It looked like countless other crashes on countless other racetracks where countless other drivers bounded out of their cars with injuries no more severe than bruised egos. The wreck seemed so inconsequential that the TV cameras didn't even linger on it, choosing instead to follow the lead cars as they crossed the finish line of the Daytona 500. It wasn't until after the broadcast was over that the almost incomprehensible news was reported: Dale Earnhardt-NASCAR's biggest and baddest icon-had been killed in what appeared, at first glance, to be the motorsports version of a fender bender.
February marks the tenth year since Earnhardt's shocking death. In many respects, stock-car racing hardly seems to have changed since that black day on the high banks of NASCAR's signature track. Bring up a YouTube video of the 2001 Daytona 500, and you'll be surprised by how much it looks and sounds like this year's edition of the race. But NASCAR lost more than a superstar when Earnhardt was killed. It also lost one of its last direct links to the hardscrabble Southern roots that made stock-car racing unique and gave NASCAR Nation its claim to sports exceptionalism.
Contrary to the romanticized creation myth, NASCAR wasn't formed to give moonshine runners a place to legally practice the skills they'd honed outrunning federal revenuers. From the beginning, fans and participants were drawn almost exclusively from working-class enclaves in the South. Super-rich car owners such as Carl Kiekhaefer were demonized, and NASCAR founder Bill France kept Detroit automakers under his thumb. It's no coincidence that many of the sport's early stars emerged from small towns in the North Carolina Piedmont-places like Olivia (Herb Thomas), Randleman (Lee Petty), Newton (Ned Jarrett), and Ingle Hollow (Junior Johnson).
Earnhardt grew up in Kannapolis, a cotton-mill town where his father, Ralph, wrenched on his own short-track race cars. Earnhardt himself served a long blue-collar apprenticeship before earning a full-time Cup ride at the advanced age of twenty-eight. Despite his upbringing, Earnhardt was nobody's idea of a hillbilly. He was one of the first drivers to capitalize on the lucrative market for branded collectibles, and he started a top-tier race team of his own even while he continued to drive the black number 3 for Richard Childress. (He owned the cars that finished 1-2 in his last race.) But even though he was a millionaire many times over, Earnhardt's accent and attitudes continued to resonate on factory floors and tobacco farms, in barbecue joints and hunting blinds.