Earnhardt Epitomized Excellence

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Let me make a confession. I am not a fan of auto racing.

Before you burn me at the stake as a heretic, make no mistake that I am a genuine southerner in all respects, and have the credentials to prove it:

  • I was born in Alabama

  • I use the term “y’all” and use it correctly

  • I have dressed fish, shot a deer, chewed tobacco (not my favorite, and been called a hick

  • I drive a pickup truck, and

  • I believe that unsweetened tea is a crime against humanity.

But I don’t like car racing.

Identifying with Sports

This is probably because I don’t really identify with any elements of it. My own automotive experience doesn’t include driving around in a circle for three hours at one hundred and eighty. Once, during my first year of college, I drove around Birmingham for two hours because I kept missing my exit. Although I really needed a “pit stop” by the third lap around, this is not quite the same thing.

I occasionally watch motorcycle racing because I once drove one, and the same is true for other sports for which I have some point of identification. The type auto racing closest to real experience is Indy car racing, which takes place on city streets, but even Indy car racing lacks resonance because the drivers don’t have to contend with pedestrians, deer, armadillos, toddlers throwing things from the back seat, and little old ladies who drive twenty and can barely see over the steering wheel.

The most realistic automobile event it the demolition derby. This is because most people like to see things smashed together, torn up, or blown apart. Why else do young boys joint the army, and why else do grown men watch building demolition programs on The Learning Channel? And who hasn’t been cut off in traffic and entertained the notion, however brief, to simply ram the offender’s car at the next traffic light?

You can watch a whole NASCAR race without seeing any metal crunched, but demolition derbies offer mayhem in a continuous stream.

Racing Legend Dies

Interest in car racing, which is predominately a southern phenomenon and is the after effects of Uncle Jed’s bootlegging days, has risen exponentially of late. Evidence of this is found in the abundance of racing memorabilia. If anything rivals beeper and cell phone retailing, it is the car racing memorabilia industry. Joe’s Pool Hall & Carpet Emporium has just added a NASCAR room.

Consequently, everyone should have heard by now that Dale Earnhardt, driving his famous Number 3 car, wrecked on the last lap of last week’s Daytona 500 and died. And though I am well aware of the popularity of racing, I must admit that I was caught quite off guard by the popular reaction to his passing. I’ve heard individuals say they will no longer have Sundays because Earnhardt won’t be on the track. Others say it will be a long time, if ever, before they find another driver worthy of their loyalty. Some Earnhardt fans have even given death threats to Sterlyn Marlin, who was involved in the “bump” that might have initiated Earnhardt’s wreck. The U.S. Congress issued a joint resolution honoring Earnhardt.

It was almost the same when golfer Payne Stewart died. Otherwise sane grown men donned knickers and knee socks in memoriam. It just occurred to me that I might like both golf and racing better if they incorporated elements from other sports. Imagine if Fred Couples could “bump” Tiger Woods as he lined up his tournament-winning two-foot putt, or if race cars were retired like jersey numbers, and were suspended above the track by giant cranes.

Appreciating Excellence

The reason that so many are so affected by the death of prominent sports figures is not simply the cult of personality, as I once thought. It has something to do with excellence. Not many of us will ever achieve the sort of excellence in our trade or profession as Dale Earnhardt did in his. It can truly be said that Earnhardt was among the best race car drivers, if not the best. And very few individuals do so well that the same could be said of them. Whether we collect trash, sell cars, treat illness, or write briefs, a minuscule percentage of us will ever be able to lay claim to being one of the best.

As Proverbs says, a skilled craftsman will be called before kings. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been invited to the royal court, lately.

So, we do the next best thing and root for those who are the best, competing vicariously through them. The mourning of Dale Earnhardt is not mere interest in fame for fame’s sake. It is appreciation of excellence, and reflects, I think, something good about us. While we hear of so many who are cheats, thieves, traitors, and scoundrels, we still like to hear of those who are the best at what they do. I probably won’t ever enjoy auto racing, but I will always appreciate excellence, and Earnhardt exemplified it.

Suitably, Earnhardt’s team won Rockingham one week after he died.


This article first appeared in The Troy Messenger, December 2000.

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