Full Throttle: Remembering 'The Man in Black'

Full Throttle: Remembering 'The Man in Black'
Feb 17, 2011, 8:47 PM

Author: Max Davies

I was never a dedicated NASCAR fan. Sure I would watch the occasional race whenever they were broadcast on satellite television back in the late eighties, but it wasn't as readily accessible as Formula One. The stock cars being driven by 'The Good Ol' Boys' were certainly a far cry from the single seaters I was used to in grand prix racing.

The livery-clad, multi-coloured mobile marketing machines appeared to have all the aerodynamic efficiencies of a brick, but ye gods, were they a sight to behold.

Racing in small bunches of five or so and doing so at speeds I'd never seen an F1 car manage, the last few laps remain, even today, some of the most exciting I have ever seen in any form of motorsport.

The sight of Dale Earnhardt's No3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, battling with the Miller sponsored Pontiac of Rusty Wallace at Talladega was a delight to behold and both became the drivers I admired more than any others in NASCAR. Over the next few years they traded paint frequently, won championships and their fans were among the most passionate within the sport. But all that ended ten years ago on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Just as May 1st 1994 is remembered as the day Formula 1 lost it's leading light with Ayrton Senna's fatal crash during the San Marino Grand Prix, so NASCAR will never forget the day it lost Dale Earnhardt on February 18th 2001.

Known as 'The Intimidator', he was similar to Senna in more ways than one. Their questionable driving tactics were accepted by their staunch supporters yet were complete anathema to the majority of their peers. The two men demanded respect and shared a common attitude to going racing: never gave an inch, but always take a mile.

While Senna's death sparked an out pouring of grief within Formula 1, across the world and especially in his native Brazil, the entire NASCAR community and large sectors of the United States, came together in the most sincerest of ways a week after that fateful Daytona 500, to remember their fallen leader...

The atmosphere at the North Carolina Speedway for the Dura Lube 400 the following Sunday, was a sombre one as both fans and detractors of Earnhardt all came together before the green flag fell at the start of the race. All donning his famous No3 black cap, drivers and pit crew members alike and the thousands of spectators put their rivalries and opinions to one side and saluted the late 7-time Winston Cup champion with style. Arms were raised towards the sky, with a single arm, three-fingered salute given and as the national anthem finished, they cheered and applauded, with not a dry eye to be seen. Thereafter, the fans took it upon themselves to perform the same gesture on the third lap, of every race and the network television coverage went silent for each third lap from Rockingham through to the next Daytona 500 in 2002.

Since those fateful days, both NASCAR and Formula 1 have undergone immense change with new safety implementations to the fore. Both series' now use the HANS device; a safety feature designed to prevent drivers receiving injuries like baseular skull fractures - the cause of Earnhardt's death. While many contemporary grand prix circuits have undergone tremendous alterations to their layouts to accommodate larger run off areas, and in the main, bare little resemblance to the circuits used pre-1994, the ovals used in NASCAR have fundamentally not. The dimensions of the concrete lined superspeedways are not as easy to alter although the implementation of the SAFER barrier system: which provides a softer impact zone than concrete in the event of an accident, has been a welcome addition and saved many a driver from more serious injury.

Perhaps of greater importance however, was NASCAR's development of the 'Car of Tomorrow' concept, which has taken the safety of stock car design to an unprecedented level. The old tubular and sheet metal frames of yesteryear were out-dated even before Earnhardt's demise and offered little in terms of protection for a driver when impacting a wall. In the immediate years leading up to 'The Intimidator's' death, the sport had witnessed numerous large accidents and many drivers were fortunate to get away with their lives. Some however, were not so lucky. Throughout a fifteen month period spanning 2000-2001, NASCAR was clouded by an epidemic of on-track deaths and while the demise of Earnhardt, Kenny Irwin Jnr, Adam Petty, and Tony Roper were a bitter pill to swallow, it took the death of the youngster Blaise Alexander some eight months after Earnhardt's crash before any change was deemed necessary.

Unlike the knee-jerk reactions Senna's crash had generated with the FIA - Formula 1's governing body, in the weeks after Earnhardt's passing, NASCAR avoided the temptation to enforce such measures and took a more long term approach. Acknowledging the need for change, ideas were carefully formulated to produce a car of the future that was safer, easier to drive and ultimately, cheaper for the teams to run.

Thus, at the 2007 Food City 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway, the 'Car of Tomorrow' made its long awaited debut. Greeted with a degree of scepticism, the new design ran a partial schedule that year of sixteen races but several drivers and pundits greeted the new car with distaste. Despite several initial teething problems with the innovative machines, they were made mandatory from the 2008 season onwards and have been occasionally tweaked to ensure greater performance and above all, greater excitement for the fans.

Both Senna and Earnhardt were unquestionably the men of their generations and their respective deaths brought Formula 1 and NASCAR into the mainstream media across the globe on the grandest of scales. As a direct result, each discipline generated an increased television audience and with that came an increase in spectator demands. New markets were to be exploited and while Formula 1 began entering new continents such as Asia, it became increasingly distant from its fan base as some team bosses grew increasingly drunk on their own power. NASCAR soon followed suit and staged races in Canada and Mexico but focused on entertaining the US fans even more than had been achieved previously and to a man, they loved it.

At the dawn of May this year, Formula 1 fans will honour Ayrton Senna in their own discreet way but please, take a little time this Sunday to remember another great driver who was also tragically lost to us on the race track:

A true legend, Ralph Dale Earnhardt Snr (1951-2001).

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