Commentary

Dale Earnhardt and the Power of 3

NASCAR misses hero, whose ghost, whose legacy, whose No. 3 still laps the field

Updated: February 14, 2011, 10:05 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day
into a region of supernatural wonder:
fabulous forces are there encountered
and a decisive victory is won:
the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure
with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
-- Joseph Campbell



What happens when your hero doesn't come back?

The biggest star in NASCAR has been dead 10 years.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt jr.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCARDale Earnhardt Jr. rings down memories of his father any time he gets near the front of the pack.

I never met Dale Earnhardt, but I know his ghost.

And so do you.

And every one of us is going to be inundated this week with saccharine 10th anniversary stories about the Life and Death of Dale Earnhardt, about The Shadow He Casts and His Eclipse of The Son and about What It All Means. Grab a bucket, because we'll soon be up to our necks in molasses and manufactured sentiment.

So a few astringent thoughts today on immortality and commerce, impotence and greed, modernity and mythology and the terrible price of selling out your past in a bid to win your future.

What was strangest about that tragic last-lap crash in 2001 is how it launched the new boom in NASCAR at the very instant it slammed the door on the original history of the sport. There's everything before Dale Earnhardt died and there's everything after, and to this day NASCAR struggles to understand that and adapt to it.

That's why every race for the past 10 seasons has been both a séance and an exorcism -- an attempt to beckon Earnhardt's spirit back to the track while finally casting him out.

A sport that grew up out of red dirt lawlessness and Piedmont ingenuity and hell-bent rebel courage has somehow become a zipless, flavorless, seamless, streamlined delivery system for corporate inauthenticity and upper middle-class aspiration. That's the horizon-wide bipolar problem NASCAR marketeers have wrestled for the past decade without success.

And that's why the sport has overhauled itself again and again and again to almost no effect in the restless years since Earnhardt was killed. Not just the points schemes or the safety measures or the build rules, but the core ethos of the thing itself. How much authentic jugband yeehaw can a multibillion dollar multiplatform marketing empire afford in the 21st century?

In the meantime, ticket sales and TV ratings fall.

NASCAR has somehow come unstuck in the culture. Is stock car racing now a mainstream sales pitch for gluttony and conspicuous consumption? Or does it remain a southern fried punch in the nose to convention and authority?

Can it be both? Is it neither? How much change can one sport bear before the audience finally turns away in confusion?

What may one day be even more interesting to social historians is how perfectly NASCAR's arc of rise and decline mirrors the loss of authenticity in our broader culture.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson's a great canvas for corporate logos. Fan passion doesn't stick as well.

Still, cosmic laws of attraction remain immutable.

Humpy Wheeler, the former president of the track down in Charlotte, long ago put forth that one reason folks doted on Earnhardt was his brush-mustache resemblance to a Confederate soldier.

True. But that kind of proud regionalism has long since been slicked down under 20 coats of hand-laid corporate lacquer, the drawl gone from the garage except as low comedy, the cowlick smoothed except as the Hee-Haw sidebar to the selling of commercial slots and trackside condos.

How the world has changed.

If Tom Wolfe's "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!" was a snapshot of the sport at the dawn of American midcentury suburban modernism, the death of Dale Earnhardt cut loose the postmodern deconstruction of subject and object and sales pitch. Racers die. Racers have always died. But please don't let that stop you from buying our goods and services!

Another Johnson, Jimmie, may become the greatest champion NASCAR has ever seen. He's won five consecutive titles. He's a born racer and a big stick and a good man. But through no fault of his own, Jimmie Johnson represents no one. Not by class or by region or by common experience. Not by passion or ambition. He inhabits few dreams, inspires no songs. He is a generic, technocratic champion in the generic, technocratic age of NASCAR.

Caught on the wrong side of history, Jimmie Johnson is racing stripped of its mythology, racing without fancy or romance or the fever of imagination. Jimmie Johnson is square-jawed and blank and perfect, and therefore inhuman and unlovable.

Dale Earnhardt was rough as a cob, a bastard and a black hat by acclamation and consensus, and people loved him for it. Loved him desperately.

Jimmie Johnson is an iPhone, a Facebook page, a frictionless consumer culture. Jimmie Johnson is a brand strategy.

Dale Earnhardt was working class rage. Dale Earnhardt was bootstraps. Dale Earnhardt was a hundredweight of seed and half a box of shotgun shells. Dale Earnhardt was a hard right to the foreman's jaw the day you walked off the job.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaPeople remember the face, the demeanor, the car. Ten years later, Dale Earnhardt still towers over NASCAR.

A long time ago upstate I asked a NASCAR fan why Dale Earnhardt was his hero. He was a working man. He looked over my shoulder for a while, then looked right into me.

"He drove the way I feel."

The orderly transition from one heroic figure to the next is part of the classic narrative. Earnhardt overtook Petty. Gordon overtook Earnhardt. Johnson overtook Gordon.

But by dying in the car, Earnhardt eternally overtakes them all.

Wallace Stevens has always had the poem for the 500 I think, for first Daytona, for mid-winter America hard and featureless in the fields of the north and for Dale Earnhardt and for men everywhere hungry. No Possum, No Sop, No Taters.

Gray winter and the jackpot promise of something green and living and better ahead. That's speedweeks.

Junior on the pole, with just a little malice in his eyes. Then a moment of silence and a rustling of wings and the low howling of a long afternoon.

I never met Dale Earnhardt, but I know his ghost.

So do you.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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