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Picking the scab: the value of history over soft focus

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Today is Dale Earnhardt Day, and probably will remain so until the generation who lived through The Intimidator's glory years pass on.

Today, a decade removed from Earnhardt's death, it is easy - and even encouraged by those in a position to profit - to wax rhapsodic and sentimental about Earnhardt. On this tenth anniversary of the last day of Dale Earnhardt's life (known straight-facedly as "The Day the Racing Died," or more commonly now, "The Day"), Earnhardt stands immortalized as if cast in bronze and placed upon a pedestal, larger than life, an icon to be worshiped.

What many do not remember - or wish not to remember - is that Dale Earnhardt ironically was the last, stubborn icon for supporters of the status quo in racing safety. His death was not only a game changer for NASCAR in that area, but a tragic, grievous irony.

The true debate about racing safety reached its peak because of two other deaths - first Adam Petty, then Kenny Irwin. Petty was the grandson of The King, Richard Petty, and the heir apparent to Petty Enterprises. Irwin was a young graduate of the USAC ranks who was still navigating the turbulent waters of the sport, hoping to capitalize on the early promise of his stock car career with a new team.

Up until Petty and Irwin died, NASCAR was fully resistant to the concept of soft walls at its racetracks, publicly citing the potential for cars to "bounce" back into traffic after an impact and the cleanup nuisance that traditional soft-wall solutions (Styrofoam, tire walls, etc.) represented. The SAFER Barrier system, then in its infancy and only in use at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway where its development was commissioned, was not even on the sanction's radar.

As for personal driver safety, NASCAR's official public line was that drivers were "independent contractors" and the responsibility - and, critically, the liability - for their safety was solely in their own hands. Indeed, most of NASCAR's mandated safety measures in stock car racing came into being through the ingenuity and research of its teams (for instance, Holman-Moody's factory Ford team implemented fuel cells, roll cages, and many other now-standard innovations), and NASCAR belatedly mandated them only after lengthy periods - in some cases, years - of reluctant and skeptical resistance.

As for Dale Earnhardt, he was fully on NASCAR's side. Safety, he intimated, was a driver's own prerogative, and bitching about it in public was for "candy asses." This was the Wrangler Man, the Man in Black, the Deer Hunter in Nomex who believed that a full-faced helmet was more dangerous than an open-faced one. It did nobody any good to whine about this safety stuff - if you were concerned about it (never say "afraid"), then do your own due diligence... otherwise, shut up and race.

Then Adam Petty was killed. Petty's death rocked the NASCAR world. Petty was no anonymous, journeyman racer - he was a bright young man that everyone loved and remembered growing up at the track like his father did. He was gregarious, kind, and had that megawatt Petty grin that lit up everything around him for miles. Moreover, he was fast, talented... and had the wags in the pundit room saying that maybe the Petty genius had simply skipped a generation.

When Adam Petty's life was snuffed out against the unyielding New Hampshire Motor Speedway wall, it shocked and stunned the NASCAR world. But even that was not enough to change the debate on its own - it took the death of another promising young driver, Kenny Irwin, eight weeks to the day at the same track and in the same corner, to wake the NASCAR world up to the fact that there is a problem that needed to be solved.

The NASCAR establishment was perhaps unprepared for the strength of the backlash from those two deaths. Suddenly, the media was awash in terms like "basilar skull fractures" and artists renderings of brains continuing to accelerate within the skull and reams of data about deceleration trauma brought about by impact G-forces. The old stonewalling techniques were getting NASCAR nowhere, particularly in the court of public opinion where they were being harangued day-in and day-out by writers like Ed Hinton, who devoted massive amounts of column inches to the topic of racing safety.

NASCAR still had one staunch voice in its corner for the status quo, however - Earnhardt. Ed Hinton could write what he liked, as far as Earnhardt was concerned. Once friends, the two had had a major falling-out, and thus Earnhardt had no problem casting Hinton as the enemy in an "us vs. them" scenario. Earnhardt had grieved with the Pettys over Adam, but when it came to safety concerns he was as gruff and terse as ever. People were hurt and died in racing all the time, and everybody knew that you were responsible for your own skin when you strapped that bad mother around you to go turn laps in anger. Earnhardt still raced with an open-faced helmet and kept his belts loose for comfort in the cockpit and didn't believe in any damn soft walls. This was a man's sport.

Funny thing, though - in the face of all that had happened, Earnhardt's stance was beginning to appear anachronistic... even to his staunchest fans. Petty and Irwin's deaths in rapid succession had jarred loose something in the collective brainpan, and when a third driver, Tony Roper, died in October 2000 from catastrophic wall impact at Texas Motor Speedway, the outcry became a howl. SAFER Barriers, HANS devices, padded race seats - these were all readily available technologies (albeit in early incarnations). Why wouldn't NASCAR do something and mandate them?

"We'll look into it," was NASCAR's response. Privately, no matter what was being said about "independent contractors" in the waiver language, NASCAR was unnerved about the pileup of fatalities that was happening in their corner of the sport. With a major new network broadcasting deal on the horizon, NASCAR couldn't afford the bad publicity if these deaths kept happening. It wasn't something they wanted to rush into - after all, outfitting tracks with the SAFER Barrier was an expensive proposition, and drivers who were using HANS devices still complained about discomfort - but it wouldn't hurt to start throwing ideas around.

So, in the months leading up to the 2001 Daytona 500, the debate had changed. On one side, competitors, fans, and the media were up in arms about the rash of deaths that with every passing day seemed more needless and preventable. On the other side were the "old schoolers," spearheaded by Earnhardt, impatient with the outcry and content to just "shut up and race." NASCAR, ever sensitive to the winds of public perception, stood in between... trying to figure out which side would carry the day.

Earnhardt's case was looking weaker and weaker all the time, but still it was hard to dismiss him as a holdover when he kept surviving wicked and vicious accidents, including one at Talladega that appeared nobody could have survived. He was still dressed in Bulletproof Black, still tickin' in that hardy, roughened image that sold so many T-shirts and collectibles.

That aura of invincibility still surrounded him even as his #3 Goodwrench Chevy slid down the banking and came to rest in the turn four grass at Daytona on February 18, 2001. It didn't begin to fade until Ken Schrader ambled up to the car's driver door, and then exploded into a frenzy of urgent waving and shouts. It didn't disappear entirely until Mike Helton, ashen, on the verge of tears, his huge broom moustache quivering, told the world the dire news. Even Helton's words - "We've lost Dale Earnhardt" - were a testament to how incredible it all was... he couldn't even bring himself to say that Earnhardt was dead.

Earnhardt's departure from this world pulled the keystone from the foundation of resistance, and the barriers to progress came crashing down. It was not just that a superstar had died; his whole mindset, the one that was both subtle and overt proof that the strong would always survive, that the tough inevitably kept going, had died with him. NASCAR - and the racing world at large - had lost the ability to say, "...but hey, look at Earnhardt!"

Indeed, Earnhardt's demise was the coda to the symphony of needlessness. One death might be expected - even if it was Adam Petty. Two in rapid succession was worrisome. Three? That was a genuine crisis. The fourth and final, however, finally convinced everyone that it should not - would not - happen again... not if we could help it.

Bringing all of this up again is most likely the shortest route to significant backlash. Today people are remembering Dale the Dad, Dale the Philanthropist, Dale the Beer Call Buddy, Dale the Genuine Man's Man. Nobody wants to hear about Dale the Reckless or Dale the Object Lesson.

But if you're going to celebrate Dale Earnhardt, celebrate all of him - not just the iconic or slavishly idealized version, but the whole man. The truth is that he was - like all of us - an imperfect man, and his overconfidence in his own strength and hardiness is at once part of the reason why he died and also a mirror which we held up to our own faces. That unexpected weakness that led to such tragedy was the catalyst for a paradigm change in motorsports that was so life-altering, so significant, that the repercussions are felt even to this day, ten years after the fact.

It is a harsh truth to face, one that conflicts with the gauzy, Ken Burns recollections that will mark this day and the ones to follow at Daytona. And yet, that is the value of history - true lessons that overwhelm and cut deeply into our sense of complacency, the unforgettable events that put us onto new paths so as to avoid a pain and loss that resonate even across the gentle distance of Time.

It is why we must remember it all - not just the parts that are salve to wounds, but those that pick at the scabs.