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He was a mean sumbitch, but he was our sumbitch

Special to Page 2

When he died, last Sunday, Dale Earnhardt was NASCAR's most popular driver and one of those figures who is both bigger than his sport and, at the same time, its very essence.

Dylan Harrison
Dylan Harrison, 8, of Newnan, Ga., sheds a tear during a memorial service for Earnhardt at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Millions of people who didn't get the pick and roll, knew all they needed to know about basketball when they watched Michael play. It was the same way with Earnhardt. You didn't have to understand carburetors or drafting to know you were watching something special when he raced a car.

Those fans will miss Dale Earnhardt. But life, and racing, will go on without him -- and, maybe, without them. But for a certain kind of fierce Earnhardt loyalist, racing won't ever be the same, and probably life won't either.

To these people, Earnhardt wasn't just about racing cars and winning -- though you can't separate Earnhardt from winning; he wouldn't have stood for it. He is about something much larger, of which racing was just a part, even if it was an almost perfectly symbolic part.

We are talking here about heritage, way of life, and that sort of thing. Of the stuff that lives in the blood and makes for loves and hates too fundamental to quantify and pigeonhole. Dale Earnhardt was a certain kind of Southerner and he was a hero to a lot of Southerners who saw everything they valued in that man and the way he drove a car -- hard, mean, and to win.

Earnhardt was old breed, a straight descendant of those early stock car drivers who learned a lot of what they knew outrunning Treasury agents at night, on country blacktops that they knew and used the way they later knew Darlington and could use its wall to set themselves up in Turn Three.

Just a little kiss on the concrete with the back right fender panel and you were in the groove. It left some paint on the wall -- a Darlington stripe -- but that is the way you drove if you wanted to win. It was "just racing," a phrase that is as essential to the vocabulary of a NASCAR driver as "We'll play 'em one game at a time" is to a football coach.

If Earnhardt didn't learn his trade running whiskey, it was just an accident of age. If he'd been born 20 years earlier, he'd have done what Junior Johnson did, and spent a stretch in Chillicothe for doing it, and no shame among his people for that. His people always made whiskey, and Yankees always tried to catch 'em doing it.

Vincent Fernandez
Vincent Fernandez, 9, of Sanford, Fla., lights a candle during a vigil in front of Daytona International Speedway.
And if Johnson and Earnhardt and the rest of the hard-charging, redneck drivers who gave NASCAR its character had been born around 160 years ago, they would have marched behind Henry Heath or Dorsey Pender or one of them, with Lee, on his way into Maryland where someone watching at the time described them this way:

"A dirtier, filthier, more unsavory set of human beings never strolled through a town -- marching it could not be called. Faces looked as if they had not been acquainted with water for weeks; hair, shaggy and unkempt. Many of them were without shoes. The odor of clothes worn for months, saturated with perspiration and dirt, is intense and all-pervading."

But the observer was not misled by appearance. These men were "stout and sturdy, able to endure fatigue and anxious to fight. They all believe in themselves as well as their generals, and are terribly in earnest."

They weren't the ones who owned the slaves, and all that was way in the past by the time Earnhardt came along. Everything had changed except the nature of those men. They still loved a fight, and they had a hard time with quitting. At the end, they were living off acorns and grass, still fighting.

When a Yankee asked one of them why, why they kept fighting when it was plain they were beaten, the man answered, immortally, "Because this here is our land and ya'll are on it."

In the mood of mourning, it is hard to remember that there was a time when Dale Earnhardt wasn't universally loved by NASCAR fans. He was the interloper. Richard Petty was King and Earnhardt was out to hijack the crown. The tactics that later on made him "The Intimidator" were just "dirty," as far as Petty's fans were concerned.

But that was simple loyalty, which might be the highest virtue of all in the mind of the South (to borrow a phrase). Petty raced hard, himself, and Earnhardt later said as much. "You didn't take your eye off Richard, now," he mused. "Or he'd get into you."

Richard Petty
When Richard Petty started to fade out, Earnhardt scooped up The King's crown.
When Petty retired -- and before, actually, when he was running on the fumes of his reputation, trying to get that 200th win -- Earnhardt picked up the crown. There were still some old boys who weren't sold when Earnhardt started winning the way Richard had won, but then there were people in Alabama who never came all the way around on Bear Bryant, too. Stubborness isn't much prized in a lot of places, but it is a virtue in the South.

And, then, when Jeff Gordon came along and started winning races and then winning championships -- well, hell fire, boys, you had to be for Earnhardt. This kid looked like Tom Cruise. And when he praised Jesus, he talked like he'd been to college. There is nothing a Southerner doesn't know about praising the baby Jesus, but there is a time, a place, and a certain kind of music. This kid didn't have the music.

Now, you had to be for Earnhardt who was a high school dropout, could tell the difference between a plott and a blue tick, and liked most of all to hunt deer when he wasn't racing. You started seeing, all over the South, this image of a little kid, wearing number 3, pissing on a number 24 car.

Dale might be a sumbitch but, by God, he is our sumbitch.

There was a while there, in the '90s when he couldn't win, and it started to look like time had passed him by, and that NASCAR was going to forever more be wearing a suit and talking like an accountant from Chicago. They were building tracks in California and, of all the goddamned places, New Hampshire. Where in the hell was New Hampshire anyway, and why couldn't they just keep racing at Martinsville and Rockingham the way God intended?

Dale Earnhardt
Earnhardt's style was controversial, but there was no questionining the results. He won seven Winston Cup titles.
Some folks said the fire was gone, even though Dale got out of an ambulance one time and got back into his wrecked car and drove it over the finish line to get a few more Winston Cup points. (The money might have been nice, but you know Dale wouldn't come down out of a deer stand to pick up some money. Not if he thought there was a big buck in the area.)

He was still tough, then. Hell, he'd die tough. But he just couldn't win. The fans still loved him. Maybe loved him a little more because he was a legend and no longer dangerous. Then, last year, he finished second in Winston Cup points. When a reporter had the brass to ask him if he felt like he'd "come back," Earnhardt answered, "From where? Hell, I ain't been nowhere."

For a couple of hours last Sunday, that is exactly how it looked. And there had to have been joy in a lot of country hearts. This was how it was supposed to be. None of that sissy restrictor plate stuff. They were racing, getting into it, and Dale was his old self.

This was a race that was all about the sheer love of racing, same way a fight can be for the sheer love of fighting. Forget the TV ratings and the merchandising and the sponsorships. They could have been back on the beach, racing in the sand the way they had when they started at Daytona, and Richard Petty, like a lot of people in the South, lived in a house without electricity.

Then, on the last lap, Earnhardt hit the wall. The people who were his fans for reasons that went way beyond racing understand that with Dale dead, the soul has gone out of stock car racing.

From now on, boys, it's all about marketing.

Geoffrey Norman lives in Vermont, but his home is in Alabama. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including Esquire, Men's Journal and National Geographic Adventure. His most recent book, Two for the Summit (Dutton), will be available in trade paper from Plume in May.

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