Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Dale Earnhardt Sparked My Interest in NASCAR and Helped Me Strengthen a Relationship

While growing up, we tend to admire as well as emulate different adults such as our relatives. Subconsciously, we begin to pick up certain habits from those individuals. For example, I have picked up using some funny phrases from my father and displaying some attitude behaviors from my mother. However, my love of watching NASCAR was adopted from my grandfather Frank.

Since I am getting ready to turn 21 years old soon, I have been reflecting on the age that I began to watch NASCAR. At the tender age of 9, while spending one of many weekends with my grandparents, we had to watch the local channels because they didn't have cable television. As a result, every Sunday I spent that time watching races on FOX with Frank. I didn't know much about the technical side of racing but I did learn that Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove the infamous black #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet.  Additionally, I found out that it seemed Earnhardt Sr. fans did not like Jeff Gordon.

Those memorable weekend moments spent watching races with Frank will always stay with me. He was a die-hard Earnhardt Sr. fan, which seemed to drive my grandmother crazy because she didn't like him but she never complained. We all had fun gathered in the small living room of their trailer watching a sport that brought us all closer together. Sometimes I would pick a different driver to pull for each race just so Frank and I could debate over which driver would finish better - the driver I chose or "Big E." Honestly, I was an Earnhardt Sr. fan but I just wanted to pull Frank's chain.

I'll never forget the day Dale Earnhardt Sr. passed away. My parents had never been NASCAR fans; however, on that fatal day in February 2001 I convinced them to let me watch the Daytona 500 on our only television located in the living room. Although I can't recall that much about the race itself, I vividly remember the crash that ultimately took Dale Sr.'s life. Being that I was only 10 years old at that time, I didn't realize the horrific nature of what I had just witnessed initially. When reality finally hit me, I just starting crying uncontrollably. As a result, my parents have never watched an entire race with me since that awful day.

Immediately following that race, I wondered how Frank would react to the sudden death of his racing hero. Unfortunately, he was one of the many fans who stopped watching NASCAR on a regular basis and I stopped watching as well. It wasn't until the latter part of 2002 that I attempted to watch "The Great American Sport" once again. Something compelled me to turn on the race that day and I witnessed Jamie McMurray earning his first Winston Cup Series career win at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

By this time I was 12 years old and realized that there had been a void in my life since I had stopped watching the races. I knew immediately that NASCAR was my passion and my life hadn’t been the same during the months I had given up watching the sport. There are times that I will watch old races where that familiar black #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet is running up front, and I wonder how different NASCAR would be now if Dale Sr.'s life hadn’t been cut short so tragically. His death was more than just a blow to his fans; it was a huge blow to every racing fan. The NASCAR community lost an icon and folks in the garage area lost a loyal friend.

Approximately four years ago, I talked Frank into taking me to Bristol for a NASCAR Nationwide race and two years after that he decided to go back to the racetrack. Last year, he returned back to the track with me and it seems as if Frank is finally coming around to being a consistent NASCAR race fan once again.

Last March, just as the drivers were preparing to get into their racecars for the Food City 250, Frank turned to me and said something that I think many Earnhardt Sr. fans have thought and verbalized. 

Frank at Bristol (March 2010)
Sporting a Dale Earnhardt Sr. shirt, Frank said, "There’ll never be another like Earnhardt. Some of these young guns can try to imitate his driving style, but nobody will ever come close to being the driver Earnhardt was. Not even Junior.”

I think some Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans chose him as their favorite after Dale Sr.'s death in hopes the son would pick up where his father had left off. In my opinion, I believe that Frank is right. Nothing against Dale Jr., but even though he shares his late father's name, there will never be another driver like Dale Earnhardt Sr.

He was a legend in every sense of the word. Although Earnhardt Sr. angered some fans with his driving style, he was able to gain just as many loyal fans for that same reason. Unfortunately, I have no personal stories to share with you about meeting him or any fascinating facts about something I witnessed firsthand at a race that he drove in all those years ago. However, what I can tell you is that the fans who had the chance to meet him, those who witnessed his career from the beginning until his tragic passing, and the fans - like me - who only have a faint memory of the man known as "The Intimidator" can continue to share our memories so his legacy will always live on.

Dale Earnhardt will forever hold a special place in my heart as the driver who first sparked my interest in the sport and as the man who, from a long distance, helped my grandfather Frank and I form a bond that has continued to grow strong over the years.

*Photo courtesy of ScrapeTV.com*

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