Friday, February 18, 2011

Remembering Dale Earnhardt

There are many interests, many tastes that I share with others in my native region.

But, in some ways, I guess I am out of step with the majority of my fellow Southerners. I have never particularly cared for iced tea, for example, and I have never been a fan of NASCAR.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't respect those who do like iced tea or watch NASCAR.

My friend Phyllis, who died last year, became a NASCAR fan in the last years of her life, and she tried — with little success — to educate me in the finer points of the sport. We had lost touch, then got back in touch a year before she died. We communicated frequently by e–mail and via "chats" on Facebook during that final year.

It was like old times. I often thought, when Phyllis and I wrapped up one of our Facebook chats, that we were kind of like Forrest and Jenny in "Forrest Gump" after they were reunited as adults.

Phyllis and I were like peas and carrots. And it was over far too soon.

Considering how much I have written about Phyllis in the months since she died, there should be no doubt about my admiration for her. And, if she had lived, I probably would have tried to watch some races — if only to be able to discuss them intelligently with her.

But I doubt that she could have persuaded me to become any kind of regular NASCAR follower.

(Now, let me remind my readers that I worked for many years on newspaper sports copy desks, but I have never regarded auto racing as a sport. In my mind, "sport" implies athletic ability, and I see nothing particularly athletic about sitting behind the wheel of a car.

(It is a competition, but it is not athletic.

(I recall saying that once to Phyllis, and she vehemently disagreed with me — but she preferred to use the word "skill," not "athletic ability.")

I have missed Phyllis frequently in the six months since she died, and today is one occasion when I would have liked to have heard her thoughts.

Today is the 10th anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in a crash at the Daytona 500, and I honestly wish I could ask Phyllis for her thoughts about an article by Liz Clarke in yesterday's Washington Post.

Not long before Phyllis died, she started a blog about NASCAR. She only made one entry — she may have been in a lot of pain when she wrote it, and I know she went into the hospital for what turned out to be the final time a few weeks later — but I had the distinct impression when I discovered the blog sometime after her death that she always intended to do much more with it. She just ran out of time.

But if she hadn't died, I imagine Phyllis would have had some interesting things to say about this anniversary.

At the end of her life, she liked to joke about herself. She called herself a "redneck," for example, even though those closest to her always knew that would never be true.

And I would have been the first to stand up and argue with anyone, even (or perhaps that should be "especially") Phyllis herself, who suggested that she might be "ignorant."

Phyllis was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. Any competition that could capture her attention and retain her interest couldn't be as simple and dumb as some people contend.

Clarke writes that "for many, stock–car racing's soul died that day" in 2001 and asserts that NASCAR hasn't recovered.

"Attendance and TV ratings have slipped," Clarke writes, "a product of the malaise affecting the economy at large but also, in the minds of some, the result of a number of missteps made by the sport in reaction to Earnhardt's death."

That seems like an awful lot to pin on the influence of a single event — or a single death — but Earnhardt's death was a seismic experience for many people.

And, lest we forget the kind of impact a single event — or a single death — can have on people, let's remember things like the celebrations that followed the rescue of baby Jessica from the well in Texas more than 20 years ago — or the global grief after Princess Diana died in a car crash a decade later.

"[T]o millions of sports fans, NASCAR is simply an annoyance," writes Clarke. "They stumble on a stock–car race on TV and see nothing but cars going around and around to nowhere.

"But to Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR led past the textile mill's gates and farther than he ever dreamed. And with every high–banked, hair–raising turn he made in that black No. 3, he took legions of fans along for the wild ride."

Roy Lang III of the Shreveport Times says kind of the same thing. Lang observes that Earnhardt's crash led to some revolutionary safety changes in NASCAR, but his loss has hurt NASCAR in other ways.

"NASCAR has learned how to make the sport safer," Lang writes. "And the benefits are immeasurable. However, in the same period of time, we've learned Earnhardt was irreplaceable."

I don't know if Phyllis became a NASCAR fan before or after this day in 2001. Consequently, I don't know how much influence Earnhardt may have had on her.

I do know she was a fan of Jimmie Johnson, and, while I know little about stock–car racing, I know that Johnson was about half Earnhardt's age 10 years ago. His career was just getting started when Earnhardt's life was ending.

But, even if Phyllis became a NASCAR fan after Earnhardt died, I'm sure she would have had an opinion on where it was and where it was going. She just might not have had the perspective that came with watching Earnhardt compete in the years before his fatal crash.

I think Phyllis would agree, though, that Johnson, as successful as he has been, hasn't been able to fill the void that was left by Earnhardt.

Just as I doubt that anyone will ever be able to fill the void that was left by Phyllis. She was irreplaceable, too.

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