It was the late 1980s and Dale Earnhardt had surged into prominence in the world of NASCAR. He'd won the Winston Cup title in 1986. He was sizzling toward another crown in '87. Drivers shuddered whenever in the path of the No. 3 Chevrolet, because being in Earnhardt's way was inviting him to kiss your bumper and rid himself of the distraction.
His competitors despised him because he was winning often and scaring them witless in doing so. He had injected NASCAR with a bang-or-be-banged style familiar on dirt tracks throughout the South. To see Earnhardt in your mirror was to take stock of your life.
"I see aggressive driving every week, but then there's reckless driving," Darrell Waltrip told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1987. "He's reckless. If something isn't done about it, it's going to spill over into the rest of the field. If he keeps winning, then my sponsor, my car-owner and my crew chief are going to say, 'Why don't you drive like Earnhardt?' And then I'm going to be out there between a rock and a hard place. The really tough thing is when he's driving like that and winning too."
Earnhardt never understood what the fuss was all about. Didn't they know what he had endured to become better than the rest of 'em? Didn't they know he took to racing just like his father, watching eagerly, studiously, as Daddy circled tracks in South Carolina before dying beneath his car of a heart attack at the age of 44?
Were they unknowing of all the loans he had coaxed out of bank managers so that he could race another day? Were they unaware that his irrepressible drive for greatness already had cost him two marriages? What did they want him to do? Toot a horn, put on a blinker and apologetically wave?
"I don't know what other people say or think," Earnhardt said. "I'm just out here trying to win races. I use whatever advantage I can get. That's part of the deal."
Earnhardt was the king of legalized road rage and for that he steered his way into the hearts of a sizable segment of America. Many of us regard the thought of driving -- alone -- at 180 mph a death-defying act. Throw another 30 or 40 cars onto a track and the thought becomes unfathomable. How could we be anything less than captivated by the fearless zeal with which Earnhardt attacked his craft?
"There is something that makes Dale Earnhardt the way he is," former driver and commentator Benny Parsons said. "There is something that other people just don't have. . . . When you see that sucker behind you, and he is outrunning you, you know you are going to be hit, too, if you don't move over. I was intimidated by him, and so were most people."
Retired driver Clifton "Coo Coo" Marlin once said of Earnhardt, "Somebody ought to take him out behind the barn and beat the hell out of him," and how bitterly ironic those words ring today. It was an incident in '87, a run-in involving Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin in Bristol, Tenn., that had "Coo Coo" raging in defense of his son. On Sunday, it was a bump with Sterling that preceded Earnhardt's spin into the wall, sending him to his death at age 49 . . . on the track that had become synonymous with his name . . . maybe 100 feet from where best friend, Neal Bonnett, died seven years before.
It seemed that Earnhardt could win at will at Daytona unless it was the 500 being contested. He was victorious at the track 25 times yet spent most of his career in vain pursuit of a triumph in the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing. His passion for the sport seemed to wane when, in 1994, Bonnett died on the first day of practice for the 500. But Earnhardt found the flame again and won the 500 in '98, on his 20th try, in NASCAR's 50th anniversary year. For that, even his most ardent detractors -- and they are many -- saluted "The Intimidator."
But that was Earnhardt, finding a way to seize accomplishment when others had written him off. His greatest moment outside of the '98 500 came in 1996. He survived a spectacular crash at Talladega with a broken sternum, and racing wondered how long it would be without its king. The next stop on the circuit was the Bud at the Glen. Earnhardt won the pole.
If Earnhardt found anything more satisfying than the thrill of victory it was watching his son, Dale Jr., emerge as a formidable NASCAR driver. He was at trackside in April 1998 when Dale Jr. scored his first win, in the Busch Grand National Coca-Cola 500, and the sight brought him to tears.
And there he was on Sunday, playing the blocking back, trying to hold off Marlin and the rest of the field so that the two cars he owned, driven by Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr., could race for the finish line uncontested.
And then a bump.
And a spin . . .