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February 21, 2001


Column
By April Murphy
The Jackson Herald
February 21, 2001

Remembering the legendary Dale Earnhardt
The racing world sat in silence Sunday evening after news of the unthinkable made the airwaves.
One of NASCAR's most famous drivers, seven-time Winston Cup Champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., died following injuries sustained in an accident on the final lap of the 43rd running of the Daytona 500.
The news came only hours after the crash at Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla., as NASCAR president Mike Helton stood before the media announcing, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."
Lost Dale Earnhardt? How could this have happened? I thought, as I sat and listened to Dr. Steve Bohannon, Emergency Medical Services Director at Daytona, explain how emergency units found him (Earnhardt) unconscious and without a pulse.
"... He had what I feel were life-ending type injuries at the time of impact and really, nothing could be done for him," Bohannon said.
His death came only moments before teammates Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line taking first and second places. Ironically, the car Waltrip took to victory lane was one of three cars owned by Earnhardt and was the newest addition to his multi-car operation. Earnhardt had hired Waltrip to drive for the new team this season.
"The only reason I won this race was because of Dale Earnhardt," Waltrip said. "I was just so looking forward to doing well for him."
Battling Ken Schrader and Sterling Marlin for third position, Earnhardt's Monte Carlo seemed to have gotten loose, touching Marlin's machine and sending him (Earnhardt) hard into the outside wall of turn four at a speed of 180 miles per hour. The accident, also collecting Schrader, took place only a quarter mile from the finish line.
"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever," said NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. "And I personally have lost a great friend."
The fatal wreck came seven years after Earnhardt's best friend, Neil Bonnett, was killed during a practice session at the Daytona track only a few hundred feet away.
Now, as race fans celebrate the first career win of a familiar face in what's considered the "Super Bowl" of racing, we will also mourn the loss of a great driver. A tragic loss that still seems too unreal to be true.
A native of Kannapolis, N.C., Dale was the son of Ralph Earnhardt, NASCAR's 1956 Sportsman Division champion. He grew up around stock cars and developed a tenacious driving style much like his father's.
Known for his aggressiveness and the way he used his bumper out on the track, Earnhardt's driving tactics earned him the nickname "The Intimidator." Though not a man of many words, Earnhardt spoke through his deeds on the race track, gaining the respect of many fellow drivers and race fans alike.
Out of 676 Winston Cup starts, Earnhardt claimed 76 victories and 281 top five finishes in his full 22 seasons on the Winston Cup circuit. He also set a record of having 34 wins in all forms of racing at the Daytona track, more than any other driver.
In 1998, in his 20th career start and on NASCAR's 50th anniversary, Earnhardt won his biggest victory, the one he wanted most of all - the Daytona 500. He was considered the most prolific super speedway driver in NASCAR.
Earnhardt, 49, leaves behind his wife, Teresa, and four children, Kerry, Kelley, Taylor and Dale Earnhardt Jr. He would have celebrated his 50th birthday on April 29.
Though it was Dale's final lap of his racing career, I believe drivers as well as race fans would agree, he died doing what he loved best.
Having visited the 2.5 mile tri-oval for the first time last week, I had the opportunity to see several famous faces of NASCAR, one of which was Dale Earnhardt. I watched as he walked to his No. 3 machine, stopping along the way to talk and cut up with others around him. This wasn't the same man I remembered from the race track, the one who had earned the reputation of a selfish, dirty driver.
No, what I saw instead was the man off the track, the side of Earnhardt many didn't know and one I began to have great respect for. As he prepared to qualify for the Daytona 500, before entering his car, I remember the way he looked to the crowd and smiling big, jokingly motioned for us to cheer him on, as if he needed our help!
His fellow drivers spoke of him as a "gentle, kind-hearted man." In a recent interview with Darrell Waltrip, Earnhardt said he just "wanted everyone to be happy and sometimes that meant being a little bit of a push over." That's almost hard to believe coming from a man who seemed to rule the tracks of NASCAR.
Though the sport must go on, I can't help but think that racing just won't be the same without the black No. 3 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt. Words can not describe the emotion felt in the hearts of many at this time. His tragic death will definitely leave a void in the family of Winston Cup racing.
Being the wife of a race car driver, I know the excitement, as well as the dangers involved in the sport of racing. You can prepare weeks in advance for an upcoming event, but nothing can really prepare you for a tragedy such as this - whether it be the loss of a local short track driver or a legend such as Earnhardt.
Those who participate in the sport take a chance each time they get behind the wheel of a race car. Some might ask, "Why take such a risk?" Well, that's a question only a driver can really answer. But, after watching my husband, David, it seems to be a passion that drives him, a love for the sport of stock car racing, and a sport I have come to greatly respect.
Whether race fans liked or disliked Earnhardt, I think everyone would agree that he was one of the greatest drivers ever to sit behind the wheel of a race car. He was a dynamic individual - a legend in the sport of racing.
Earnhardt, you will be greatly missed, but certainly never forgotten.
April Murphy is an employee of MainStreet Newspapers.

Column
By Tim Thomas
The Jackson Herald
February 21, 2001


So long, Intimidator
This week's tragic incident that claimed the life of NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt has no equal in the history of any sport, nor will it likely ever.
Other sports have lost men who had icon potential or who enjoyed modest success, as has this grand racing series. Fireball Roberts, Alan Kulwicki, Adam Petty and a host of others come to mind.
Never before, though, has a loss of this magnitude pounded the sports world. It's the racing equivalent of losing a Jordan or a Cobb or a Gretzky while their careers still held promise.
Perhaps it's the independence of racing, the focus of media attention on the individual rather than the team, that makes the loss of an Allison or Petty or Earnhardt so devastating to race fans ­ makes us mourn with their families more than in any other sport. It's much easier for a fan to relate to that black No. 3 than to the 23 on a Chicago Bulls jersey because when the pace car pulls in, only one person can step on the accelerator.
Race fans either loved or hated The Intimidator, and I must admit to having been in the latter camp. That is, until I heard a story recently about Earnhardt's faith.
Evangelist Ken Chupp made a visit to a local church recently, and told of meeting Earnhardt last spring at a nearby shopping mall. He stood in line with a number of other fans, patiently waiting for an autograph.
Chupp related to the audience how he felt impressed to ask Earnhardt where he stood with his Maker. The young preacher fought the urge, but did his duty in the end.
"Can I ask you a question?" Chupp inquired.
"Sure," replied the man in black.
"Are you a Christian?"
In the midst of the autograph, Earnhardt stopped and looked up. Chupp was worried he might be escorted out.
"Yeah," came the response, accompanied by a smile, "I know the Lord."
As the two spoke, Chupp said he saw a side of The Intimidator that doesn't show on television, the side that many of his NASCAR colleagues have spoken of in recent days.
The incident still didn't make an Earnhardt fan out of this writer, but it did somewhat ease that grating feeling I'd had when seeing the black Monte Carlo up front.
So why bring up this story?
The notion that The Intimidator lives on and the belief that The Creator knows what He's doing is what will bring comfort to both Earnhardt's family and his fans.
"Its was just God's will," responded former driver and current commentator Ned Jarrett when asked about the accident.
NASCAR King Richard Petty may have summed it up better when asked about the sudden death of grandson Adam last spring.
"You can't put a question mark where God has put a period."
Earnhardt's life was more than a mere statement, and The Almighty has justly chosen to end it with an exclamation point.
One day, I hope to tell him it was the racing style I hated, and not the man. But just between you and me, it was often difficult to walk the line.
So long for now, Intimidator.
Tim Thomas is a reporter for The Jackson Herald. He may be reached at 367-2348, or via email at SpeckCh@aol.com.

 

 

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