Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The measure of a legend

I hope you won't think it morbid to wish an old stock car racing legend happy birthday.

Dale Earnhardt, born in the halcyon year of 1951, would have been 58 today. And that made him a measuring stick for me. No matter how old I'd get, it would always be comforting to know I'd still be the same age as the baddest driver on the racetrack.

There was nobody like Earnhardt. Richard Petty may have been The King, but Earnhardt was The Intimidator, an almost sinister presence on NASCAR's oval tracks, perhaps as hated as he was loved. Like baseball's Yankees, you felt strongly one way or the other. And he played the roles of hero and villain equally well.

Eight years is a long time and lot of miles, but one thing I'll never forget, can't forget...

I had been looking for a Sunday column angle to set up the 2001 Daytona 500 when I remembered a phone conversation a few years earlier with a good old boy from North Carolina. He talked like he had marbles in his mouth, and I'm almost certain he had crawled out from under a car chassis to take the call that day.

Turns out the guy had worked on Earnhardt's first professional race car, back in those early years kicking up dust on the dirt tracks around Kannapolis, N.C. Anyway, sensing this guy wasn't going to give me much time, I got right to the point.

"Is it true that Dale Earnhardt's first race car was painted pink?''

There was a long pause. "Waaaaaaaall,'' the mechanic finally answered. "God's honest truth, it was supposed to've been APE-ri-cot.''

Dale's sister picked out the color, he explained, but somebody mixed the paints wrong. The car was soon repainted, but not until Earnhardt had run a few races in it. The pink K-2 Ford Victoria has since become a collectible diecast model.

In retelling the story for my column I wondered how history might have treated Earnhardt differently had he earned the nickname "Pinky'' before he could become "The Intimidator.''

The silly comment became a sick joke when Earnhard was killed on the final lap at Daytona. He was 49, just like me.

1 comment:

  1. Knew you'd be mentioning the pink car as soon as I saw Earnhardt's photo. I fondly remember that column, and, unfortunately, the one you wrote a few days later.