Earnhardt will be missed

Posted: Thursday, February 22, 2001

The legend will indeed be missed, but some may not miss many of his ideals in the world of sports.

It pains every sports fan to see a legend like Dale Earnhardt die in such a horrible fashion. It reminds us of the deaths of sports greats like Walter Payton or Wilt Chamberlain. When a member of the sports community with as much skill and as much admiration as these men die, all of sports fades a little.

No doubt, at least in my opinion, Earnhardt was as good as they get. He played his own sport of stock-car racing with an intensity that many athletes lack in the era of big-time salaries. That just wasn't Earnhardt.

Money wasn't what mattered most. What mattered is where his name was on the list of finishers.

The track was his home, it was where he made his living and where he pulled in flocks of fans. His nose-to-the-grindstone style was reminiscent of the way sports should be played. He went out to win -- every time. There was no substitute for the man in black, he took the idea of second place is the first loser right to heart.

These are the things I admire about a man like Earnhardt. These are the things he brought to the world of sports that I wish could be emulated by his colleagues and by the rest of the sporting world.

Earnhardt wasn't all about keeping his car dent-free. I couldn't even imagine a race when he didn't finish with an entire quarter of his car banged up. He wasn't out there on the oval just to burn some rubber. That is obvious in his world-renowned nickname -- "The Intimidator."

Many of his colleagues would be the first to say that the thing they hated most about race days was seeing Earnhardt slide up into the view of their mirrors. They hated it because they knew they would be in for a ride of bumps and "rubs," as NASCAR likes to call them. They knew that until Earnhardt made his way around them he would be the dirtiest driver on the track -- that was Earnhardt's way.

Not that I didn't like that about him. I would sit in front of my television set just to see how intimidating Earnhardt could be. How would he get around Jeff Gordon this time? Would he rub him? Take a short cut through the grass on the inside of turn three? Would he just jolt him into the wall and hope he kept control of that mean looking black Chevrolet with No. 3 painted on it?

That was how Earnhardt raced.

That is what racing is all about, right? Just ask any kid who has ever played sports and they will pretty much tell you that winning is everything, though coaches and parents try to teach otherwise. Earnhardt embodied that style of sports. He went out to win because that is what sports were all about to him.

I loved that about the Intimidator, but not everyone else did.

Many critics of the racing style of Earnhardt used to say things like he was dangerous on the track, having caused many wrecks in his lifetime. There were many cases of Earnhardt himself finding the wall because of his aggressive bumping, and every time he swapped paint with a fellow racer the critics would rant and rave.

They are even chanting out his weaknesses as his family, friends and fans mourn his death. They scream about his problem with wearing a face mask with his helmet and they moan and groan about his absolute refusal to don the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) system that is designed to prevent trauma at the base of a racers' skull -- just like the injuries Earnhardt died instantly from Sunday.

Some say that Earnhardt may have survived if he had worn the HANS system -- we'll never know though, will we? I say that Earnhardt died the way he would have wanted to -- on the race track and in the heat of competition.

Yes, he refused to wear the safety devices, but that had never killed him before. Many NASCAR fans will remember when Earnhardt crashed at the Daytona 500 a few years back, landing on the roof of his vehicle after crashing into the wall and flipping. Not only did he walk away from that wreck but he forced his crew to flip the car over and peel off the damaged sections so he could finish the race.

I don't think Earnhardt would hold his final wreck against anyone, especially Sterling Marlin, who many blame for the death of the NASCAR legend. No, I think if the roles were reversed that Earnhardt would have given Marlin a rub too, and probably not as gentle of one.

In the end, Earnhardt died the way he raced. Fast and furious right to the end. It makes me proud to say that I was witness to many of his great runs, to many of his accomplishments and -- in the end -- to his final great finish.

Thank you for all of the memories, Dale. You will be missed by all, both on and off the race track.

Sam Eggleston is a writer for the Kenai Peninsula Clarion. Responses or comments can be directed via e-mail to Samuel@eggleston.tc.

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