With all due respect to the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the many fans who are mourning his death Sunday in a crash at the Daytona 500, I don’t understand auto racing, and I don’t understand auto racing fans.
I understand the basic appeal — the competition, the speed and, especially with stock car racing, the personalities and the connection to your own experience. The cars look more or less like the ones in our driveways. Even if you’ve never raced, who among us hasn’t idly pictured ourselves behind the wheel of a rumbling NASCAR machine as we tooled around a curve on some county two-lane? And stock car racers seem less like the pampered egomaniacs who populate most other major sports and a lot more like your Uncle Billy, the one who’s always tinkering with an engine in his garage and who, one of these days, will get that ’35 Ford Tudor on the road. It’s easy to identify with them.
That appeal is what’s behind the six-year, $2 billion TV rights package NASCAR scored with Fox, NBC and TBS this year. Sunday’s Daytona 500 was the first broadcast in the campaign to position NASCAR closer to the American sporting mainstream.
I get all that. What I don’t understand is how racing fans can get emotionally involved in a sport whose heroes, almost as a matter of routine, die suddenly. Earnhardt’s death was the 27th of a driver at Daytona since it opened in 1959. That’s one every year and a half, just at one track. In the last year, four NASCAR drivers — Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, truck racer Tony Roper and Earnhardt — have died in crashes, though that’s an unusually high death toll.
A good deal of the draw of following a sport is an emotional connection with the performers. As a baseball fan, I recently got a little choked up on hearing the news that Tommy Agee had died of a heart attack at 58. I had no particular connection to Agee, never rooted for a team he played on and don’t think I ever saw him play in person, but his heroics for the New York Mets in the 1969 World Series are among my earliest memories as a fan.
I couldn’t take it if the players I follow were subject to sudden, violent death as part of the sports I enjoyed. Why would I want to put myself through that kind of pain? I’ve watched Earnhardt’s fans and colleagues on TV these last two days as they’ve grieved. So many of them have said the same thing: We never expected this.
I feel bad for Earnhardt, and for his family, friends, teammates and fans. Of course his death is a terrible tragedy, and I don’t mean to belittle the genuine suffering it’s caused. But there’s a part of me that says, How can you not have expected this? You follow a sport in which men drive cars at 180 mph in heavy traffic inches from a cement barrier. What, exactly, did you expect?
Auto racing has a cousin in boxing, a sport I used to cover and with which I still have a love-hate relationship. Participants in both sports are often severely injured and sometimes die as a result of the competition, and for that reason both have critics who think them barbaric.
I can’t really argue with that opinion, though I don’t agree with those who want to see either sport outlawed. I’m not sure a little barbarism isn’t a good thing once in a while if the participants are willing, and anyway outlawing things doesn’t make them go away, it just pushes them underground and makes them more dangerous.
I used to ask all the boxers I knew how they could keep climbing into the ring knowing they were taking their life in their hands. How could it not preoccupy them that something could go terribly wrong and they could be fatally injured? You know what they always said? You take your life in your hands every time you get behind the wheel of your car, but you don’t think about it.
The thing is, I would think about it if I drove 180 mph.
This weekend, as NASCAR’s Winston Cup series goes on as scheduled in Rockingham, N.C., in the heart of NASCAR country, 100 miles from Dale Earnhardt’s home, the fans will be thinking about it too. I don’t understand how they can enjoy it.