Earnhardt was killed while NASCAR was in the midst of unprecedented growth. But after peaking in the mid-2000s, stock-car racing has been shedding fans and sponsors. Part of theproblem has been the loss of throwback personalities like Earnhardt. Although his son is immensely popular, Dale Jr. appeals to a younger, hipper demographic. (He's a video-game junkie who's appeared in a Jay-Z music video.) Since Earnhardt's death, eight of the ten Cup championships have been won by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart, who all grew up-in California and Indiana-steeped in other forms of motorsport and who migrated to stock cars purely out of mercenary motives.
Stock-car racing now features all the trappings of mainstream sports: The interminable season. The established franchises. The playoff system. The multimillion-dollar payouts. The elaborate pregame and postgame shows. The PR machinery. The corporate tie-ins. In its quest to challenge baseball, football, and basketball, NASCAR has homogenized its product and moved farther and farther away from what made it so popular in the first place.
One thing that used to distinguish racing from stick-and-ball sports was the very real threat of drivers being killed. Historically, NASCAR had been almost criminally negligent on the safety front. The year before Earnhardt died, no fewer than three NASCAR drivers were killed in accidents that were eerily similar to his. Essentially, each of these tragedies were written off as "one of them racin' deals." But after the public outcry prompted by Earnhardt's death, NASCAR belatedly took action, and the element of physical risk has virtually disappeared from stock-car racing.
Nobody can in good conscience say that Sprint Cup would be better if more drivers were killed. But there's no question that confronting danger is one of the factors that makes racing so compelling. Thanks to the broad reach of television and tracks in places like Chicago and Los Angeles, just about everybody is now familiar with the spectacle of bellowing V-8s propelling gaudily painted leviathans at speeds of 200 mph. As a result, stock-car racing-one of the original extreme sports-now seems tame next to the contrived drama of drifting, freestyle motocross, and cage fighting. Dale Earnhardt was killed ten years ago this February. With him, it turns out, died the notion of NASCAR exceptionalism.