"Heroes aren't supposed to die."
I spent the late hours of Sunday watching Home Team Sports' coverage of the crash during the last lap of the Daytona 500 that killed the
49-year-old legend. I watched with a friend from Huntersville, where Earnhardt's body was flown to a funeral home.
"It's so surreal," she said and even now I can't disagree.
I'm not trying to pretend I'm a diehard NASCAR or Dale Earnhardt fan because I'm not. Earnhardt wasn't my favorite driver, but I can appreciate the magnitude of his effect on his sport.
And my appreciation for his sport has only grown over the years because of the way it treats its fans.
Earnhardt was old school, not like the slick-marketed Jeff Gordon. But as Wall Street as Gordon is, his fans still have access to him.
When Gordon signed autographs at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh a few years back, he made hearts melt with his smile and easy-going demeanor.
Even the poster boy for the new NASCAR is a good ol' boy.
Sure, Earnhardt was worth millions, but he had oil under his fingernails. He still said "ain't" and was someone the average American could look at as a icon.
Earnhardt worked to get where he was. The Kannapolis native learned at his daddy's knee about racing, won seven championships and created an empire that his son will continue.
Compare the Intimidator to the spoiled prima donnas of the NBA or the ruthlessness of George Steinbrenner. NASCAR's owners and drivers are heroes in their communities, which is part of why the outcry after Earnhardt's death is so loud.
NASCAR often gets mocked or scorned for its countrified drivers and the audience it draws.
But the people gathering outside of Dale Earnhardt Inc. were of all ages and economic backgrounds. Men in suits stood next to little girls to remember their hero.
These people were Earnhardt and NASCAR fans. The sport has the most loyal fan base in professional sports for the reason that it hasn't let its fans down.
Baseball, football, hockey and
basketball break their fans hearts every few years with labor problems.
Or players do the breaking when they get arrested for beating their wives, driving drunk or the latest trend -- committing murder.
That doesn't happen in NASCAR. Its fans get their hearts broken when a real tragedy happens -- like the death of its biggest star. Gordon's car owner, Rick Hendrick, got in trouble for mail fraud and Richard Petty bumped someone on the highway, but that's basically the extent of NASCAR behind bars. Hendrick ended up being pardoned by President Clinton.
Earnhardt was an original -- the rebel cowboy that people couldn't help but cheer for. He was the throwback but also the man helping to make NASCAR a nationally popular sport.
You just had to admire his competitive spirit -- hell, why else would they call the man the Intimidator? The last thing Earnhardt did before losing control over his car was protect the lead of his son and Michael Waltrip, both who raced for DEI.
Earnhardt was NASCAR -- in fact, he was one of the main proponents of changing the rules this year in Daytona to make the race faster and more exciting for the fans.
Even now, with the knowledge that the Dura-Lube 400 in Rockingham will continue as scheduled and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will race, half of me expects to see that black No. 3 car pushing its way around the track and leaving others in its wake.
But instead, the Intimidator -- friend to the president, a favorite son of North Carolina, the driver my dad admires -- will be laid to rest Thursday in a televised ceremony in Charlotte.
How NASCAR and its fans will react is anyone's guess. The mourning will continue, and this year's Winston Cup will be marred by this tragedy.
But one thing is for sure.
Superman is dead.
Rachel Carter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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