"Red asphalt" and "Forced grief"

Readers respond to our stories on the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Published February 22, 2001 12:36PM (EST)

Read "Red asphalt" by King Kaufman.

I've been a racing fan for quite a few years now, most of my adult life. Watching races is one of the things my family does together. I have a son or daughter about to be born, and racing is one of the things I looked forward to sharing with my child.

With Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s death, I just don't know anymore. Earnhardt was my driver. The racing world hasn't seen anything like him in a long time. Drivers die in this sport -- that's all too true. The death of Adam Petty broke my heart because I felt so terrible for his father, Kyle; it hurt to see him grieving. It hurt to see him grieving still on Sunday as he climbed into his son's car, the car they had built for Adam to drive this year. Every time a driver is killed, the sport is lessened. Every time a driver dies on the track, you wonder why they take such risks.

But part of what makes racing so appealing is the risk it entails. If they were driving bumper cars, no one would watch, and probably the drivers wouldn't race. Like the commentator said on CNN/SI, we've seen Dale wreck a thousand times. I have seen him in wrecks that I thought he couldn't survive. I've seen other drivers in wrecks that seemed impossible to live through, yet they did. And that is part of the dramatic appeal of racing, as horrible as it sounds. I do not enjoy wrecks -- not like some fans, who hoot and holler at the sight of smoke and spinning cars. I would watch racing if there were no wrecks. But if the danger of those wrecks did not exist, racing would have little appeal.

Racing isn't a game. It draws directly on the human desire to witness the immortality of a driver who can crawl from a pile of twisted metal and wave to the crowd. What shocks, what appalls the sensibilities, is when they don't walk away, when the god is cut low at the height of his power and beauty.

Dale Earnhardt was the highest of these gods or demons of speed, the greatest of them all. We have seen him survive so much and come out victorious in the end. We have seen him stare death in the face when his car was engulfed in flames and emerge embarrassed that his mustache had been burned off. We have seen him tossed in the air and slammed again and again by other cars and come through with little more than a wounded wing. And we have seen him sacrifice victory to stop his car and check on a fellow racer whose wreck he had caused (Rusty Wallace).

Nothing can replace Dale Earnhardt in my mind and in my heart. I don't know if I'll ever watch racing again. Probably I will -- if only for the sake of my children, should they come to love racing as I have. The bond between a driver and his fans goes deeper than in any other sport. Few athletes inspire such fierce devotion, and witnessing the end of his career in this way is something every fan knows might happen, but is never prepared to see.

A favorite driver is like a member of the family. For me, all those who race are my family. Every Sunday, I watch them risk their lives. I watch them wreck and I hold my breath waiting for the window net to come down. I watch them elude fate by inches. I watch them win and lose. And I cheer for those who haven't won in a while and boo those who seem to win all the time because I want everyone to have a good time and share in the fun.

But I don't know anymore. I don't know how I can watch my friends do it any longer -- not after seeing the best of them die. I wonder, even he? Even Dale Earnhardt? And if him, then anyone.

-- Jeff Crook

I just finished reading "Red asphalt" by King Kaufman, and I am sick to my stomach. Just because one of your writers doesn't understand NASCAR doesn't mean he should write an editorial about how we should have expected Dale Earnhardt to die and how he finds it unbelievable that people are in disbelief of his death.

If every person out there who despises football, boxing or -- gasp -- pro wrestling wrote a nasty article after someone who was beloved died, it would only add more ugliness to the situation. Yes, stock car racing is something that has risks, but that is why they are professionals and we are the audience. No one expected this to happen to Dale Earnhardt because he was the best of the best. He was the pilot who flew hundreds of flights safely who then had the one accident that took his life.

What is it that attracts people to NASCAR racing? It's much more than just watching people driving in circles racing their engines. It's family. Most, if not all, the NASCAR drivers are Christian people. They share their lives with their fans, and we feel that we could be in their shoes if a few things could have been different in our lives. We could be the driver, or the tire guy, or someone else there in the pits.

Unlike many of the professional mainstream sports, there are only about 60 racers total in the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, so you get a chance to meet the racers and to know them. No offense to the many NFL fans and NBA fans out there, but NASCAR does not have many drivers involved with drive-by shootings, murders, drugs or weapons charges. Our "flaw," if you wish to call it that, is that we love our drivers, and we encourage them to do what God has given them to do: Race. And when they leave us, we mourn.

Before you publish things like this, think about how it affects race fans like myself who are educated, well-rounded individuals.

In 1997 when Princess Diana passed away, no self-respecting journalist wrote how asinine it was for her not only to get into that car with a drunken driver but to encourage him to speed in a tunnel, which ultimately caused an accident that claimed her life. I am not saying that Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the humanitarian that Princess Diana was, but he was an Everyman's man: a hardworking, loving father; an all-around good guy who off the racetrack would help anyone out in a heartbeat, but hated recognition for it. On the racetrack he was the one to beat. Not everyone loved him, but all respected him.

-- Lori Resnick

The fatal attraction of auto racing has been with us for a very long time. What makes the picture different today is that NASCAR has been repositioned on television thanks to cable, satellite, sagging network ratings in general, auto company promotions, the need for white boys who win, "reality" TV and a new eagerness to reach the male audience somehow.

Sports Illustrated brightened my youth with tales of Wolfgang von Tripps and the rest smashing their brains out on Formula 1 tracks in Europe, and the roll call of Indy and NASCAR dead is long and noble. I have a friend who has written about auto racing for 40 years. He can get a tear in his eye almost instantaneously by talking about Eddie Sachs and Bill Vukovich dying at Indy. In the wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 our lads accounted for fewer than 1 percent of all the dead. I have often wondered if we don't have a hidden need to show our willingness to risk death for honor. But that's too simple. The answer has to lie in all those advertisers' logos plastered on every fast car.

-- Bill Sheldon

Read "Forced grief" by Allen Barra.

Thank you, Allen Barra. Like you, I wouldn't have been affected by Dale Earnhardt's death if I hadn't been bombarded by messages informing me that I was supposed to be. The tragedy for NASCAR is that its uninteresting product will become even duller with the absence of "The Intimidator."

I send out my condolences to those who knew him. For the rest of the mourning NASCAR fans, you still have Jerry Springer, beer, arm-wrestling, Hank Williams Jr. and more beer to help you through these difficult times.

-- A.C. Hill

Allen Barra, it seems, should get out of New York more often. His assertion that the popularity of NASCAR, and motor sports in general, is mere smoke and mirrors reflects the perspective of someone who is living in the only region of the country where auto racing (and Friday night high school football) is not an obsession. It also betrays an unpleasant haughtiness and condescension on his part -- race fans don't read? I guess we're all barefoot, inbred cretins, too.

I'm a native of New Jersey, but worked as a radio announcer in the rural South for a number of years. One AM station I worked for ran NASCAR races -- replete with poor fidelity, roaring engines and announcers shouting to be heard. Yet the programs were our most popular, with both listeners and advertisers.

BTW, I'm also a lifelong Yankees fan, but I would wager that the loss of Derek Jeter would have nowhere near the national effect that Earnhardt's death had.

-- Peter J. Lyden III

I agree with Allen Barra that Dale Earnhardt Sr. died the way he lived, and that it was just as likely that he could have caused the death of another racer as another causing his death. What I fail to understand is why Salon would publish a personal essay from a writer who doesn't mourn the death of Earnhardt, and who at points even seems excited about it.

Using this article as a template, I think you should start a whole series. When anyone famous dies, you find someone to write why they don't care that this person died. Since most people, even celebrities, have more people who are indifferent toward them then actual fans, your series would have wide appeal.

I can only hope that you will consider me for an article when Allen Barra dies. I would love to go out of my way to say, "I don't grieve for him," and that "his death didn't touch me at all."

Salon, you have a great series on your hands; run with it.

-- Joshua Davis

I can't believe you would print such a thoughtless piece. Allen Barra has no idea how many people he is offending with his unkind words and sentiments. Dale Earnhardt Sr. is indeed as big as Michael Jordan -- the only difference being that Jordan is a has-been while Earnhardt's star continued to rise. I don't follow basketball, but I would understand if people were to grieve if Jordan were to pass unexpectedly.

If Barra doesn't enjoy NASCAR or know who Dale Earnhardt is or why he mattered -- and he believes so strongly that NASCAR has little to no following -- he should ask himself why Coca-Cola has NASCAR drivers on every vending machine he passes or why Burger King and McDonald's have drivers featured in many commercials. The fact that NASCAR racing is a sport (yes, a sport!) he doesn't choose to follow is no one's problem but his own. Fans grieving over a tremendous loss don't need to read his remarks. A little more tact next time, Mr. Barra.

-- Jennifer Powers

Kudos to Allen Barra for his measured article about the untimely death of American pseudo-hero Dale Earnhardt Sr. I grew up around stock car racing -- walking the pits with my brother and father, chatting with Bobby and Donnie Allison and, later, Bobby's son Davey. I have drifted away from any sort of regular attendance, and only pay marginal attention to the races on TV.

I watched flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500. Close, tight racing with very few slips until the massive accident involving Tony Stewart. Seventeen cars were destroyed or badly damaged, but everyone walked away from the grisly scene.

Then came the fateful last lap. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was blocking other cars to assist the two leaders, both with ties to his fortunes if they finished in first or second place. What would Earnhardt have done if he were the one being blocked? He would have "moved them outta the way," as he liked to say. In spite of his incredible skills, Earnhardt was a thug and a bully. He didn't earn his title "The Intimidator" without reason.

Karma is a cruel taskmaster. I don't believe Sterling Marlin intended to bump Dale Earnhardt, but the results were the same, nonetheless. Will he be missed? Most definitely. But there will be someone to fill the void, someone who will appeal to the same lowest common denominator and rise to equal popularity. That person may not match Earnhardt's winning ways or equal his skill, but as long as there are people willing to pay big dollars for the WWF smackdown, there will always be an audience for someone with a driving style like Earnhardt's.

-- W.T. Moore

By Salon Staff

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