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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.
So this morning I DM’d Dave and asked him if he wanted to share a story or two about the other side of Dale. I first learned, to my surprise, that when it came to cash in his pockets, No. 3 was always running with an empty tank.
“Dale never had any money on him (or feigned he didn't) in the garage,” Dave recalled. "Fulton, loan me $5 for a hotdog," Earnhardt would say. Those "loans," it would turn out, were never repaid.
Everyone knows of Earnhardt’s hard-driving ways on the track. I even wrote in a story once that “Earnhardt’s approach to winning a race is very similar to Rambo’s approach to winning the Vietnam War.” But that wasn’t only on the track.
“Dale liked to pop you on the highway,” Dave said. “I was the recipient of a love tap driving the Wrangler Racing van from the Rockingham track to our Southern Pines motel on U.S. 1. ‘Wham!!’ Then a Lincoln Town Car pulled around me driven by a grinning Earnhardt.”
Ever been some place where you’re in the parking lot, there’s only one empty parking space and you and another car are moving toward it at the same time? Earnhardt took those situations personally too.
“I was riding with Dale and some crew members to dinner in Riverside, California. Dale pulled into the Cask & Cleaver restaurant parking lot and spotted the only empty parking space just as a car coming from other direction did,” Dave recalled. “Poor driver of the other car never stood a chance.”
Most people have heard the audio of Allen Iverson bemoaning having to practice, but as it turns out, there were days when practice wasn’t Earnhardt’s favorite thing either.
“It was October 1983 at Rockingham,” Dave said of one of those times Earnhardt didn't want to be running practice laps. “Dale (who hated to practice) intentionally ran Bud Moore's Ford into the turn 1 rail/wall causing enough damage to not to be able to practice anymore that day so he could go deer hunting.”
Practice, I can hear Earnhardt saying. We’re talking about practice.
Earnhardt’s tough side is what fueled his legend, and his fans loved it to the point they became legendary themselves. For example, if Dale was still alive and racing in Sunday’s Daytona 500, you know how you could tell the Earnhardt fans? They’d be the ones who never left during the lengthy rain delay. Both fan and driver alike were one tough group of customers.
But for all the talk about being tough, as the years went by, more and more stories would arise about Earnhardt’s softer side. Maybe he just mellowed with age, or maybe it was just a side he didn’t want the world to see.
“I got to see Dale's seldom-seen softer side,” Dave said. “When I was media relations guy at the Richmond track, I took Dale to Children's Hospital. I also arranged for a Make-A-Wish child to meet and have private time with Dale after a doctor from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York had called me. Dale had a couple rules in these situations. No PR before or after spending time with the young man and his family. It was about the kids.”
Years later after Fulton had left Wrangler and was heading up another race team’s marketing and special events, he remembers a call from Earnhardt.
“He called me into his SUV in the Atlanta track infield early one race day morning,” Dave explained. “He said I just wanted to thank you in front of Teresa (Earnhardt’s wife) for all the things you used to do that I didn't understand."
The Intimidator. One tough customer. A complex man who was a force that had its own unique personality and drove fans, other drivers and the sport forward. 20 years ago, his death left a huge hole that has to this day not been filled.
Fans miss him. Other drivers miss him. His family misses him
It's the sport itself, however, that misses him the most.