Friday, May 11, 2007

A NASCAR Bombshell

If this were political news, the papers would print the headline in the big WAR! font.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the team his father (who died in a last lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001) built.

There is nothing like Dale Jr. in any other sport. NASCAR is peculiar in that there are no home fields. While Tom Brady is revered by fans in New England, when he plays on the road the most you can say is he is regarded as a respected enemy. In NASCAR, each week there are 43 drivers on the road, each vying for fan support. Not just for the sake of egos: drivers and teams can exchange fan support for dollars.

Go to any track, and you’ll find more than half the fans will be rooting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. For the tracks in the traditional NASCAR stronghold, the south, it’s probably closer to 75%. Whoever is second in popularity, it is a very distant second. The only sound at a NASCAR race that rivals the start of the engines is the cheering when Dale Jr. passes for the lead.

Last summer I was at a race in Loudon, NH. It must have been 105 degrees in the (metal) grandstands, and we were packed in. Very early in the race, Dale Jr. was forced to retire his car. (I can't remember if it was a crash or an engine failure.) A good fraction of the Dale Jr. fans, which means a good fraction of all the fans, simply got up and left. They had paid roughly $100 per ticket, not to mention travel expenses, but a race without Jr. was, to them, a race not worth watching. (That was a wonderful thing indeed—the entire row in front of us left, and many in our row. We all spread out and stayed much cooler. )

His popularity is not based on his being the best driver, he’s not. He’s very good, but he is not the best. His career has been successful, but not spectacular. His father was much more successful, yet his father was loved and hated. Dale Sr.’s appeal did not match the magnitude Dale Jr.’s, and very few people despise Jr. No, Jr.’s popularity is rooted in several factors. Many fans watched him grow up in the sport, alongside his father. There is the emotion of his father's death, which in some crazy psycho-calculus was transferred to love for Dale Jr. Then there is the fact that he is something of a throwback; something about him reminds us of the golden era of the likes of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. And then there is the fact that, unlike so many NASCAR drivers, he is not a whiner. When he gets taken out (wrecked) by another driver’s mistake, rather than throwing a tantrum he generally shrugs it off to “racin’”.

At the moment, it appears he will join Richard Childress Racing, the team his father raced for. (He'll finish out the year for DEI.) If so, this is something like the prodigal son returning. (RCR is the team of my favorite driver, Kevin Harvick. Harvick is the driver who had the unenviable task of replacing Dale Sr. after he was killed.) If it happens—well I simply cannot imagine the fan reaction at next year’s first race (the Daytona 500) when Dale Jr. races in a car that I am certain, while it will have Budweiser as the primary sponsor, will look as much as possible like his father’s famous black number 3.

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