I found out this week I was a bigger Dale Earnhardt fan than a NASCAR fan. I guess a lot of people found out the same thing. I was talking about it with my long time friend and co-worker Kevin on Tuesday (Kevin is one of the biggest Dale fans anywhere). He’s always said Dale and I shared the same personality. I usually took it as a compliment, laughed and didn’t think about it. This week, Kevin really zeroed in on it, saying two similar aspects were very apparent. One, people who knew Dale, liked him. People who didn’t know him, didn’t know what to make of him. Two, he had a willingness to act like a jerk, as a last resort, to get the job done. When all else failed, he’d take over and bang his way through to the front.
He seemed to validate that attitude for a lot of people. His success showed that it was OK to believe you were right. Somewhat Machiavellian, but effective, as long as nobody got hurt.
So what is NASCAR going to do with people like me now that Dale’s gone? They can’t just invent another Earnhardt. Dale, Jr. is a young driver with a good car, but he’s a completely different personality than his father. Many fans will just transfer their allegiance from the “3” to the “8.” Others won’t be able to do that. Dale Jr. is 26 years old; his father was 49 when he died. NASCAR’s fan base is closer to 49 than it is to 26. So they have to make the sport itself the attraction.
Since it’s inception, NASCAR has been a sport built on personalities. Petty, Yarborough, Roberts, Allison. All personalities who reminded people of themselves. Dale Earnhardt might have been the last of those individual personalities. Willing to speak his mind, Dale never worried about sponsor relations, political correctness or what people thought. He had his fans, and he had his detractors. He was what he was.
Most other drivers have fallen lockstep into the corporate world of niceness. They’re homogenized so as to not make anybody mad. There’s nothing the matter with that with all the money at stake, but it’s not going to draw fans to the sport in the traditional way. The competition itself has to be the reason to watch.
With constant changes in the rules, NASCAR is trying to keep that balance between safety and competitiveness. Keeping the drivers alive should now be the clear focus of the NASCAR officials in a very public way. Nine deaths in the last ten years are starting to make even the diehards wonder.
I’ll be watching the races on Sundays. I used to check who won if I was out. I now realize I was just checking to see if Dale had won. Now I don’t know what I’ll be checking for. Maybe NASCAR will have an answer for that.