My stepfather had just passed through Valdosta on his way back to Atlanta when the news came over his car radio that Dale Earnhardt had died.
An avid NASCAR fan, my stepfather had seen the 2001 Daytona 500 in person on that fateful day, watching the legendary driver’s car collide along the back straightaway with Ken Schrader’s car in the final lap, with both vehicles sliding onto the infield in a smoking heap.
Schrader got out of his car under his own power, but Earnhardt did not. Even today, it’s still hard to fathom the impact the tragedy has had on NASCAR, and its legions of fans.
By the time he got back home late that evening, my stepfather was utterly shocked, unlike any reaction I’ve ever seen from him. As he left the track, all he knew about Earnhardt’s status is what everyone else knew, only that he had been taken away via ambulance.
Earnhardt had replaced Richard Petty as my stepfather’s favorite driver, which is saying something. From the time I first met the man who married my mother when I was a teenager, he exuded a deep knowledge and passion for stock car racing that was new to me.
If he couldn’t watch a race live on TV, he taped it. Daytona Beach was where he went on vacation, and in retirement, he and my mother moved there. Their home, in fact, is just a few miles from the track.
Many years ago, at a place called Ponce Inlet, drivers sped up and down a wide, flat beach in their souped-up cars. There’s a restaurant there now, called The North Turn, named after a hairpin curve, where you can look out over the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and imagine the noise and sand-spitting joy of what once took place there.
This is how Daytona became an epicenter for a stock car racing culture, which has its deepest roots in the North Carolina whiskey- and moonshine-running world made famous by Junior Johnson (and even more famous by Tom Wolfe in his classic 1965 profile for Esquire).
Petty and Earnhardt hailed from Carolina too, the latter etching his reputation as “The Intimidator” with his aggressive style and all-black gear, including the famous No. 3 car with white lettering. What began for both of them as a means to have a little bit of excitement in an otherwise uneventful, small-town and rural upbringing turned into fame, fortune and the enduring idolatry from white Southern males just like them.
My Southern stepfather reveled in Earnhardt’s SOB bravura; in fact he revered it as deeply as he does college football and his beloved Georgia Bulldogs. That’s how a lot of men his age — he just turned 80 — roll in these parts, steeped in the lore of sports that the pro leagues still haven’t been able to surpass.
On the other hand, my equally Southern father (War Damn Eagle!) doesn’t care a lick about racing — “how hard is it to turn left all the time?” — and neither did anyone else I knew. One weekend our family took in the festivities at a nearby dirt track, but to this day, racing does absolutely nothing for me.
But NASCAR has been the subject of eternal curiosity by writers, starting with Wolfe, and more recently, Atlanta newspaper journalist Carole Townsend. “Magnolias, Sweet Tea and Exhaust,” published in July, is told by someone unfamiliar with NASCAR, but who grew to appreciate what this world was all about. (More women should write books about the male-dominated sports world like this — that is, with an open mind, instead of a rigid feminist baseline.)
Likewise, Jeff MacGregor’s 2005 book, “Sunday Money,” came from his desire to learn more about how NASCAR went from the good ol’ boys of Daytona and Wilkesboro into a formidable sports business entity that’s ventured far from its Southern base.
It’s regrettable, then, that their work wasn’t considered in reaction to last weekend’s tragedy involving Tony Stewart and Kevin Ward Jr.
Southern culture and masculinity are a toxic blend for media commentators not versed in the traditions of the stock car world. Oh, and its “history of confrontation” too, as if this is the only sport with this problem (hello, hockey?).
Indeed, it’s become so easy to blame the “culture,” although Stewart (Indiana) and Ward (upstate New York) reflect NASCAR’s reach beyond the South.
ESPN radio blowhard Colin Cowherd blamed the “eye-for-eye” nature of what presumably passes for life in Dixie for what transpired at a dirt track at Canandaigua, New York.
Likewise, New York Post grouchaholic Phil Mushnick chimed in, because it’s impossible to bitch about the Yankees and Mets every day:
“Testosterone and gasoline do mix, always have, often to no good end other than dead endings.”
The whole thing is splendidly hacktastic. Thankfully, there’s been some needed pushback, although I doubt it will enlighten those badly in need of better information.
If nothing else, the likes of Cowherd, Mushnick, etc., ought to “set down” next to folks like my stepfather and try to understand what the fuss has been about, for so many years.