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A lesson from Earnhardt

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, February 17, 2011

Feb. 18, 2001: Michael Waltrip crossed the finish line for his first win in 462 consecutive NASCAR races. It was Daytona racing’s biggest stage and his brother, Daryl, made the call from the broadcast booth, in tears.

Fox Announcer: Daryl, is this better than winning it?

Daryl (in tears and disbelief): Oh it’s better. This is … great. [Then a daunting silence.] I hope Dale’s okay. I guess he’s alright, isn’t he?

He wasn’t.

The living legend became a legend that afternoon, exactly 10 years ago Friday.

The scene was endearing, from the older brother’s tears of joy to the younger Waltrip’s burden finally lifted off of his shoulders.

Yet something was wrong, chillingly wrong.

Of my youth, I remember two moving moments in sports perfectly clear: 1) The New Orleans Saints’ first home game following Hurricane Katrina and 2) The Daytona 500 where we lost Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Why was a 9-year-old kid who hadn’t ever seen a NASCAR race watching? The question still eerily hits me today.

The crash didn’t even look too bad. The illustrious No. 3 car, clipped from behind, lost control and went head-first into the wall. No flips, no flames, no fireworks; after all, we’ve seen far worse on SportsCenter’s Top 10.

Yet something was wrong, terrifyingly wrong.

Waltrip’s tears of joy soon reversed course, and the world felt helpless as NASCAR’s superman passed away.

Today, you still see the black hats with the white and red outlined “3,” or the stickers on the back of a pickup truck. But how do we go only 10 years since his death and still not feel its impact like we do for the respective, tragic passings of Len Bias and Roberto Clemente?

Nonetheless, the man was a celebrity, husband and father. An image still runs in my head of the young Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrating his second place finish in his biggest race, looking to celebrate with someone. But there wasn’t anyone anymore, as Junior soon sped off to find his father. And I sit here, reflecting on how much my father means to me, while feeling the utmost pity for the petrifying, heart-dropping feeling that Junior experienced at that moment, because it is probably the most absolutely terrifying feeling someone could ever have. Ever.

Think about it.

Racing’s equivalent to Michael Jordan died doing the thing that he loved, the way he probably wanted to go.

So here I am 10 years later, still not a NASCAR fan, yet respectful beyond doubt of what Earnhardt’s death means to us all. Just as he did what he loved, we should do the same and encourage others to do so, because this could sadly be one’s last moment. That is the moral of Dale’s story, and it is a shame that it took me 10 years to figure it out.

Something was wrong, horribly wrong. But now we can learn, thanks to No. 3.

The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu