Memories Of The Intimidator


Later today, the Daytona 500 champion will be crowned for 2016, as NASCAR starts its season with its biggest event.

A decade and a half ago, I was watching the same race which Michael Waltrip won, with older brother (and at the time more well known) Darrell putting away any partiality to cheer him to victory at the FOX broadcast booth. There had been a bad wreck behind “Mikey” and second place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last turn of the last lap, but the television coverage captured Michael’s win and celebration for several minutes afterward, as would normally be the case.

Sometime after the celebration, I had turned on the XFL game (remember them?) on TV and watched that, thinking the last lap wreck could not have been too bad. Right around 6:30 I was watching NBC for NBA coverage, and I caught Ahmad Rashad giving condolences to the Earnhardt family.

Wait, what?

Flipping around, I caught the word that Dale Earnhardt Sr. had died in that final lap wreck, and I felt terrible. While auto racing is a dangerous sport that has claimed the lives of quite a few drivers (especially in Formula One back in the 60’s through the 80’s, and infrequently in rather gory fashion), it always saddens me when a sport claims someone’s life. Sports are supposed to be fun, not a life or death adventure, though I understand that many race for the “rush” of it all.

News of the senior Earnhardt’s death hit the racing world hard, much like the reaction to Princess Diana’s death in Paris had hit the world three and a half years earlier. They had the services for him at Charlotte’s Calvary Church, which I’d pass every night as I went to the local Walmart on my way to work in 1999 and 2000.

Since then, NASCAR hasn’t lost a single driver to race related injuries, as they’ve made drivers and the courses safe. Racing being what racing is, I don’t doubt there will be another day where a driver is lost (as has happened in other mediums of the sport the past 15 years, most notably to Dan Wheldon a few years ago in Las Vegas), but I’m certainly not looking forward to it.

NASCAR And Their Playing Field

NASCAR Michigan Auto Racing
Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch leads the field during the NASCAR Quicken Loans 400 auto race at Michigan International Speedway, Sunday, June 16, 2013 in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Bob Brodbeck)

With NASCAR’s season beginning in earnest tomorrow night with the “Duel” races that will set most of the qualifying field for Sunday’s Daytona 500, I’ve been reading up on the various rule changes. This is more or less a habit of mine whenever a new sporting season starts, because when one season is going on, another one isn’t, and there’s usually personnel shifting and rule changes that can easily go missed.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that the number of cars in any NASCAR race was reduced in the off-season 43 to 40, and that owned teams (now part of a “charter”) that automatically get into a Sprint Cup race went up from 35 to 36.

This left me more or less conflicted. I can understand why NASCAR management would want the “ace drivers” and cars competing in every race in every city. Then again, I always like a good “underdog” story of a driver on the rebound, trying to get back in the “big game” of the NASCAR Sprint Cup level. I think that’s a selling point in any major sport, professional or collegiately, building up competition by giving lesser known teams and players the chance to compete at the highest levels.

At the same time, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. There’s a lot of positives in what NASCAR has done in the past 15 years. The FOX television deal was a big shot in the arm towards their national expansion, and they’ve made great strides in safety since the tragic death of the senior Dale Earnhardt. I just think it would be fairer to guarantee spots to, say, the best 20 owned teams as opposed to giving 90% of the field guaranteed spots.

But that’s just me, and perhaps NASCAR eventually gets there.