Losing your favorite athlete is like losing a friend

I grew up within a hop, skip and jump away from the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H. I still have memories of being awakened early mornings on race day by a helicopter hovering over my house, flying drivers to the track, and I remember how busy the restaurants were, I worked in some during race weekends.

I never disliked auto racing. I loved when it was race weekend in New Hampshire; it made life a lot more interesting in many ways. Unfortunately, I didn’t become an active fan and I didn’t pay attention to the sport often. I didn’t know much about racing but I did know I wasn’t supposed to like Jeff Gordon; I had to support Dale Earnhardt (or his son). My dad was and is a Dale Earnhardt fan. He met him once at the racetrack and recalls casually walking up to him, saying hi and wishing him luck for the upcoming race. He didn’t get an autograph or a picture and he regrets that.

After getting to know him better (from news and TV, of course), Dad found many reasons why he liked Earnhardt and his racing. "He used to tap drivers to let him know he was there, in the back of them to, say, let them know he was there," Dad said to me. He also liked that Dale was a family man, worked his way from scratch to the top and was a driver who raced to win. (In my personal opinion, from what I read, they are very much alike in many ways. They seem to have the same work ethic and that's also why many fans still like Dale; he was easy to relate to.)

I remember the day Dale died. I was about to turn 25 and concerned with work, money, dating, friends and my immediate life. But I remember coming home, the race was on and I might have sat down to watch some of it, but I did hear the news as it unfolded. I felt sad; it was kind of hard to believe. My heart broke and my eyes filled with tears when I saw Dale Jr. get out of his car, run across the green grass and get on the ambulance.

Dad remembers more than I do - he watched the entire race. He said there was a caution and he remembers hearing that Dale might have loosened his helmet and his seat belt; he was confident there were two or three laps left. Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr. were in a one-two position and Dale was protecting them. Then he crashed.

Dad knew from the beginning that it wasn’t going to be a good outcome. The driver of the M&Ms car, Kenny Schrader, got out of his car and checked on Dale; he waved the EMTs over and when he walked away from the site, he said, "It wasn’t pretty."

My dad called a friend of his, and they both knew that they lost Dale.

Dad also recalls that Sterling Marlin had received death threats, and he remembers Junior having to get on television to tell people to stop making threats.

I also remember the day of the funeral. Dad and I saw it on TV and he had said that he was happy to see Jeff Gordon there; it was a sign of good sportsmanship.

When I asked Dad if he remembered how he felt at the time, he said, “It was like losing a friend.”

Since then, Dad’s collected a lot of Dale Earnhardt things: pictures, old calendars, diecast cars and even some big cardboard cutout that’s hanging in the garage in his Charlotte, N.C., townhouse.

He never stopped watching and still enjoys racing because he likes the race, but he hasn’t been able to call a driver "his man."

I remember hearing him say that one time not long ago. “No one,” he answered his friend who asked him who his favorite driver was. “Ever since we lost Earnhardt I haven’t had one guy that I root for.”

“But I like a lot drivers,” he told me. “Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin,” to name a few.

NASCAR does remember all drivers who have lost their lives in racing, but Earnhardt is the one driver whose memory lives on through all (his) fans.
Losing your favorite athlete is like losing a friend Losing your favorite athlete is like losing a friend Reviewed by Unknown on Friday, February 18, 2011 Rating: 5