CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Column By Race Chaser Online Senior Editor Tom Baker — Jonathan Ferrey /Allsport via Getty Images photo —
It has been 15 years since Mike Joy told the nation on a special FOX broadcast following the 2001 Daytona 500 that “NASCAR’s compass has lost its true north.”
Those words still grip me. I’m not sure if he was referring to NASCAR itself or to its fans when he said those words, but I think they had equal meaning to both.
Dale Earnhardt lost his life in the “Great American Race”, NASCAR lost an icon and a portion of NASCAR’s fan base lost their connection forever.
Let me digress for a bit to give you some personal background so that my perspective here will make more sense to you.
I grew up almost as far north of the Mason-Dixon Line as you could get without going to Canada. I loved NASCAR from the first time I saw it on TV in the 70’s, when ABC’s Wide World of Sports would show part of the races between other crazy sports segments.
That was before the infamous 1979 Daytona 500 finally got live flag-to-flag coverage of races off to a supercharged start when Cale Yarborough started pounding Bobby Allison’s fist with his nose.
I kept up with all the insider gossip thanks to Winston Cup Scene and National Speed Sport News. I was an avid reader of anything racing, and always wanted to know what was going on. I came from a family of race fans who encouraged me to enjoy my passion from a young age.
I loved Richard Petty’s accent, and Charlie Daniels’ song Carolina I Remember You painted a most charming picture of the South that impacted me in a profound way. I wondered what it would be like to go to all those NASCAR tracks to watch those cars run every weekend.
I remember telling my mother in a conversation at our kitchen table one time when I was 15 years old that I wanted to live in North Carolina by the time I was 35.
I have no idea why I picked 35. Maybe because I thought it would give me 20 years to “work the plan”. I was always the calculating sort, but back then I had no vision of what I was going to do with my life. I just knew that I loved racing. Any kind of racing. The Oswego Supermodifieds were my first love (and still are) and the Indy 500 was my favorite national-level race of the year (and still is). But I’d watch anything they put on TV or that I could get to around my area.
When it came to NASCAR, as the old guard of the ’70s slowly gave way to the new breed of the ’80s, I quickly decided there was one driver whose front bumper I was totally allergic to: Dale Earnhardt.
I couldn’t stand his driving style. Who was this sourpuss with the mustache who would spin you or put you in the wall in order to beat you?
I watched the infamous Richmond race and watched him violently wreck Darrell Waltrip (and himself, and other cars) and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Why does he not get black flagged for this? Why does NASCAR allow this type of racing?
Even more incredibly, I couldn’t believe the fans actually liked and approved of this madness. See, I grew up at Oswego Speedway, with open-wheel, open cockpit Supermodifieds. You didn’t dare use a bumper or touch wheels in those cars, because injury or death could result. I couldn’t imagine this kind of over-aggressive driving being acceptable to anyone.
Now you know why I wanted to explain my background first.
I simply had no idea there was a world of short track racing out there where drivers had fenders instead of open wheels, and using the bumper was a way of life if you wanted to pass your way through a field.
As I started to understand more about “racin’ in the south”, I wanted to someday experience it.
At the time that Dale died, NASCAR’s executives had already been well into executing their vision of transforming the sport from a southern sport to a national sport. Dale was the last of the “good ol’ boys”, a down-home southern gentleman who put on his race face on Sundays and then got up on Monday morning and went back to feeding his chickens on the farm.
He wasn’t a “full-time” racer who lived a lavish lifestyle with huge houses and jaunts to New York City and the kind of polished image that is required today by corporate entities who keep the sport alive.
He was a part-time racer — one whose idea of a vacation was going off with team owner Richard Childress to hunt big game somewhere, or going to catch some fish.
But back then, living up in Mets country, I knew nothing about Dale as a person. I only knew what I saw on Sundays.
I was ignorant of the fact that a whole other generation of fans raised in the South saw a whole different type of racing at their local short tracks than I did at mine. They grew up seeing drivers do every Friday and Saturday what I saw Dale do on Sunday.
Then a funny thing happened. I got my wish. It took me 25 years instead of 20, but I made it to North Carolina and NASCAR country and started going to all those tracks I’d seen the “big boys” race at on TV.
I went to Bowman Gray Stadium, and I immediately understood.
One simply does not go to Bowman Gray Stadium and not immediately understand how racing is done in the south, or the mindset of a southern race fan.
Having lived in NASCAR country for the better part of ten years now, I feel truly blessed to say that I’ve been able to expand my racing horizon and experience what life is like in the south. I love it, and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Working for Greenville-Pickens Speedway, one of the South’s most historic NASCAR tracks, I’m excited to be able to play a small part in re-introducing some of that history and, hopefully, explaining to a whole new generation of fans and drivers why they should get to know it and respect it.
These tracks down here are hallowed ground for me. If their walls could talk, oh the stories they could share…
I now understand why Dale drove how he did. I have seen the type of racing he grew up with, and I kn0w that it was far more rough-and-tumble in his era of learning than it is now. Back then, drivers like Dale drove to feed their family. You weren’t out there to make friends. You were out there to make money to keep the lights on and food on the table.
I respect it for what it was, and what it is. I am part of the South now, and I am thankful for it. I’m happy to say, “I get it now,” in a way that I couldn’t before because I didn’t know the “why”.
Dale was the last of the true southern heroes of that era. He represented himself in a way that everyone could relate to. Work hard all week, and then win on the weekend. He was the motorsports “Marlboro Man”.
Having Dale as the face of NASCAR in a time when its top brass was exposing it to an audience very different from that of a true southerner helped it stay more anchored to its roots, even while drivers from other parts of the country were becoming big names.
When Dale died in that tragic crash, NASCAR really did lose the anchor that kept it moored to the South no matter where else it went on a weekend.
We still had other Southern drivers, but none of them could measure up to Dale’s persona and level of accomplishment. Not even Dale Jr.
I’ve always felt for Junior because he had to grieve the loss of his father so publicly. I’m sure that back then he must have almost immediately realized that now everyone was going to expect him to in some way carry on the family legacy and live up to his father’s accomplishments. I cannot begin to imagine the pressure that would put on a person but it had to be a very heavy load to bear.
It appears that in the past few years, he’s been able to finally make some sort of inner peace with his life and begin to just enjoy the sport again, and I think his performance and his personality reflects that. I’m happy for him.
NASCAR has never been able to replace Dale in the minds of the core southern fan base. Many of those fans still watch NASCAR, but they just don’t get as excited about it anymore.
NASCAR drivers are different now. They’re full-time racers. They’re not farmers. They’re not from the south, and many of them enjoy a lifestyle that doesn’t look like Dale’s. The sport is different. The people in charge are different.
Core fans perceived Big Bill France as a hero of sorts for bringing the sport to prominence, but now we have the Chase and the Charter and the Caution Clock, and those things aren’t of the sport’s roots.
The amount of money it takes to field a successful NASCAR team is different. When Dale was growing up, you didn’t always start in racing at age five. You started in your teens when you got a license.
There weren’t all the little cars to race back then that we have now. like quarter-midgets and legends cars and go-karts. Oh, some of those types of racing existed back then, but they weren’t as well known. They also weren’t really thought of as a way to get to NASCAR yet. Jeff Gordon would eventually change all that, and not all long-time fans thought that change was for the better.
When Dale Earnhardt died, he took the “good ol’ boy” NASCAR persona with him. Not even another good ol’ boy could ever replace him, because he was that much larger than life for many, and he earned every bit of that respect and appreciation because of who he was in his life and how he carried himself.
Through my ongoing NASCAR history lessons, I’ve come to deeply respect Dale as a person. I’ve come to respect him as a father and a man who was not some cartoon superhero, but a real man no more or less flawed than the rest of us who worked hard every day to feed his family and do what it takes to succeed.
He impacted others lives with his passion, his sense of humor and his love for people. What he did on the track was just business. He played rough, and won tough. That’s who he was, like it or not.
You don’t see “every man on every crew” (another brilliantly poignant Mike Joy observation) coming out to pit road to congratulate every Daytona 500 winner, and that about says it all right there.
NASCAR misses Dale Earnhardt as much today as it ever has, and the truth is, nobody could ever again be a singular face of the sport, because the sport is now too big and diverse for one person to accurately represent it.
For many, Dale’s passing left them unable to get past that grief and unable to any longer identify with the sport they grew up loving. Although his death triggered a series of much needed safety innovations and Junior’s own persona has taken on a larger form as he has become more relaxed and allowed his humor and southern charm to prevail, there is still a void that can never quite be filled.
Charlie Daniels expressed it beautifully in his song High Speed Heroes:
Dale Earnhardt took the long ride.
But he didn’t go alone.
He just drove off into glory, and the angels took him home.
Hear the whole song below…
It’s sure to bring back memories of a most special time in the sport we love, and the men who made it what it is today.
Now, with all that said, it’s been 15 years since that day, and we’re gearing up for the race Dale loved so much once again … with smiles on our faces and fond memories in our hearts.
And I’m willing to bet, if the ‘Man in Black’ could say something to us now — he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Let’s go racing!
The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Race Chaser Online, Speed77 Radio, the Performance Motorsports Network, their sponsors or other contributors.
About the Writer
Tom Baker is the Owner and Senior Editor of Race Chaser Online, as well as creator of the Stock Car Steel/SRI Motorsports Show — airing Thursdays at 7 p.m. Eastern on the Performance Motorsports Network.
With 28 years of motorsports media, marketing and managerial experience, Baker serves as coach and mentor for several next generation racers, as well as Race Chaser’s passionate lineup of rising motorsports journalists.
Email Tom at: AskCoachTom@carolina.rr.com
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