February 21, 2001

The Intimidator Was a Hero for the Masses

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To say that I’m a racing fan would be incorrect. I don’t watch NASCAR, Formula One or anything else along those lines. It’s just not my style. Simply put, cars going around an oval doesn’t excite me.

But that’s just me.

For the millions of fans of the sport of NASCAR (and I emphasize the word “sport”), it is the fastest, most exciting sport in the world to watch.

This week, those fans lost a hero.

As we all know by now, Dale Earnhardt’s seemingly innocent-looking crash into the wall on the final turn of the final lap of the greatest NASCAR race there is, took the life of the driver that so many simply knew as the Intimidator. The man so many thought was immortal turned out to be anything but in the end.

To so many, the Intimidator was a walking, living legend. He stood for so much to those true fans of NASCAR.

What I didn’t realize is how much the man meant to me.

I won’t say that Earnhardt qualifies as my biggest hero. As I said at the top, I’m not a NASCAR fan, per se. But what I do know about the man, and for all that can be said about his driving skill, it was that image that will remain with me for my entire life. The man in black, a la Johnny Cash, standing next to that big black car before a race, with those shades on. And just when you thought you couldn’t be more scared, that big goofy grin would seep out of his lips. The kind of grin you expected less from the “Intimidator” and more from a muppet.

And if you ever did watch him race, as I did from time to time, you had to be impressed with the way the man carried himself. He truly lived up to his nickname on the track, pushing other cars out of the way with a “look out, here comes number three.” He never gave less than his all, and he never backed down. No apologies.

And yet, on his final day in a race car, he died doing something that really said a lot about the man. Here was a driver that spent nearly his entire life trying to win his first Daytona 500, holding off the pack and allowing his son and his good friend to take first and second. The man in black died while performing one of the most unselfish acts any driver can do for any other driver.

That unselfish act on Sunday was one of countless he performed all the time. He worked tirelessly as his sport’s greatest ambassador, trying to bring a sport that so many consider foolish and monotonous into the lime light. He used his personality and work ethic to bring the sport to the place it is today — live on network television with its biggest T.V. contract ever.

The Intimidator worked hard every day so that you would respect both him and his passion.

So say what you will about NASCAR. Claim that one of the most grueling physical feats that any athlete is forced to accomplish doesn’t qualify as a sporting event. Claim, if you want, that NASCAR is the sport of the uneducated masses. Just don’t claim that Earnhardt wasn’t, in his own right, an American hero of sorts.

He is the type of man we should all aspire and hope to be: ambitious, competitive and sometimes ruthless, but deeply caring. He loved his family, loved his friends, and set himself up to be a role model for all those “uneducated” millions.

At least they were all smart enough to pick a real role model.

Rest in peace, Mr. Earnhardt, rest in peace.

Archived article by Charles Persons