Making sense of tragedy

Updated: June 21, 2001, 11:53 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPN.com

It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, a living legend if there ever was, an American icon in the fullest sense of the word, one of the last of the good old boys, is dead.

The Earnhardts
Dale Earnhardt, left, was supposed to watch his son Dale Jr. win Winston Cup championships for years to come.
Tell me it isn't so. The man known as The Intimidator, is gone.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

Earnhardt, 49, was supposed to grow old, watch his son and namesake Dale Earnhardt Jr. grow into a potential Winston Cup champion like his father, who achieved NASCAR's highest accomplishment -- a season championship -- not once, not twice, but an incredible seven times.

Just a little over two months shy of his 50th birthday, Earnhardt was supposed to not only watch Dale Jr. mature into a middle-aged adult, he was supposed to be around to watch any potential grandsons Dale Jr. would father, perhaps a precursor to another generation of Earnhardts behind the wheel.

But yet, on Sunday, Feb. 18, what wasn't supposed to happen this way, did happen. Dale, the Man in Black, pilot of the Goodwrench Chevrolet, left us much, much too early, a premature finish to a career that still had a number of good, productive years left in it, and one that also held the possibility of perhaps another championship ... or two ... or more.

Dale Earnhardt cannot be dead. After all, this is The Intimidator, the man who had ice in his veins, the man who feared no one, the man who feared no speedway. He was as full of macho and testosterone as any man I have ever seen. The word "fear" was not in his vocabulary. That's why he was so aggressive on the track, willing to go three wide in a turn that was only built for two cars, willing to do a little friendly nudging to cars in front and alongside him as a reminder that he was right there and wanted through.

That Sunday evening, as I tried to fathom how such a great driver could die so tragically, I was struck by a number of ironies that have transpired over the last two weeks. Taken one-by-one, you would think they were nothing more than coincidences. But taken collectively, I couldn't help but think how all the elements added up to such a horrible tragedy Sunday afternoon.

Consider some of those ironies:

  • The eventual race winner, Michael Waltrip, was arguably one of NASCAR's unluckiest drivers ever, a guy who had started 462 Winston Cup races in his career, yet never had enjoyed the sweetness of driving into Victory Lane. It was Earnhardt who threw Waltrip a lifeline after last season, hiring him as a teammate to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Park, and to drive the third car for the team that Earnhardt owned. Other team owners probably would never have touched Waltrip because of his 0-462 record, but Earnhardt obviously saw something in Darrell's younger brother that manifested itself in Sunday's victory.

  • Prior to the race, TV cameras showed Earnhardt relaxing, practically lounging in his pits a few hours before the start of the race. He looked like a man without a care in the world, a man who was at peace with himself and his life, who was preparing for stock car racing's crown jewel in a confident yet tranquil manner. After word came from the hospital that Earnhardt had indeed succumbed to his injuries, my mind flashed back to that pre-race TV interview. The way he sat back in his chair, I couldn't help but wonder if, maybe in the deepest recesses of his subconscious, if there was ever a good day to die, Earnhardt probably would have picked a day like Sunday. He also would have probably picked his final exit: instantaneous, feeling no pain, and doing what he loved to do most in his life.

  • Earnhardt's final words in what would be his last interview were nothing short of prophetic. He told Fox TV reporter Matt Yocum, "A little wind today. A little exciting. I think it's going to be some exciting racing. You're gonna see something you probably had never seen on Fox." Indeed, we did.

  • Immediately following the interview with Earnhardt, TV cameras switched to another Fox reporter, Jeanne Zelasko, who began talking about how Adam Petty was killed last May 12 in a crash during practice at New Hampshire International Speedway. It would be less than two months later that Kenny Irwin would also perish at virtually the same location on the same track. Dale Earnhardt now brings Winston Cup's body count to three in the last nine months.

  • In the final eight laps of the race, Earnhardt uncharacteristically did not appear to be challenging for the lead. Instead, he sat in third place, behind race leader Waltrip and son Dale Jr., seemingly content to serve as a blocker to the rest of the field. It was almost as if Earnhardt said to himself, "Go ahead, Michael, you've never won any race, let alone a Daytona 500. It's your time for the glory. I've had mine here (winning the 500 in 1998). You go have yours, and I'll keep 'em off your tail the rest of the way."

  • Prior to his only win in the 500 three years ago, Earnhardt was a victim of for what was for nearly 20 years called the "500 jinx." That jinx came back to cost him his life Sunday.

  • Two weeks ago, Earnhardt's face graced the cover of The Sporting News, a national sports weekly that had never covered NASCAR before on a regular basis up until that issue. When I first looked at the cover, it struck me as one of the eeriest photo illustrations I have ever seen. There was Earnhardt, with an ashen-like complexion and just the slightest hint of a smirk on his face, surrounded by a wall of fire. The subhead on the cover said, "Even as Dale Earnhardt nears 50, The Intimidator's flame still burns brightly." Sunday, that flame was permanently snuffed out.

  • Perhaps the most telling tale of all was the live TV feed showing the ambulance that carried Earnhardt the two miles from Daytona International Speedway to a nearby hospital. While the ambulance was operating with emergency lights and sirens, I was struck by the fact of how slow it was traversing the streets. Inside, I'm sure paramedics were working frantically, doing everything they could humanly do to save Earnhardt's life. But as the ambulance made a slow, almost passive turn into the driveway leading to the hospital's emergency room, I had the fear that the man who made his living in a game of speed was already dead in an ambulance that was by now traversing at cortege-like speed.

    It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

    Daytona and Talladega, the two fastest tracks on the Winston Cup circuit, are the only venues that require the use of restrictor plates to slow cars down to a manageable and safe speed, just to prevent the sort of thing that happened to Earnhardt Sunday. But when Earnhardt was tapped ever so slightly in the furthest reaches of the left rear quarter panel by Sterling Marlin's car, he lost control of his car and struck the turn 4 wall head-on. According to doctors, death was almost instantaneous. There was nothing that NASCAR, restrictor plates or anyone else could do to prevent such a tragedy from happening.

    Of course, we all grieve for Earnhardt's wife and his four children. The rock of a man that they had leaned on for years, through good times and bad, the man who gave them a lifestyle fit for a queen and princes and princesses, the man who may have seemed gruff to the rest of the world but was nothing but an outstanding southern gentleman, husband and father, was snatched from them in a mere matter of seconds.

    There's one other person we should grieve with -- Sterling Marlin. He will forever go down in racing history as the man who tagged bumpers for the last time with the man who acquired his own colorful nickname of The Intimidator in the very same way, tagging bumpers and fenders with competitors, almost as if to say, "Hey, get outta my way. I'm coming through."

    Marlin was beside himself in sorrow and shock after the race, knowing that his good friend and longtime on-track rival had passed on. While what happened was indeed a true racing accident -- yes, it was an accident, not an intentional bump -- it's an unfortunate mishap that one has to wonder if Marlin will ever be able to recover from. He, too, should receive some of our sympathy for the unfortunate and tragic situation that ended Earnhardt's life.

    If anything, and if Earnhardt was still here to tell us today, he'd probably walk over to Marlin, put his arm around his shoulder, give him that famous Dale Earnhardt smile and say, "Well heck, Sterling, don't worry about it. That's racin.'"

    It may have been "racin,'" but it wasn't supposed to happen this way.

    NASCAR fans took Dale Earnhardt one of two ways: they either loved him or hated him. There was no middle ground. He was either their favorite or the man in black that you loved to cheer against, not for. No matter your feelings, one thing was almost universal between those both for and against Earnhardt: everyone ultimately respected him for his talent. I recall interviewing Earnhardt prior to the Brickyard 400 five years ago, and will never forget his words: "It doesn't bother me if you hate me or love me, just as long as you respect me, just like I respect each and every other driver out here."

    If we can take any solace from Earnhardt's passing, it's that he's been reunited with NASCAR's last two previous fatalities, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if Earnhardt, right now, was standing in the pits of some great speedway in the sky, leaning into Adam's car and giving him some of the tips and pointers Dale himself had acquired in his illustrious Grand National and Winston Cup career. At the same time, I can see Earnhardt smiling, waving and giving thumbs up to Irwin as he speeds by.

    Daytona International Speedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway share the distinction of being known as the most unforgiving racetracks in the world. Many drivers have tried to beat those racing palaces, but no one ever has and no one ever will, not even the one man that many thought just might be able to do so, the one man that showed Daytona not one hint of fear, the man known as The Intimidator.

    Rest in peace, Dale, and remember ... it wasn't supposed to happen this way.

    Jerry Bonkowski | email

    Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
    Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.
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