On Sunday, February 18th, 2001 (10 years ago to the day) I was driving back to Mobile, Al from Tuscaloosa. I had to do play by play for a college baseball game between South Alabama and North Carolina (ironically). I was late and driving WAY too fast. So after I get pulled over for speeding (when I say speeding I mean flying) I made it to Hank Aaron Stadium for the game between the Jags and Heels. We were in the bottom of the 4th inning when the voice of the AA baseball team in town, Tom Nichols of the Mobile Bay Bears, came into our studio while were on the air. I remember thinking, “dude, we’re on the air. What are you doing.” He was insistent on saying something to us and decided to pick up our third microphone and go on the air without giving us any idea of what he was about to say. “Taylor, I am sorry to interrupt but I have some information that you and your listeners must know,” Tom said. Dale Earnhardt was just involved in a wreck in the Daytona 500 and died soon after.”
There had to be five to ten seconds of dead air that followed. No matter how big or small of a NASCAR fan you were that stopped in you in your tracks. Earnhardt had become bigger than the sport in some ways. If you were from the south he talked like you. He acted like you. He looked like you. Most importantly, he was a bad ass. “The Intimidator” wasn’t afraid to wreck anybody to win a race, and man did he win a lot of races.
I think one of the biggest reasons its so easy to remember where I was is because the sport hasn’t been the same since. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr, is adored by the fans but hasn’t sniffed his father’s success. Jeff Gordon was the enemy for so long and will never be regarded as a man of the people. Jimmie Johnson could be the most talented driver the sport has ever seen but he reminds you of Pete Sampras (boring). Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick resonate with the fans but they’re not from the South.
The point is that when Earnhardt died the sport changed for the worse. It got away from his roots, and its drivers didn’t talk like you. Lee Petty, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarbrough, and Earnhardt all dominated the sport and all of them were just like you. Its so easy to remember what you were doing when Dale died because there hasn’t been anyone like him since. And I’m afraid there never will be again.