Friday, February 18, 2011

Hard to Believe It's Been 10 Years Since Earnhardt's Death

I'm not a NASCAR fan. I grew up in Charlotte, NC where NASCAR is king and you hear about auto racing so much that you kinda know what's going on.

Still, it's hard for me to believe that it has been 10 years since Dale Earnhardt crashed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 and died.

I remember when I heard about it. My wife and I were driving home from Charlotte (I know live in the Cincinnati area) when she called her brother on her cell phone and he told her that Earnhardt passed. It was one of those things you didn't think you'd hear.

Again, I'm not a NASCAR fan, but Earnhardt was so popular that everyone knew who he was. Especially in the Charlotte area (Dale was from nearby Kannapolis), the black 3 car was iconic. I've always said that if there was a sports Mount Rushmore for the state of North Carolina, Earnhardt would be one of the four faces to adorn the shrine (the others being Michael Jordan, Dean Smith and Richard Petty).

Earnhardt was a rarity. He raced hard and didn't care if people didn't like him. Yet people loved him because of his "Intimidator" persona. Every interview I saw him in he seemed very personable and generally a happy man. I always think of his "Race ya for a Sun Drop" commercials that were constantly on. Still today, his image is on numerous items in the state of North Carolina.

The interesting thing is the legacy Earnhardt left behind. Not only was he one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history and one of the most popular drivers ever, his on-track death was the catalyst for many changes in the sport.

The innovations in safety have gone above and beyond what anyone could have dreamed over the last decade. The HANS device (which Earnhardt declined to wear) is now made mandatory for every driver. If Dale had worn the device, he most likely would have survived the crash. Tracks and the walls were made safer and there is more emphasis on cautious driving and penalties for being out of control.

Remember that since Earnhardt's death, the Winston Cup is now the Sprint Cup and losing the tobacco giant as series endorser allowed NASCAR to become extremely popular. We now have "The Chase".

For a non-gear head living in Charlotte, he still was an icon.

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