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Leigh Montville

Dale Earnhardt’s death sticks with you

Dale Earnhardt’s death still resonates beyond auto racing circles, writes Leigh Montville.

Associated Press/File 1995

Dale Earnhardt’s death still resonates beyond auto racing circles, writes Leigh Montville.

The only athletic decal I ever put on the bumper of any car I ever owned was a No. 3. That was Dale Earnhardt’s number. I bought the decal in the spring of 2001 in Talladega, Ala., and brought it home and slapped it on my dented silver Acura Integra.

There were a lot of No. 3 decals around that year, of course, even around here in New England, because that was when Earnhardt died. The number was a symbol, a statement, a show of respect. Something like that. I would drive around my town, drive around Boston, drive anywhere, and I would see cars with the No. 3.

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“Hey,” I would signal with a hand wave at a stoplight.

“Hey,” the driver of the other No. 3 would signal in return.

The death of the 49-year-old NASCAR star was the shock of shocks. Even now, 13 years and five days after it happened, it still is the shock of shocks. On the final turn of the final lap of the Daytona 500, the greatest race in the sport, the car of the greatest driver in the sport was bumped, went out of control, lurched right, crashed into a concrete wall, and he was killed.

It was as if David Ortiz was hit in the head by a pitch, bottom of the ninth, two outs, tie score, seventh game of the World Series, and he dropped to the dirt, dead when he landed. It was that unbelievable. The accident was shown live on Fox, replayed on every newscast, no doubt still can be seen on YouTube. The drama, the instant sadness, was almost unimaginable.

Earnhardt had been third on that final lap behind his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his teammate, Michael Waltrip. He advised them by radio to ride low on the track through the final turn. He would ride high and slow down a little bit, just enough to thwart any late chargers.

Alas, when he slowed, his car was clipped from behind by the car of Sterling Marlin. Earnhardt went into that fatal right turn. He hit the wall. Even as Waltrip took the checkered flag, Dale Jr. second, the sadness had begun.

“TV does not do that crash justice,” Waltrip’s brother, Darrell, an analyst in the Fox booth, said as soon as the first replay was shown. “That is incredible impact. Those are the kinds of accidents that are absolutely frightening.”

I was watching at home. Two years earlier, I had done a story on Earnhardt. His racetrack nickname was “The Intimidator” and he was known as a challenging interview, but I had liked him. He was candid, smart, funny. We rode in a car from Ann Arbor to Michigan Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich. He gave constant directions to the public relations man at the wheel (“Now watch that car on the left. Watch it!”) as he detailed his relationship with Dale Jr., who had joined the NASCAR cast. This was the subject of the story.

“I never thought Dale Jr. was going to be a race driver,” he said. “He never seemed to have the interest. He wasn’t one of those kids who always seemed to be around the garage, to see how things worked. What’s happened has kind of surprised me.”

The interview and story went so well that a few months later, looking for a subject with a publisher in New York, I suggested a book about Earnhardt and his son. How often did situations like this arise, father and son on the field in a professional sport? The suggestion was met with great disinterest. Who would read about NASCAR? Who would read about Earnhardt?

Then he died.

I was in Talladega for the book.

John Raoux/Associated Press

The No. 3, made famous by the late Earnhardt, returns to the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since the 2001 wreck that took Earnhardt’s life.

I stood with 80,000, maybe 100,000 people in silence as the cars came past on the third lap, everyone putting three fingers into the air in a memorial salute. I talked with guys who had Dale Earnhardt RVs, everything covered with Earnhardt stickers. I talked with guys who had Dale Earnhardt rooms at home filled with Earnhardt lamps and blankets and rugs and mugs and wall posters. I found the hold this man had with people. He was racecar driver and action hero and badass from the back of the classroom. He was man, legend, myth. He was missed.

“You’re driving home and the traffic’s stopped up and you’re just sitting there,” H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, then-president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., said, explaining the devotion. “You do that five days a week and you’re sick of it. You live life by rules. You wear a tie. You work for a guy you don’t like.

“For once, you’d like to break the rules. You’d like to get in a racecar and just go wherever you wanted, get past all of those other people, do what you want to do. Well, maybe you can’t do that, but you could go to the racetrack and watch Dale Earnhardt. He broke the rules.”

I could go along with that. Sure.

I bought the No 3 sticker and was proud of it. It stayed on the car long past the completion of the book, stayed until the Acura collapsed on Revere Beach Boulevard across from Kelly’s Roast Beef. That might have been three years later. I probably should have bought a sticker for the replacement car, but I never did. Time passes.

The owner of Earnhardt’s car, Richard Childress, his old friend, retired the No. 3 after Earnhardt’s death, said it never would be used again. That was a good thought, but, again, time passes. Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon, will make his NASCAR debut on Sunday at the Daytona 500 as a driver and will be in a car with the No. 3 on the side.

This is OK.

“The legend of Dale Earnhardt is going to live on forever,” Dillon said last week. “Dale Earnhardt was not just famous because of the number, he was Dale Earnhardt. He was a hero in everybody’s mind, including myself.”

It will be a pleasure to see the number back in action.

Leigh Montville’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at leigh.montville@globe.com.
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