar with the finer points of auto racing, I sought help understanding from a friend, the pride of Morristown, Tennessee, fantasy author D.A. Adams (check out his Brotherhood of Dwarves on Amazon). An avowed racing fan, Adams once spent a summer working in souvenir sales on the NASCAR circuit. We went to the University of Memphis together. (Go Tigers!) To my surprise, Adams had some harsh words for racing. "To me, in the last 20 years NASCAR turned its back on hardcore fans," Adams said. "Look at Darlington Speedway, one of the most historic tracks in America. Darlington was always sold out. But instead of focusing on competition, (NASCAR) just ask, how many people can we fit inside the fence? They kept chasing the dollar." Darlington, which seats 75,000, lost one of its two Sprint Cup Series races, the Southern 500, held every Labor Day weekend since 1950, to the larger Auto Club Speedway, in California. Adams likened this NASCAR trend to NHL teams leaving Canada to play in large, Southern American cities. (I guarantee, someone in Winnipeg is still crying in their Labatt's Blue over the Jets relocating to Phoenix.) "It's great for a few years, but then it wears off, because the south isn't hockey country," Adams said.
But the south is NASCAR country, and the allure of the #3 car hasn't faded since that terrible last turn in Daytona. Why? According to Adams, it's because Earnhardt represented a blue-collar sensibility shared by NASCAR fans. "Dale Earnhardt never had shit. He grew up as poor as could be," Adams explained. "He came from nothing, and yet he had this iron will that he was going to be successful. People just admired that. The tenacious, I am going to win mentality. To half the fans he was the hero, to the other half he was the villain.
"He's the icon of what (fans) wished they could do with their own lives, and the people who hated him hated him for the same reason. He put people in the stands," Adams said. To him, Earnhardt's determination to win can only be likened to another sports icon, Michael Jordan. "I know that sounds nuts, but it's true," Adams said. "If you and Michael Jordan are both walking to a bus stop, Jordan is going to get there before you. He's going to make sure of it. It was the same way with Earnhardt. If you were leading a race with three laps to go, and he was behind you, everybody — the drivers, the people in the stands, the commentators — everybody knew that he would do anything he had to do to win that race.