I’ve never been what you would call a NASCAR fan. Watching cars going around and around for two hours has just never appealed to me. As a cultural thing, the sport is one of the last remaining bastions of good-old-boy Dixie sensibility. I steered away from those stereotypes decades ago, back around the time I decided that country wasn’t cool.
But now that Dale Earnhardt is gone, I’m not sure what to think.
I might never even have found out about Earnhardt’s death if it weren’t for an extremely short spot I happened to hear on All Things Considered while I was making dinner, a full two days after the event. It wasn’t even an announcement, just one of the asides wedged in between the more substantial segments.
Dale Earnhardt was dead, killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. At first, I didn’t think I’d heard it right. I put down the knife I was using and leaned heavily on the counter. I remember thinking I should probably call my dad.
Dad was there, of course. Daytona is the NASCAR season opener — and the biggest event of the whole racing season. And frankly, for my Dad, it may be the greatest day of the year. Barring family illness, he’s been going to Speed Week every February since I can remember.
This year was supposed to be the best in a long while, with several up-and-coming drivers emerging to make the racing competitive all season. Most importantly to my father, however, Dale Earnhardt was looking for another championship — his eighth. Earnhardt is (was) my dad’s driver.
Then I realized that my father hadn’t called me as he always does after the 12-hour drive, to let me know he’s gotten home safely. He must be hurting.
Which leads me to my dirty little secret: Even though I’m a pinko, bleeding-heart liberal, I come from rural Appalachia, and stock-car racing is nothing new to me.
Both of my parents grew up poor in the mountains. Dad is from Fancy Gap, Va., one of many places in Appalachia where stock-car racing originated. As kids, Dad and my uncle L.D. used to hitch rides all the way to Wilkesboro to see the races there.
When I was a child (and my dad was the age I am now), stock-car racing was not as mainstream as it has become. Back then, MRN (the Motor Racing Network) was relegated to AM radio. The roar combined with the excited holler of the announcers and the staticky reception made the entire program sound like it was being broadcast from inside one of the race cars.
Sunday was race day. If he was working on the family car, Dad listened to the race on a portable radio reserved for that purpose. He wore a pair of Winston Cup radio earphones when he mowed the lawn. Later on, when races were shown more often on television, he would watch with the sound off and his radio on the end table. Dad said watching was fine, but the TV announcers just didn’t measure up.
Back then, I think Dad pulled for whoever was winning, especially if it was Richard Petty. But once Dale Earnhardt won his first championship, I expect my father followed car number three from there on out.
I think my dad and men like him strongly identified with Earnhardt. He drove a Chevrolet (my dad’s brand). He didn’t say much, and he seldom smiled for the camera. Instead, he let his driving do the talking.
Earnhardt’s nickname was The Intimidator. His detractors often called his driving overly aggressive. He bumped other drivers many times; he had no allies once the green flag was down. But to my dad, Earnhardt was a man who got the job done — consistently and well. He didn’t talk trash, didn’t throw punches or helmets. He was a winner.
I think Earnhardt was the kind of man Dad wanted to be. In fact, I suspect he was the kind of man Dad wanted me to be.
Dale Earnhardt was NASCAR racing, and now something’s missing forever. An incredible number of people are mourning. I’m mourning too, in some remote way. Perhaps I have a unique vantage point, coming from mountain stock and now living in the hairy center of Freakin’ Asheville. But for me, the tragedy has highlighed the cultural divide between new and old Appalachia. There is a rift — one that has deepened considerably here. And I’m surprised by which side of it I find myself on.
My wife bristled when she told me she’d heard snickers among her university colleagues; apparently, there are Earnhardt jokes circulating already. My wife loves her father-in-law, and to her, those remarks were slurs aimed at him. I’m just glad she didn’t punch anyone.
In my own circles, Earnhardt’s death is not so much a topic of discussion. NPR gave no significant update on the tragedy, other than a quick note on the memorial service in Charlotte. Bob Edwards’ voice displayed the flat tone usually reserved for foiled military coups in Africa.
Meanwhile, for nearly a week now, the country-music stations have been interrupting their programming to broadcast lengthy dedications to the fallen hero. I caught one long segment aired on a classic-rock station the other day. They played Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” and Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” behind shaky voices testifying to how big a hole there is in their lives now that Dale is gone. There were a lot of callers. Several of them were grown men, crying on the air. And it occurred to me that these were men not used to crying in public.
I haven’t had the chance to talk to my father yet. Honestly, it’s the classic male curse: I seldom know what to say to my father. I thought about sending him a card.
I called my mother. She said that he had just gone back to work as always, that he hadn’t really talked about it. But then, he hasn’t really talked at all; there’s a pall hanging over him.
She said it’s like a friend died.
I’m think I’m going to drive to Tennessee this weekend. The radio stations from Asheville always fade out when I get across the mountain. They’re racing in Rockingham on Sunday. Maybe I’ll listen to the AM station this time, take the long way … and stay a little longer when I get there.
[Martin Edwards is a free-lance writer who lives in Asheville.]