I’ll never forget that morning in March 2001 when I walked into my local newsstand and saw a woman sobbing by the magazine rack. She was holding an issue of People magazine with a cover story about the late NASCAR superstar, Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt had died on February eighteenth of that year during the Daytona 500, when his car crashed into a wall in front of thousands of horrified fans at the track and millions of devastated racing enthusiasts watching on television. He was forty-nine at the time. It wasn’t Earnhardt’s first crash, and at first, it didn’t appear to be his worst. As seen in this film, Earnhardt had crashed in July 1982 at Pocono Raceway, leaving his car so thoroughly demolished that it was considered a miracle when he emerged from the wreckage with only a broken leg. He suffered another seismic crash in July 1996 at Talladega Speedway, in which he hit a wall at 190 mph. He was on his feet immediately following that crash, too.
The reaction by the woman at my local newsstand underscores the depth of the emotional connection that NASCAR fans have to their favorite drivers and to everyone who participates in the sport. (There are reasons why every square inch of every NASCAR racecar is filled with corporate logos.) Surely, millions of fans will check out Dale, a two-hour documentary narrated by Paul Newman. It is the first and only authorized film about this racing legend.
Dale is filled with extensive archival race footage (including the crash that took Earnhardt’s life), never-before-seen home videos, and interviews with Earnhardt’s family, friends, and professional rivals. There are also many now-poignant interviews with Earnhardt himself, including one that was recorded three days before his death in which he talks about how lucky he is and tells his interviewer that he “has it all”. His success had not come easily: As Newman notes early in the film, Earnhardt “worked for every fan, every dollar, and every win.”
That isn’t the only emotional moment in this two-hour CMT production. Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., also a championship racer, talks about moving up through the NASCAR ranks and the pride he felt racing in a car owned by his father. Dale and his son weren’t big on talking to each other about their feelings, but at one point Dale Jr. was moved to write down everything he wanted to say to his dad, which filled a page and a half, and then read it to him.
“I read it often,” Dale Jr. says during the film. “I like to remind myself what he meant to me.”
Ladies, keep a box of tissues handy. The men you watch with might need them, too, because it seems that Earnhardt meant as much to other people as he did to his son. In fact, in another touching sequence during this film, Dale’s mother Martha sits quietly on her porch and reflects, “It amazes me how many people love my son.”
Dale also recalls Earnhardt’s joy at becoming the champion of NASCAR in 1980 at age twenty-nine and his legendary frustration at failing to win the Daytona 500 until 1998, his twentieth year of trying. People inside and outside of the sport were so invested in Earnhardt’s two-decade determination that when he finally did win that race every man on every crew at the track stood at the edge of the pit lane to congratulate him. That’s a tissue moment of another kind. So is the story of a little girl in a wheelchair who gave Earnhardt a good luck penny before that race and told him he was going to win. Earnhardt glued it to the dashboard of his car. The rest is history.
While chronicling Earnhardt’s rise from his modest childhood in the textile town of Kannapolis, North Carolina, to international NASCAR superstardom, Dale also recalls much of the history of this beloved sport, from informal racing on dirt tracks in the thirties and forties to the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today.
By Ed Martin
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