Sunday, February 25, 2001
Steamboat Springs Earnhardt's death should open eyes
Shawn Graham pulled a small black and red money clip bearing the number three proudly from the pockets of his jeans Thursday night.
The clip is less than a week old, but the souvenir already holds a special place in the NASCAR racing fan's heart. He purchased it last week at the Daytona 500 in Florida. The race was the highlight of a vacation to Florida that he and his wife, Rhonda, had planned and saved for more than a year.
The downside came in the final lap of the race as Graham watched his auto racing hero, Dale Earnhardt, crash into a wall at more than 180 mph. Earnhardt was killed instantly, sending a shockwave through the auto racing world and putting a damper on the Grahamses' big trip.
"It's been the biggest thing that we've talked about after the race and since we got back," Graham said. "Sure it put a damper on our trip."
Graham said he was stunned to hear Earnhardt had died in the crash. He said up until Earnhardt smashed into the wall, he thought his favorite driver would win the race.
Even after the event, none of the fans who were filtering out of the speedway realized how disastrous the accident was. Graham found out about an hour and a half after the race was over that his favorite driver had died.
His reaction, like most of the racing fans in the world, was one of shock and sadness.
The Intimidator, as Earnhardt was known, was possibly the most recognizable face in all of auto racing. His name was known around the world even by folks who may not follow the sport.
This week, however, that feeling of numbness might give way to one of anger. The news on Friday night was that Earnhardt's death may have been the result of a failed safety belt.
If this is the case, the story will become that much more depressing in the coming weeks. Just the idea that Earnhardt could have survived the crash will surely pierce the hearts of most motor sports fans and prolong the feeling of grief that has overcome the sport.
If the belt were at fault, I hope this accident will cause NASCAR to look at the cars more closely prior to racing and take the time to make sure all safety devices are working properly. This time a failed seat belt most likely cost auto racing its greatest star what a waste.
Now that Earnhardt is gone, stock-car racing will have to scramble to find a new face to fill the void.
To NASCAR fans, Earnhardt's death is on the same scale as if John Elway had passed away after the 1997 Super Bowl.
How Earnhardt's death will impact the sport is yet to be seen. Earnhardt was arguably the most recognizable figure in auto racing, and the final moments of Daytona 2001 will no doubt take an ominous place in sports history.
"I'm sure that someday I will look back and say I was there for Dale Earnhardt's last race," Graham said. "But right now it's hard to look at it that way."
Graham admits that he will be watching his television when racing resumes in Rockingham, N.C., today. Graham will be looking for a new driver to fall behind, but he said that none of them will easily replace Earnhardt.
"There were a couple of days where I just didn't want to watch racing anymore," Graham said. "But I think that with time that feeling will go away."
I believe that Earnhardt's death will remind all sports fans to watch auto racing with a new sense of respect. In what appeared to be a routine incident, Earnhardt paid with his life, and the sport lost one of its greatest ambassadors.
It's amazing in a sport where the athletes are traveling at more than 180 mph that there are not more deaths. Still, it is hard to think that any sport is worth a life.