by Brent Morrison
|NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt standing alongside his iconic black #3 Chevy|
February 18, 2001, is a day that many of us will never forget. It is a day that continues to stir our memories and emotions, eliciting thoughts of triumph and tragedy, feelings of joy and pain.
It was the day Superman died.
Dale Earnhardt didn't wear a cape, but he did things in a stock car most young boys can only dream about. Kids revel in the thrill of riding bicycles down long, steep hills, furiously pedaling to the brink of "wiping out". For most, that's where the speed-induced adrenaline rush ends. Dale was able to chase that feeling every Sunday with ease and grace. He was an everyman; a self-made millionaire from a dirt poor family in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Dale lived out his boyhood dream but never forgot where he came from. He would spend his days working on his farm and handling his day-to-day life no different from you and I before slipping into his Superhero outfit and dazzling us every Sunday. These were the qualities that made him stand out among his peers, the qualities that made him so appealing to the common man. He was a superstar, but he was a relatable superstar.
He was our superstar.
|Earnhardt clinched his 7th|
and final Championship
at Rockingham in 1994.
NASCAR is a lot different now than when Dale raced, and in many ways better thanks to the safety measures ushered in as a result of his death. The HANS device was first, and was soon followed by safer cars, safer track barriers, and a myriad of other changes that have unquestionably saved a lot of lives. Numerous drivers have walked away virtually unscathed from crashes that would have resulted in serious injury or death just 15 years ago.
But not all of NASCAR's changes have been for the better. Dale understood the need for the sport's growth but also realized the importance of staying close to your roots. Without him, NASCAR has lost itself in a lot of ways. Rockingham, one of the sport's most iconic and historically significant speedways, has not hosted a NASCAR race since 2004. The points system has been changed so many times in the last 15 years that I'm not sure how they crown a champion year-to-year. NASCAR has been so bent on continuing to grow their market and audience that they've almost lost what made the successful. A voice like Dale's who never forgot where he came from or how he got there would have been a huge asset to a company that struggled to find its way after the retirement and death of longtime president Bill France, Jr.
February 18th certainly brings back a lot of emotions. For me, I choose to remember the good ones. Few people in sports have caused me to tune in every week for fear of missing a once in a lifetime moment. Dale Earnhardt was one of those people, and he almost always delivered.
April 29, 1951 - February 18, 2001
76 NASCAR Winston Cup Series wins
7 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championships