|Credit: Darryl W. Moran Photography via Wikimedia Commons|
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance... Ecclesiastics 3:1-4
Twelve years ago today, Dale Earnhardt died.
February 18, 2001. Daytona International Speedway. Perhaps the place he was as alive as he was anywhere else on earth.
For one generation, the "where were you when...?" moment was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For another, it was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. For NASCAR Nation, it's the death of Dale Earnhardt. Where were you when you heard the news?
Where were you when you heard Mike Helton utter those haunting, unimaginable, impossible words: "This is understandably one of the toughest announcements we've ever had to make...After the accident on Turn 4 of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt."
I clearly remember that race, that moment, that sinking feeling of loss that permeated the next several months, as well as the almost metaphysical events that followed: DEI driver Steve Park's victory the next week at Rocking ham. Kevin Harvick, whose unenviable task it was to try to fill the seat left vacant by the Man in Black, winning in just his third start. Which was, of course, the third race after Earnhardt's death. How for those first three races, the third lap was either run under yellow or brought out a yellow. All those threes. And finally, Dale Earnhardt Jr., triumphant in his return to Daytona that July.
The dark clouds that lour'd upon the House of NASCAR finally enveloped it that fateful day in February. The tragedies that began with the death of fourth-generation racer Adam Petty in May 2000, continued with Kenny Irwin Jr. in July 2000 and Tony Roper in October 2000, reached truly epic proportions with the death of the legendary Earnhardt, a man whose mythos extended beyond the boundaries of the sport.
A legion of fans turned away from stock car racing in grief, some of them never to return. Others remained and bequeathed their loyalties upon Earnhardt's son. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s material inheritance from his father, regardless of how generous it might have been, could never match the emotional inheritance he received from those who set his father next to God and Country in their loyalties.
The weight of that legacy must have been almost unbearable at times. Dealing with one's own grief can be difficult enough without being the focus of the grief of others who mourn your loved one as if that person were a member of their own families. Dale Jr. seems to finally have made peace with himself and become comfortable in his own identity.
But what about NASCAR Nation? The passage of a dozen years has, in most cases, blunted the sharpness of the grief. Earnhardt's name can be brought up in casual conversation without reopening the gaping wound his passing left in the collective hearts of fans. The time for weeping and mourning has passed - it's time to laugh and to dance. Metaphorically of course.
Dale Earnhardt's life left an indelible mark on those around him and on the sport he loved. Almost everyone has a favorite memory of the colorful character. For many that memory is of his victory in the Great American Race on his 20th try. For others it's his jubilation over his son's first win, or any one of his seven championships.
For me, oddly enough, it's not those triumphs that stick in my mind. Sure, I get teary-eyed watching that No. 3 car driving down pit road with every member of every team congratulating the conquering hero. My throat gets tight watching the father hugging his son in victory lane. But for me, my fondest memories are the ones that showed Earnhardt's pure orneriness. Like how frustrated he'd get at restrictor plate tracks when drivers didn't line up the way he thought they should. Or his abject refusal to work with teammate Mike Skinner. Earnhardt didn't need no stinkin' teammate.
But probably my most vivid memory of Earnhardt is his grin while he uttered that now-classic quote about just wanting to rattle Terry Labonte's cage at Bristol.
In her book "On Death and Dying," Elizabeth Kubler-Ross proposed that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Having experienced grief at the loss of a loved one several times myself, I understand there are no clear lines between those stages. The death of Dale Earnhardt launched his legions of fans into the stages of grief, denial, anger and depression, often simultaneously. Now, on the twelfth anniversary of his passing, I hope that most are able to accept that loss, recall him fondly, and share those treasured memories with others in a celebration of a life well lived.