Don McLean once wrote a masterpiece of a song called “American Pie,” where it spoke of “the day the music died.”
For NASCAR fans, the day the music died was 20 years ago today, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap wreck at the Daytona 500. Fans didn’t know how bad the wreck was at first, but I immediately noticed a fear in the voice of broadcaster Darrell Waltrip, as veteran racers know when a wreck is really bad.
A few hours later, Mike Helton stood in front of a podium and emotionally announced that No. 3 was gone.
Twenty years later I’m not sure what I find harder to believe: That he’s been gone for two decades, or that two entire generations of fans have grown up never seeing him race. As is the case with all famous people once they pass away, anecdotal memories tend to make that person larger than life, almost mythical by comparison to ordinary people.
That’s certainly been done with Earnhardt, but he was never an easy one to label. He was at times a simple man that was easy to understand, at times quite complex. He WAS an intimidator, both on and off the track, and at least during the 5 years I covered racing in the early 1980s, could be either the nicest guy you’d ever meet, or one tough customer, depending on his mood.
One guy who had a front row seat for all this was Dave Fulton, who was the Manager for Wrangler NASCAR Special Events. I met Dave through Twitter, we’re both story tellers, and over the years it seemed like our stories overlayed each other’s to the point I’m now of the opinion we were in the same place something like 117 times, yet never met. We knew the same people, watched the same events, arrived at the same conclusions. We just weren’t aware of each other.