This year's Daytona 500 marks the 10-year anniversary of the great Dale Earnhardt's death. Dale was a friend—one of my heroes, one of my son's heroes, and a hero to millions of Americans. Like millions of NASCAR fans, I was watching the race that day, and like other Earnhardt fans, I considered his collision with the wall almost gentle—benign by NASCAR standards, and by the standards of what Dale had survived in the past. But the day ended in tragedy. Dale's life ended at the age of 49. He was the last NASCAR driver to die during competition, and the sport has never quite recovered from his loss. When he died, the New York and Washington-based mainstream media caught on to the size of his fan base and the outpouring of grieving across the country. Knowing I was a fan and a friend, the editor of TIME Magazine asked me to write an essay explaining Dale's appeal and attraction. Today, heading into race weekend and in Dale's memory, I am reprinting below what I wrote on my way home from Dale's funeral in North Carolina. I still miss him terribly.
The below originally appeared in the March 5, 2001 edition of TIME:
The Last Lap: No. 3 and Me
Millions of Americans, mostly in the red states, if you recall your election charts, lost a hero the instant the black car veered violently into the wall. Every major newspaper south of the Mason-Dixon Line rushed to put out a special section, while millions living north of that line wondered what the big deal was.
Dale Earnhardt left school in the ninth grade and entered his first race, legend has it, for grocery money. At the time of his death, his income had reached nearly $27 million a year. Mostly the money came from sales of merchandise: hats, jackets and the No. 3 logo sticker on the back of my family car that occasionally earns me a knowing honk and a wave from a like-minded fan, even during my blue-state commute to New York City.
Dale was a friend of mine. He visited my office, and I visited his. He even flew with my family to tracks throughout the South to watch him drive a car. We talked about our daughters, both the same age. His little girl hunts rabbits; mine plays hockey. The flowers and personal notes that piled up last week outside his headquarters briefly threatened to make him America's Diana with a push-broom mustache. News chiefs in their New York City offices were more than a little mystified by the clips of mourners weeping as if they'd lost their best friend. They had.
I've driven a Winston Cup stock car. They're unhinged monsters, all engine and frame and harnesses that were meant to prevent what happened to Dale. He once told me he hated how confining the modern car is; he liked the old days, his right arm slung over the backseat, steering with his left. And he hung onto as much of the past as he could, including the antique open-faced helmet that might have contributed to his death. But those who suggested the new style were subject to a stare that could pierce his mirrored sunglasses; real drivers--the rebels, the cowboys, the guys he looked up to, with names like Fireball Roberts and Tiny Lund--had a certain look.
Two years ago, my son asked Dale for permission merely to touch the fabled black machine before the start of a race at Talladega in Alabama. Dale loved the idea for the good luck it might bring him and insisted only that I bring my son to Victory Lane if he won. Cut to Dale holding the kid aloft, my son holding the trophy aloft--the whole giddy, heady scene captured in the photos I'm now left with.
Last week my son kept asking, "Is there any chance he'll just wake up and everything will be O.K.?" That's probably my fault. I may have told him once or twice that Dale Earnhardt would never die.