It has been ten years since those fateful words from NASCAR's President Mike Helton. In February of 2001, Helton, shaking, told the nation, "We have lost Dale Earnhardt."
It is a moment seared in my mind. On that fateful day ten years ago, Dale Earnhardt lost his life at the track at the Daytona 500 on the third turn of the last lap. The wreck did not seem all that bad to us veteran race fans. But, we knew something was wrong as the Fox broadcast went off the air. NASCAR had lost its greatest driver. I had lost my hero and favorite driver.
I had always liked the way Dale Earnhardt raced with spirit and determination, a style that earned him the nickname of "The Intimidator" People dreaded that black car with the number three one it in their rear view mirror. The man would fight for a win and find a way to win. I loved that. Here I am, Earnhardt would say,ready to kick your ass. You gotta love that mentality. Dale Earnhardt was my favorite driver in NASCAR, my Atlanta Braves or Pittsburgh Steelers in the sport. The man seemed indestructible.
Then came that fateful day ten years ago. In a crash that seemed routine by most standards, the legend was gone. The nation mourned. I mourned. I lost my hero.
Why was Dale Earnhardt my hero? It was simple. He had worked in the mills like I did. He was a working class guy who found a way to excel and make something of himself. Pulling for Earnhardt in the black number three car was not just rooting for the guy who took chances, it was pulling for the guy who took chances to make something of himself out of nothing. Dale Earnhardt was the American Dream to so many of us race fans. Earnhardt was the everyman, the guy who would take a chance to win for his dreams to come true.
Then, on that fateful day ten years ago, he died living his dream. When Dale Earnhardt died living that dream, something was lost with all of us who were fans and who saw him as hero. We lost the last John Wayne character in a pissant world. Dale Earnhardt gave all of us folks who had worked in mills, or cutting grass or hauling hay, something to believe in. He showed us how to be more. When we lost him, something broke inside for a lot of folks.
Call me a redneck if you will, but I will always miss Dale Earnhardt. He was the man. He showed us how to fight for our dreams and how to grow above what folks expect of rednecks like us. He died ten years ago living his dream till the last moment. Frankly, it is way any of us with any gumption would want to to go.
I miss you Dale Earnhardt and thank you, wherever you are, for being such an example for rednecks like me to follow their dreams and go for it. When Daytona falls silent on lap three for you, Dale, I will think about how you always fought for the chance to be in the mix. Thank you, Dale Earnhardt, for the example. We at VUI sure do miss you.