Earnhardt's greatness was always on display

NASCAR chairman Bill France, never a man given to superlatives, said Sunday night, “NASCAR has lost its greatest driver.”

Beyond that, Earnhardt is the greatest American driver to die racing — and one of the most titanic heroes of the American common folk to die young. He was 49.

He died striving for an eighth Winston Cup championship, which would have broken his career tie with the legendary Richard Petty at the pinnacle of NASCAR.

For France to use the word “greatest” so firmly in the world of Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and more recently Jeff Gordon is monumental.

Earnhardt’s greatness cannot, and must not, be measured in wins. He won 76 races, only sixth on the all-time list. His victories were mere afterthoughts to the millions of fans in a following that was unequalled by any other NASCAR driver.

His was a style so fearless — so far beyond what would have been the edge of control for any normal driver — that the fans felt they got more than their money’s worth from him on every lap he raced.

Earnhardt died on the final turn of the final lap of his 676th Winston Cup race, and his 22nd Daytona 500. Until that fateful moment that he crashed against the fourth-turn wall, every moment of every lap of those 676 races had been the most enthralling show his fans could ask for.

In his notorious black No. 3 Chevrolets he was the Intimidator, rough riding, fierce, sometimes ruthless, and he would become almost one with the 3,400-pound car as he made it move like a ballerina, stalk like a panther, strike like a water moccasin.

From the grandstands he was beheld as superhuman. And somehow when the fans came close to him, to talk or touch him, they never could quite humanize him. They were skittish. They would grasp their autographs gratefully and hurry away, careful to keep their distance once more.

But if you knew him, really knew the complicated, enormously gruff but deeply compassionate man (oh, how he hated it when his big heart showed in public), risen from the textile mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., with a ninth-grade education ... if you really knew him, then Ralph Dale Earnhardt was human, so deeply OF the common folk who loved him.

Riding with him.

Always riding with him.

Those are the times that come back so clearly now, riding in a passenger car with him driving, for those were the only times when you could really see him, really hear him, really know him. ...

It is 1987 again: Raining so hard you can’t see Interstate 40, somewhere deep in North Carolina, on this April day of the year — and of his life, and mine.

Teresa and the kids are with us in the station wagon, and Dale Earnhardt is kicked back at the wheel, virtually reclined, no seat belt, steering with his left forefinger, thumping Dale Jr., 12, on the ears with his right.

Maybe 50 yards ahead, out of nowhere in the fog and rain, both lanes of traffic are stopped.

Nowhere to go.

I mean, NOWHERE for a mortal man to steer that station wagon safely.

No point in hitting the brakes, either. That would be useless.

The left forefinger flicks toward the right. Now we are on the center white line of the highway, maybe 60 mph, headed right up the bumpers of both lanes of traffic.

No, we’ve slipped BETWEEN both lanes of traffic. There’s a gap — flick left. Another gap — flick right.

Back on the center line again, between two more cars, never slowing, flick left again, flick right, and just as suddenly we have come to a stop, safely, in the right lane of traffic.

He grins at Dale Jr., thumps him on the ear again, winks at Teresa as if he was just havin’ a little fun with her.

But he turns and glances at me and winces mightily for a moment — to let me know HE knows just how close to disaster all of us just came.

No mortal driver could have pulled that off. You could see his greatness everywhere you rode with him, in any vehicle.

Riding down another North C’lina (his pronunciation) highway, talking about the good times, talking about the hard times. Nobody had it harder coming up through racing. Nobody. His father died in 1973 and after that, Dale was on his own, runnin’ dirt for grocery money.

“I’d borrow money on 90-day notes from the bank just to race, and try to pay it back the next week. Family [the second one, Dale Jr. and Kelley and second wife Brenda] didn’t have groceries, and my wife would stand in the doorway with them kids and cry when I’d back out of the driveway haulin’ that ol’ dirt car.

“We prob’ly ought to have been on welfare. People kept tellin’ me, ‘Boy, you better git you a real job and quit that ol’ racin’.’”

One night at Cherokee Speedway in South Carolina, third place paid enough for grocery money, and fourth place didn’t.

“So ol’ Stick Elliott’s runnin’ third and I’m fourth, and I ease on up behind him and hook his back bumper and turn him around just as pretty as you please. He spins out and I go on and finish third.

“Got back in the pits, getting out of the car, somebody come runnin’, told me Tommy [one of Elliott’s crewmen] was comin’ with a pistol.

“I took off runnin’ out of the pits, ran across the track, jumped over the fence and ran off.

“Next Friday night at driver’s meetin’, I’m standing there and here comes ol’ Stick right up beside me and here come his boys with him, and I’m thinkin’ ‘Ohhhhhhhh, hell....’

“And Stick turns to me and grins and he says, ‘You know what, boy? You just might make a driver yet.’

“Nossir. All these people [other drivers] screamin’, cryin’, hollerin’ about me [wrecking them], hell, they ain’t ever SEEN the kind of hard racin’ I’ve had to do in MY lifetime, just to SURVIVE.”

Riding in a four-wheel-drive truck through the mud on his sprawling property, and down onto a dirt road, winding into the woods, and in a clearing there stand four or five hardscrabble farmers, his neighbors.

The land all around them is washed and rutted with the recent North C’lina floods, and the men have those blank looks on their faces farmers get when their crops are devastated and they are distraught — those hollow looks.

“Stay in the truck, Hinton.”

He wants to talk with them quietly.

He doesn’t want to embarrass them — doesn’t want them to think I hear the conversation. But I hear snippets.

Their crops have been washed away.

“Y’all be ready to plant when I get that seed to you,” he says.

They mumble some sort of protests.

“Don’t WORRY about it!” he growls.

“Just don’t ask no questions. Just y’all have them damn tractors ready to roll when that seed gets here.”

Later, I will learn that the seed he sends them, at his expense, is measured in the tons on tons.

Four-wheel-drive again, another country highway, 70 mph at least, WHOOM! Hard right turn onto a rutted dirt road.

“Earnhardt, what the — “

“Gotta go see Schrader, man.”

Sometime in the ’80s, and Schrader is struggling up into NASCAR almost by his fingernails, off the hard-bitten dirt tracks of Missouri, and the truck pulls up by a mobile home sitting out in a field in North C’lina with several old beat-up dirt-track cars occupying what passes for a yard.

Earnhardt sits in a folding chair and just hangs, man, just hangs, letting the struggling driver know Earnhardt is there if he is needed.

Earnhardt always helps the strugglers. Soon he’ll give an unknown California vagabond named Ernie Irvan a car and enough money to outfit it for his first Winston Cup race.

Earnhardt never lets a struggler fall by the wayside. Earnhardt came up too hard himself.

He has never forgotten.

And he will never forget — right up until the day he dies, on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 — he will never forget.

Even as he dies instantly against the fourth-turn wall, another driver, up ahead, Michael Waltrip, a hard-luck guy all his life, suddenly with a break, suddenly in a Dale Earnhardt-owned race car, the first great ride of his career, is taking the checkered flag.