Forced grief

The media's portrayal of Dale Earnhardt as a hero of Michael Jordanesque proportions is nonsense.

By Allen Barra

Published February 21, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

For me, the hardest part about dealing with Dale Earnhardt's death is writing about it. I have never written a word about Dale Earnhardt, and my guess is that I will not ever write about him again after today. In fact, I have never written a word about an auto racer or about auto racing in any form.

My situation, I'm guessing, is similar to that of hundreds of TV and print journalists all around the country who suddenly are put in the position of having to write about a sport they don't particularly like or follow or even consider a sport. (And I mean that last part in the best possible sense. I'm not altogether certain golf is a sport, and I'm fairly convinced that two-thirds of the activities I see on the Olympics aren't sports.)

And now I'm being put in a position where I must either agree with everyone or be my usual contrarious self regarding the litany of editorials that rank Earnhardt with Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter et al., or at least imply that his loss will affect us the way their loss would. This is nonsense, and it's based largely on a misunderstanding of numbers (as in TV ratings, attendance, etc.) and what they represent.

Auto racing, particularly NASCAR, is followed by a relatively small sampling of Americans compared to other major sports, regardless of how devoted its fans might be in following the circuit or sitting in front of a TV. Please, please don't bombard me with facts and figures; from the house where I type this I can see a playground where eight kids are playing baseball, six more are playing basketball and three others (though I can't exactly figure out how) are playing tennis. I can see something like this most days of the year, even, like today, in February. I have never, never seen people "play" NASCAR (except in front of a video screen). Racing, however fanatical a devotion it inspires in its almost exclusively white followers, doesn't have that kind of relation to its fans, and unlike, say, football, which will draw millions of viewers to the Super Bowl even if they haven't watched a game all year, auto racing has no relation at all to people who don't follow it fanatically.

What I'm saying, I guess, is that in other sports the game is bigger than any individual. Babe Ruth can only be as big as he is in American mythology because he is part of something bigger than he could ever be. In racing, there really is no "game" to be loyal to; it's all fanatical devotion to individuals. Which is the main reason it has never really connected with me.

What I like most about sport is the illusion that a player, any player, represents something bigger than himself, which is why I have a tough time loving golf and tennis as much as I do baseball and basketball, but at least in golf and tennis I'm helped along by a tradition that was there before me and will be there after me. (Is this what sportswriters mean when, for better or worse, they talk about fans' "religious-like devotion" to Alabama or Notre Dame football or the Philadelphia Flyers? I think so.) I get nothing like this from auto racing.

Which doesn't mean I don't get something. I lied earlier when I said I didn't like it or follow it. I was trying to make a point. I don't write about it for three simple reasons, the first of which is that it is tightly controlled from the inside, and most of what you see written on NASCAR, especially, isn't journalism but managed PR. Second -- and I'm sorry to have to get into it -- most racing fans don't read, at least not beyond hero-worshipping profiles and industry gossip. Which is the third reason. Beyond a couple of groundbreaking pieces like Tom Wolfe's legendary profile on Junior Johnson, there really isn't much to write about.

And, of course, there is a fourth reason. I'm talking about the sport's fundamental dishonesty. I don't mean the actual racing part, which has a purity unsurpassed by any other sporting activity besides boxing. I mean the awe-inspiring sense of denial that a fascination with destruction and death isn't behind a large part of auto racing's appeal.

I'm going to stop dancing around this and say it: Dale Earnhardt's death touched me not at all. I don't mean that I can't look at his widow and kids and teammates and not understand what they are feeling; I mean that I don't feel personally touched, the way I am by, say, the recent deaths of Tommy Agee and Eddie Mathews.

To completely unburden myself, I'm a little put off by the forced grief I see in the sports media. Here is a man (the ol' Intimidator) who didn't merely court and risk death every time he turned on an engine, but a man who seemed to have no hesitation at all for risking the lives of other men. I mean, Dale Earnhardt didn't just defy death -- which is why we salute him for his courage -- he was in fact one of the men most likely to cause it in other men who worked in his profession. For this, at least in part, Dale Earnhardt became a hero, the fact of which should give us pause.

Let me try to choose my words carefully here. I won't say that there was a poetic justice in Earnhardt's death, but there is a grisly irony that it occurred right after the huge NASCAR TV pact. This was going to be the race where NASCAR began to show that it could burst right out of the geographical and class stereotypes that have surrounded it from its inception. And now, a lot of fans who tuned in for the purpose of deciding whether this entertainment is for them are going to have something else to think about, namely that it is a sport, if it is a sport, where violent death is an absolutely inescapable part of the baggage. I've always thought it ironic that crackups in racing are called "accidents"; a far more fitting word would be "inevitables."

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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