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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

New York Times Speed Show

How NASCAR Won the Heart of America

New York Times

Dave Caldwell



Chapter One
February 18, 2001
"It's What We Do"
The pack of stock cars, their engines growling, had circled the racetrack 199
times. Nearly half the cars still on the track had been crumpled in a
spectacular wreck that left skid marks on the pavement. It had been a long,
tough race. There was just one more lap-two and a half miles-to go.
The Daytona 500 is the biggest stock car race there is, and about 175,000
people were at the track that sunny Sunday afternoon. Golden sunlight
streamed through a window in the crowded media center on the speedway
infield. I got out of my chair and stood at a television monitor, ringed by other
newspaper reporters, to watch the last lap.
Michael Waltrip was going to win the race, and it would be a good story.
Waltrip was thirty-seven years old and had never won a Nascar Winston Cup
race (the racing series is now called the Nextel Cup). He was going to win for
his new boss, the seven-time driving champion Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt
drove a car owned by Richard Childress. But five years earlier he had started
his own racing team, made up of cars driven by Waltrip, Steve Park, and his
twenty-six-year-old son, Dale Jr., all formidable drivers.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. chased Waltrip around the last turn of the racetrack, but
he was too far behind his teammate to catch him. All Waltrip needed to do
was cross the finish line. Then he could celebrate the greatest day of his
Waltrip's older brother, Darrell, a former Winston Cup champion, was a
commentator on the telecast of the race. Darrell had been a chatterbox
during his driving career and was still one as an announcer. He admired his
younger brother, a tall man with a thatch of wavy brown hair and a quick wit.
The volume of the television was turned up in the media center so we could
listen to Darrell. We all expected him to say something poignant or funny.
Suddenly the camera cut away from Waltrip's car. Dale Earnhardt, driving his
familiar black Chevrolet with the slanted white number 3 painted on the sides
and roof, thumped into the wall, along with a yellow number 36 car driven by
Ken Schrader. Several reporters gasped.
Wrecks sometimes unfold on the last laps of races as the drivers make a
last bid for extra points in the drivers' standings, not to mention prize money.
But it was unusual for Earnhardt to wreck now. He was ensured a good
finish, and, besides that, the driver of one of his cars was going to win the
race. Earnhardt rarely crashed-he seemed to know just where to poke the
nose of his car to gain position while staying out of trouble.
The camera cut back to Michael Waltrip's blue Chevrolet. He had just won
his first race. Waltrip had driven in 462 Winston Cup races over the last
sixteen years. If nothing else, he was persistent. He took a victory lap,
passing the accident scene, parked his car in Victory Lane, and pulled
himself out of its window, celebrating like almost every other winner of a
race-by raising his fists and whooping. The fans in the stands roared right
along with him.
Darrell Waltrip hollered over the airwaves: "Man, my daddy would be so
Such is the appeal of Nascar, short for the National Association for Stock
Car Auto Racing. Nascar is everywhere, on television sets in living rooms and
dens, because millions of people love it with a passion. It is probably best
known for its top racing series, now called the Nextel Cup, which travels from
racetrack to racetrack during a demanding thirty-six-race schedule.
The infield media center is a good place for reporters to cover a race,
because it's near the garages. After a race, every driver must drive his car to
the garage area so his crew can put the car on its tractor-trailer to take it
back to the team's shop. The winner of the Daytona 500 holds a news
conference in the press box above the tall grandstands, but reporters can
interview other drivers in the infield after the race. I wanted to interview Dale
Earnhardt, to get his reaction to Waltrip's victory. Earnhardt was not a driver
who liked to hang around the track, especially after races he did not win. So
after Waltrip crossed the finish line, I walked quickly to Earnhardt's tractor-
trailer and waited for him.
Earnhardt was stock car racing's biggest star-fans loved or hated him. He
had won seventy-six races and nearly $42 million as a stock car driver on the
Winston Cup series, but his success was only one of the reasons why fans
felt so strongly about him. There was something old-fashioned about Dale.
He was a millionaire, but he still seemed rough around the edges.
Dale Earnhardt grew up in Kannapolis, North Carolina, a town with a big mill
where they made sheets and towels. His father, Ralph, also raced cars, but
he was not as good as his son would become. Fans loved Dale's black car
and his brash style. They especially loved it when he beat Jeff Gordon, a
clean-cut driver from Indiana who was twenty years younger than Earnhardt
and had won three championships in the 1990s.
I expected Earnhardt to amble through the garage area at any moment. His
accident had not looked serious. He and Schrader had appeared to bounce
off the wall rather than plow into it. Earnhardt wore a white driving suit, and he
always pulled on a black or white baseball cap and wraparound sunglasses
after a race. I imagined he would smile through his mustache, which was
thick and bushy like a push broom. Maybe he hadn't won, but one of his
drivers had.
I had talked to Earnhardt two days before the race as he sat on a golf cart
outside his mobile home. Nascar officials had made some rule changes
about the aerodynamics of the cars, which they thought would make the
Daytona 500 more exciting. The officials decided that the best way to ensure
closer racing, with more competition for the lead, was actually to slow the
cars down. One of the major changes was to require the installation of a strip
of sheet metal, called a "blade," on the roof of the car, just behind the
windshield. The blade would create more wind resistance and make the cars
go slower. During two qualifying races three days before the Daytona 500,
the field stayed clumped together and there were, indeed, more lead
changes. Earnhardt liked Nascar's solutions.
"I want to be driving racecars to race them," he said.
As I waited for him after the race, I thought he'd be pleased. Earnhardt was
just about the only person who had believed in Michael Waltrip, who had
struggled for recognition from teams that were not as good as this one. I
thought Earnhardt might needle some people about that.
Ten minutes became twenty, then thirty. Earnhardt's crew silently gathered
all of his equipment and began to load it onto the truck. Earnhardt and his car
hadn't arrived. I realized he must have been hurt worse than I had thought.
Maybe he was at the hospital.
I had to return to the media center to write my story about the race for the
next day's New York Times. The audio from the postrace interview was piped
into the media center. As I listened to Michael Waltrip, he sounded
uncharacteristically subdued after the race. He was disappointed because
Earnhardt did not stop by Victory Lane to playfully grab him by the back of
the neck and give him a bear hug. Waltrip sounded as if he wanted to give
Earnhardt a bear hug, too.
"The only reason I won this race," Waltrip said, "was because of Dale
I opened my laptop and started writing. Time passed with no word on
Earnhardt. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the room seemed to get
quieter with each passing minute. No news, in this case, was definitely not
good news. I overheard another reporter make a call on his cell phone. He
spoke in a whisper.
"They said it was instant," he said.
Instant? Did that mean what I thought it meant? Did Earnhardt die instantly? I
stopped writing for a moment. More whispers came from other people around
the room: Nascar was going to make an announcement at seven p.m.
I called my editors to let them know what I was hearing. Another Times
reporter, Robert Lipsyte, who was seated in the press box, had done the
same thing. Waltrip's victory was becoming an afterthought. Had Dale
Earnhardt really been killed?
It seemed impossible to me. Not only was Earnhardt a champion driver, but
he also seemed indestructible. Sometimes he used his car to nudge other
drivers out of his way. He drove hard enough to have earned the
nickname "the Intimidator."
No way was Dale Earnhardt dead.
At seven o'clock, Mike Helton, who had become the president of Nascar the
previous November, lumbered into the media center. Dozens of television
cameramen trailed him. Helton, a big man with dark wavy hair and a thick
mustache, picked up a microphone and looked sadly at the reporters in the
packed media center. He seemed to be gazing at something far away before
composing himself. He began to speak slowly.
"This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements I've ever personally
had to make," Helton said slowly. "After the accident in turn four at the end of
the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."
Lost. Helton's announcement jolted me. I'd covered auto racing for more than
ten years, and I had seen my share of serious accidents, but no one had
died in a race I covered. And this was not just any driver who had been killed:
this was the reigning icon of the sport.
Helton seemed to be saying that the sport had lost much more than a great
competitor. He was reminding us that auto racing is extremely dangerous.
Even its toughest celebrity was not immune to the risks.
Earnhardt was killed instantly when his car hit the wall, a doctor said. He
was taken to a hospital, where he was soon pronounced dead. By the time
his death was announced, the speedway had all but emptied. After the press
conference, I called my editor again to find out my assignment. The Times
would run three stories the next day. Bob Lipsyte would write a news story
for the front page of the paper. I'd been writing for The Times for less than a
year, but I knew auto-racing stories rarely made the front page.
I would write about how the sweetest moment of Waltrip's career had been
overwhelmed by the news of Earnhardt's death. Then the editors said they
wanted me to write Dale Earnhardt's obituary. It was a hard story to write. He
was only forty-nine years old.
For the next few hours, I wrote faster than I ever had before.
At eleven-thirty, I left the media center, which was still filled with reporters,
feeling exhausted.
When I headed back to the racetrack early the next morning, it seemed like
a completely different place. Daytona International Speedway had been all
but deserted when I left Sunday night. Monday morning, there was a traffic
jam. It seemed everyone who was still in town wanted to pay tribute to
There is a big fountain outside the racetrack with a statue of Bill and Mary
France, the founder of Nascar and his wife, at the center. Earnhardt's fans
had come early and set memorials to him around the fountain.
There were flowers, Earnhardt T-shirts, posters, and signs, many handmade
and most including poetry. A man from New Jersey told me he had delayed
his trip home so he could place a poem at the makeshift shrine.
The race fan's eleven-year-old daughter had written the poem the night
before. She had called him from New Jersey and read it to him over the
phone. The next morning, he went to a drugstore near the track and bought a
big sheet of white poster board and a marker. He wrote down her poem, part
of which read, "He died doing what he liked best. Now it is time for our hero
to rest," and taped it to the fountain.
There would be a candlelight vigil later that night at the racetrack, during
which people would offer prayers for Earnhardt and his family. But many fans
did not want to wait until then.
By lunchtime, the area around the fountain was crowded. Hundreds ringed
the memorial, and many of them prayed. People in Daytona Beach bought up
every souvenir with Earnhardt's name or picture.
A woman strode toward the fountain as if it were the altar in a church and
dramatically dropped to one knee to say a prayer. A family formed a circle,
held hands, and prayed. A boy in the circle sneaked a peek at the Earnhardt
I don't think Earnhardt was all that religious. In fact, I think people liked him
because he was rough around the edges. He hadn't exactly grown up in a
poor household, but he had only an eighth-grade education and had fought
his way to the top.
Late that afternoon, a news conference was held in a big white tent at the
speedway. Helton walked in and said there would still be a race the following
Sunday in Rockingham, North Carolina. Earnhardt's car had been taken to a
secret place and was being examined for clues that might show what had
caused the fatal accident.
Officials already knew that Earnhardt had died of head injuries, particularly to
the base of his brain. Dr. Steve Bohannon, the director of medical services at
the speedway, was then asked if a support collar known as a HANS device
might have saved Earnhardt's life.
Bohannon said he could not answer. HANS (short for "head and neck
support") devices were relatively new. The HANS device is a collar that fits
over the back of the driver's head and collarbone and attaches to the seat.
Tethers connecting the helmet to the device are designed to keep the driver's
head and neck upright if the car is in a collision or stops suddenly. Earnhardt
hadn't liked newfangled things. He didn't even wear a full face helmet when
he drove-just a pair of black goggles that made him look more intimidating.
The news conference was televised on cable news channels and the tent,
packed with equipment and reporters, looked like a television studio. I
remember thinking that was unusual. Earnhardt was the most famous stock
car driver there was, but until he arrived on the scene, stock car racing had
not been such a big deal.
But things had changed overnight.
Nascar was rapidly developing national appeal. The 2001 season was the first
in which most races would be shown on two big television networks, Fox and
NBC. It would also be the first in which Nascar races were held at big new
racetracks outside Chicago and Kansas City, two Midwestern cities that had
not previously been part of Nascar's turf.
I was assigned to cover the race in Rockingham, where I arrived on a damp
and foggy Friday morning. A tent had been set up for another news
conference. Nascar officials said they had looked at the wreckage of
Earnhardt's car. His seat belt was broken. He might have lived if it had not
Richard Childress grimly said that a driver had been selected to replace
Earnhardt for this race and for the foreseeable future. Kevin Harvick was
twenty-five, but looked as if he had just graduated from high school. Childress
said Harvick could handle the pressure of driving the car that was intended for
Earnhardt. Harvick's main sponsor would be G. M. Goodwrench, as
Earnhardt's had been, but Childress decided to put Harvick in a car that was
painted white instead of black and carried the number 29 instead of
Earnhardt's famous number 3. Childress knew Harvick could handle only so
much pressure.
Then Michael Waltrip stepped up to the microphone and said he would test
the HANS device but not wear it in the next race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at
the news conference, too, speaking publicly for the first time since his
father's death.
Dale Jr., who had joined the Winston Cup series as a full-time driver only the
year before, had attended his father's funeral that Wednesday and a
memorial service in Charlotte the day before the race.
Sterling Marlin, a veteran driver, had been blamed by some race fans for
causing the crash. Marlin had tapped Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s car in a way that it
caused a spin. Dale Jr. said pointedly at the news conference that the crash
was not Marlin's fault.
With the help of Dale Jr., Nascar was slowly moving away from the accident.
The drivers had lost one of their own, a driver they admired and liked, but they
seemed determined to move on. The other driver who had been involved in the
accident, Ken Schrader, would be driving a new yellow car in the race at
Rockingham. He talked briefly in the garage area about the accident a week
earlier, but he seemed to want to concentrate on the race ahead.
It seemed strange to me that Schrader wanted to race so soon after a terribly
costly wreck. "It's what we do," he said solemnly.
Still, the memory of Earnhardt's death was everywhere. Every car in the race
bore a little sticker with the number 3 on it. Many crew members wore black
caps with number 3s, even if they were not from Earnhardt's crew.
Darrell Waltrip and his wife, Stevie, led a prayer over the public-address
system, and the race began. On the very first lap, Ron Hornaday hit Dale
Earnhardt Jr.'s car from behind. Earnhardt's bright red Chevrolet with the
tilting number 8s smacked the turn three wall. One wrecked car tends to
collect other cars that are trying to get out of the way. Cars began to swerve,
then spin like pinwheels, sending thick plumes of tire smoke into the air.
Besides Hornaday's and Earnhardt's, five other cars were also involved in the
The crash looked similar to the one that had killed Dale Sr. a week earlier.
The front of Dale Jr.'s car was pushed almost all the way in, too battered to
continue. The crowd stood, and it seemed as if every fan's neck was craned
toward turn three to see how bad the accident was. But Earnhardt quickly
climbed from the car and said he was fine. He promised he would race the
following week in Las Vegas.
Workers took nearly a half-hour to clear debris from the track. Then it began
to rain and the race was stopped. It would be completed the next day. A
week that had already been long and lousy seemed as if it would never end.
That Monday, February 26, was bright and sunny, but Nascar races that are
run on Mondays are not as exciting as weekend races. Most of the fans have
gone back to work. When the race resumed at eleven a.m., there were wide
gaps of empty seats in the aluminum grandstands.
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s rival, started the race in the pole position
and led with fifty laps left. Then he lost the lead to a yellow Chevrolet with
tilting red number 1s on the top and sides. Behind the wheel was Steve Park.
Park was thirty-three years old and from Long Island-not one of the drivers
who had grown up in the Southeast. But the owner of a Winston Cup team
had watched Park drive in smaller races and liked what he saw. The owner's
name was Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Bobby Labonte tried to pass Park several times in the last five laps. Once,
their cars brushed each other, but both drove on, and Park won the race. He
spun his car around so the driver's side window faced the grandstands, and
then he reached toward his gearshift.
Park had snapped a baseball cap around the base of the gearshift. It was
black, with a white number 3 on the front. Park held it out the window and
waved it at the fans. He said later that he was crying as he took his victory
lap. Park had driven in ninety-one Winston Cup races before Rockingham
and had won only once. But Earnhardt, who saw talent other car owners
might not have, had given Park the same chance he had given Michael
Waltrip. That Monday in Rockingham was emotional, but the emotions were
far different from the ones eight days earlier. Another race had been run, and
everyone was relieved. Jeff Gordon said that Park's victory was almost as
good as if Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won.
Gordon won the following weekend in Las Vegas, and Harvick, who
permanently replaced Dale Earnhardt Sr., won the week after that in Atlanta.
Gordon won his fourth Winston Cup championship. The stock car racing
world tilted back on its axis.
Nascar had not been ruined by Earnhardt's death. Before the accident on
turn four of the Daytona 500, Nascar had been well on its way to becoming a
phenomenon, but it was Dale Earnardt's accident that had pushed the sport
further into the jet stream of the American consciousness. In fact, more
people than ever started paying attention to the Winston Cup series. Dale
Earnhardt would have smiled through his push-broom mustache at that.