I had to chuckle when I read Paul Fearnley’s blog last week about Romain Grosjean and the need for bad guys – black characters – in motor racing.
Paul’s examples were well-taken but all of them pale into utter insignificance compared to the truly legendary Dale Earnhardt, motor racing’s archetypal ‘Man in Black’.
Through the late 1980s and ’90s Earnhardt cultivated and projected his image as one of NASCAR’s toughest guys, always ready to use the fender when necessary. He drove a black Chevrolet with a white #3 on the roof and doors, and most of the time he seemed to wear a smirking grin beneath his trim, drooping moustache.
Unlike most forms of motor racing, stock car racing is a contact sport and Earnhardt was a grand master of ‘laying a fender’ on another car. Using your car’s fenders to best effect is one of the arts of the game, and nobody could do it better than him. Earnhardt was known first of all as ‘Iron Head’, then became ‘The Intimidator’, and over the years he crashed many people, almost always with a deft touch. He played the odds and won many times. He raised the ire of plenty of drivers and even more fans, emerging as the man people loved to hate.
In a US Scene column a few years ago I described a day at Daytona twenty years ago when Earnhardt crashed into Al Unser Jr’s tail on the last lap of an IROC race, knocking Unser ‘out of the ballpark’. Al Jr was as good as anyone in those days and regularly raced with and beat the NASCAR stars in IROC races at Daytona and elsewhere. Al had done a perfect job, slingshooting through into the lead going into the last lap.
But Earnhardt inched closer all the way down the back straight and as they thundered into turn three on the last lap Earnhardt hammered into the tail of Unser’s car. The collision sent Al Jr flying. In fact, he went over the wall and catch fence and literally ‘out of the ballpark’.
Thankfully, he was entirely uninjured. A little shaken to be sure, but unscratched. Back in the garage Earnhardt was grinning and telling the story. “Aw shucks, man! That’s racing! He knew I was coming. He’s okay, ain’t he?”
It was a salubrious lesson for Unser and I’ll always remember Earnhardt’s great rival and sometimes pal Rusty Wallace scowling about the incident. “Now you know why we all hate him,” Wallace barked.
After reflecting on the incident, Al Jr. reached a conclusion. “I guess the only way to beat him is to get far enough ahead so he can’t touch you because if he can get to you, he’s gonna crash you.”
A few years later Alex Zanardi learned a lesson or two from Earnhardt in another IROC race at Daytona. It was the first time Zanardi had driven a stock car or raced at Daytona. He was a raw rookie in that environment and after running well in the middle of the pack for a handful of laps Zanardi was knocked out of line by Earnhardt. The Italian fell back while Earnhardt went on to win.
In the pits after the race Zanardi surveyed the marks on his car’s right rear fender and talked about his rookie experience at Daytona. As Zanardi chatted in his thoughtful, amiable way, Earnhardt swaggered into the frame, grinning widely.
“Hey Zanardi!” he crowed. “What happened to you? Somebody hit you? Now, who would do that to you?”
Earnhardt’s grin grew even wider. “Man!” he added. “You gotta keep your wits about you when you’re runnin’ in the draft like that. Stick with me next time Zanardi. I’ll show you how t’do it.”
With that he was off, leaving Zanardi to ponder some more. About an hour later Zanardi sat down to watch the video of the race and discovered that it was Earnhardt no less who knocked him out of the way on his way to winning.
“He taught me a few lessons today,” Alex reflected. “I know a lot more about him now, on the track and off. They don’t come any tougher or smarter than that, do they? Maybe next time I’ll be ready for him.”
Many drivers hoped for the same after coming off second-best in a scuffle with Earnhardt. Like I said at the beginning, nobody played the game of stock car racing better than ‘The Intimidator’. NASCAR would love to have another ‘Man in Black’, but in a world where all the drivers are trained corporate pitchmen–in NASCAR in particular–nobody will ever fill the giant shoes Earnhardt left behind.