Raise three fingers, one more time

Published 11:16 am Monday, February 22, 2016

“The rising sun will surely set on days of triumph and days of tragedy alike.” – Author Unknown

When they drop the green flag tomorrow to begin the Daytona 500 signaling the start of another NASCAR season there’ll be the usual excitement and anticipation of another stock car racing season; but it’ll also contain a bit of melancholy in this corner.

That’s because this year marks 15 since we lost “The Intimidator”.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. earned that nickname; every single alphabet of it because he had an extremely aggressive racing style. He only knew one way to run…flat out.

The man knew better than anyone on the planet how to manhandle a race car. Maybe that’s because he ran every last race like it was his last one. He just had that dogged unwillingness to fail.

I loved his energy and I loved his swagger. He also coined one of my favorite phrases that I sometimes impart to young people when I try to spur them on to greater achievement and realizing their vast potential:

“Second-place is just the first loser.”

He was old-school NASCAR, back in the day when stock car racing was about fast-food, beer and cigarettes. Yep, that was your typical race fan.

The seven-time NASCAR champ was just 49 years old when his black Richard Childress #3 Chevrolet slammed into the wall in turn four on the white-flag lap of the 2001 race. Ironically, his son, Dale Jr., finished second that day; and the race was won by Michael Waltrip who was driving for a brand new race team: it was called Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated.

He raced the ever-famous Number-3 into turn-3 less than 3-x-3 seconds from the checkered flag. But when he went into turn-4, he wouldn’t make it out the other side.

He’d been holding onto third-place and racing hard with Ken Schrader and Rusty Wallace in hot pursuit. In the third turn of that last lap Earnhardt made light contact with Sterling Marlin, veered onto the apron of the track, came back up entering turn four and collided slightly with Schrader. Then he got spun into the wall at a critical angle, nose first, at 180 miles per hour. With Schrader pushing him his wrecked car slid onto the infield grass before coming to rest.

I can still see Schrader frantically waving for paramedics.

They later determined Earnhardt died of blunt force trauma, a severe fracture to the base of his skull, whiplash of the worst order to a man we thought was invincible.

He raced for a year in 1999 with a broken neck because of a cracked vertebra in his spine. Following surgery he rebounded to finish second in the points race in 2000, and after declaring himself the healthiest he’d been in a long time, I’m left wondering had 2001 been different – who knows!?!

It took him 20 years to finally win at that place that would ultimately claim him. What I’ll remember most watching him slowly make his way to Victory Lane were all the other racing personnel stopping to shake his hand; to have been some small witness to history.

And isn’t it ironic that his track nemesis, Jeff Gordon, finally hung up his fire suit and racing shoes and is now he’ll be hitting those left turns in the broadcast booth.

“I would love to just preserve his legacy,” Dale Jr. said this week in homage to the man who sired him. “That people would always celebrate him as a valuable brick in the foundation of this sport that never changes.”

I agree with Dale Jr., I don’t mourn the Intimidator’s death. I’m just so glad he ever lived.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.