They're Crying Over Dale Earnhardt Now...

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Earnhardt at the Watkins Glen racetrack in August 2000

Some years ago, someone asked three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip why racing fans loved Dale Earnhardt. "Did you ever look in the grandstands?" Waltrip said. "There's your answer. Dale is one of them."

Not anymore. Sunday, in the last lap of the first and biggest race of the 2001 NASCAR season, the sport's greatest driver got tangled up with another car and slammed his trademark No. 3 black Chevrolet into the wall at the Daytona International Speedway. He was killed instantly.

For die-hard racing fans, an almost unimaginable tragedy. For NASCAR, perhaps, a blessing draped in black.

This was the year NASCAR was going for the big time. The circuit had its first big network TV contract — a six-year, $2.4 billion deal with Fox — an expansion of the schedule to cities in the West, Midwest and Northeast, and some new rules designed to make the sport more exciting to the general public. Fox, with the colorful Waltrip in the booth, eagerly applied its particular brand of glitzy graphics and breathless hype to the proceedings. No longer was stock-car racing going to be the Roger Clinton of professional sports — it was making its bid to join baseball, football, basketball, in the American sport mainstream.

The Earnhardt crash, tragic as it may be, could be its ticket. The deadly mishap landed Earnhardt — and NASCAR — at the top of every Sunday-night newscast and on the front page of every Monday-morning newspaper. The sport wanted to reach a wider audience, gain a greater legitimacy. And for anyone whose interest in the sport was piqued by the news — and whose wasn't? — the Earnhardt obituary makes a sad-but-perfect introduction.

With an eighth-grade education, a push-broom mustache and a from-the-gut driving style that earned him the nickname "The Intimidator," Earnhardt was as apt a face as any for a sport whose roots lie with Prohibition-era bootleggers who souped up their cars to outrun fat sheriffs on dusty Dixie roads, and he had a devilish grin to match anything Burt Reynolds flashed in "Smokey and the Bandit."

Hailing from Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt was a good ol' boy who made good, earning $41 million and starting a business, Dale Earnhardt Inc., that owned the car of his son, Dale Jr., who finished second, and winner Michael Waltrip (younger brother of Darrell). His driving style ruffled plenty of feathers, but in 1998, when Earnhardt won his only Daytona 500 on his 20th try, someone from nearly every Winston Cup crew in the infield reached out to slap his hand as he drove toward victory lane.

On Sunday night, the flag at Daytona flew at half-mast, and thousands thronged the flagpole to shed their tears.

Some of this mourning will turn to scrutiny — and concern that Earnhardt's death will be bad news for the sport. Some will wonder why Earnhardt didn't wear a full helmet with face shield while driving or have a HANS (head and neck support) system in his car like some of his colleagues. And the rule changes instituted for Sunday's race — restrictor plates and aerodynamic changes on cars to slow them down, making passing easier and the race more exciting because of it — will have their day under the hot lights.

But bad publicity? In this case, the man was right — there's no such thing. The crashes are at least half of NASCAR's appeal. It is a sport whose appeal depends on reality, on a high level of daring mixed with some degree of ordinariness. No otherworldly 7-footers, no gravity-defying leaps and bounds — just ordinary-looking people driving ordinary-looking cars at wildly unsafe speeds on clogged racetracks. And the crashes make it real.

Part of Earnhardt's legend is the time he crawled out of an ambulance and limped back to his mangled car after learning it was still driveable. This time he hit the wall and didn't move. But for Earnhardt, at 49, to die at the top of his sport and the height of his popularity, on NASCAR's biggest stage? That may be as good, and as poignant, as sport gets, even if sports fans generally like their life-and-death struggles a little more on the metaphorical side. And by Monday morning everybody in America had gotten a taste.

Sunday's Fox telecast was watched by an estimated 30 million viewers, and anyone who tuned in from curiosity was rewarded with a race that featured a near-record 49 lead changes and a spectacular 18-car pile-up on lap 174 from which everybody walked away. By all accounts, an exciting race, and one that might have converted many of the estimated 30 million viewers. But the Earnhardt crash — that's the kind of thing that gets people involved, and when the main complaint about the fading-fast XFL is that it isn't extreme enough, NASCAR shouldn't be worried about that 18-24 male demographic getting turned off by the tragedy of it all.

Sports rise on their personalities, as the NBA did on the wings of Bird, Magic and Michael in the '80s and '90s, and NASCAR on Sunday lost its brightest star. But new levels of popularity (and demographic profitability) are not built on 49-year-olds. Earnhardt's old-school cred might have come in handy for a sport that can expect trouble from its traditionalists the more successful it becomes, and for a true NASCAR believer there was always Earnhardt to cut the bitter taste of pretty-boy superstar Jeff Gordon.

Earnhardt was the grandstands, the blue-collar throngs that fill them week in and week out, leaving rivers of spilt beer and spit tobacco in their wake. He was one of them. But NASCAR is now after the rest, all the people in America that Dale Earnhardt was not, and the circuit should count itself lucky that mainstream America is getting at least one good long look at him while they can.

NASCAR will certainly wish it had him and his hirsute grin to do commercials on its new network home, and keep the old school alive. It will mourn Dale Earnhardt, and miss him. But he did the promo of a lifetime Sunday when he hit that wall between the third and fourth turn.