10 Years After

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.

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.

Daytona 500 THEN (1960) and NOW (2010)

Top qualifying speed:
Then: 151.556 mph
Now: 191.188 mph

Cars on track:
Then: 68
Now: 43

Approximate race-car cost:
Then: $5000
Now: $250,000

1st Place Winnings:
Then: $19,600
Now: $1,514,649

Margin of Victory:
Then: 23 sec.
Now: 119 sec.

Safety measures implemented by NASCAR since Earnhardt’s death:

  • Full-face helmets must be worn by all drivers.
  • Head-and-neck restraints (HANS devices) must be worn by all drivers.
  • SAFER barriers (soft walls) were installed at all major NASCAR-sanctioned oval tracks.
  • Six-point racing harnesses replaced traditional five-point restraints.
  • NASCAR’s “car of tomorrow” began development with a focus on driver safety; the car is used by the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series today.

Number of race-car driver fatalities at Daytona International prior to Dale Earnhardt’s death: 22
Since Earnhardt’s death: 0