| As we pulled into the grocery store, ESPN radio emerged from commercial to tease us. Michael Waltrip was leading the Daytona 500 with less than a lap to go followed by the two Earnhardts. They then returned to commercial promising the results of the race on the other side. We went in to buy chicken and beer. (Yes, we are very, very trendy.)
Thus, when we checked the news on television later, we were naturally horrified and flabbergasted to learn of the death of Dale Earnhardt in a benign-looking crash on the final turn. It didn’t seem possible. Alas, as we hope that you do not take this the wrong way, Dale Earnhardt died well. He died the way legends die.
This is not Michael Jordan choking on the Washington Wizards or Elton John getting hacked up by an Eminem chainsaw. Nirvana’s Nevermind was voted the #2 rock-n-roll album of all time by VH1’s collective conscience, a feat that was never possible during Kurt Cobain’s lifetime. The crash will frame and end the career and life of the most significant driver in NASCAR’s history. And no, it’s not Richard Petty.
Earnhardt came along and pissed everyone off. He was to NASCAR what the Dallas Cowboys were to the NFL (without the sex tapes), someone to love or hate with relish. It was with the dominance of Earnhardt that NASCAR shot through the roof in popularity, something we elitist writer-types have often looked on with horror and derision. (Bristol? Darlington? Not swanky travel, if you ask us.) The fact is, NASCAR is significantly more popular than the NHL. The NBA needs to desperately improve its game or it will watch stock cars pass them by as well.
Fox, in their desperate attempt to take over every U.S. niche and fire every CNN employee, debuted their NASCAR coverage with Dale’s death. Hope Rupert Murdoch doesn’t look on the tragedy with the fascination of Temptation Island and push for more flying cars. In the short term, however, we bet more people will watch.
Michael Waltrip, the winner of the race, is the anti-Earnhardt. He had never won a NASCAR race in over 400 starts. Nice guy. Toils in anonymity. Finally, he breaks through with the victory, and yet his teammate and car owner, Earnhardt, has to die a quarter-mile before him. Not many headlines for good man Waltrip.
Yes, NASCAR lost a big one. You’ll excuse us here at HoleCity for dwelling so much on a sport that, well, a lot of people don’t consider a sport. But we’re talking Greek-tragedy-level drama here. Earnhardt died acting as a shield, clearing the way for his teammate and his son to battle for first. On the last lap. Crashing into the wall. Listen, we’re obviously not racing fans (or else we’d have stayed in the car to listen to the last lap, instead of waltzing into the store to buy poultry). But if Earnhardt had to die, you can imagine that this would’ve been his preferred method of departure. He went out like a legend.