He was The Intimidator, the Man in Black, and right to the end, Dale Earnhardt was every bit the brusque daredevil who drew millions to his sport.
Earnhardt, the driver people either loved or hated -- but had to watch either way -- died Sunday at the Daytona 500, a race he spiced up with his trademark bumps and bold challenges.
Some 200,000 fans witnessed Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevrolet smashing into a wall during an accident on the last lap of the race. A few hours later came the terrible news. At age 49, possibly the best-known figure in motorsports history was gone.
"NASCAR has lost its greatest driver ever, and I personally have lost a great friend," NASCAR chairman Bill France said.
Earnhardt's statistics -- 76 victories, seven Winston Cup championships, that long-awaited victory at the Daytona 500 in 1998 -- don't come close to completely telling this story.
Rather, the image does.
Dressed in a black button-down shirt, black jeans, and sporting a bushy mustache that was once nearly singed off, he earned the nickname "The Intimidator" by going after what he wanted. Not just on the speedway, but in the business world, in NASCAR's front office and in the rules meetings, where he sat front-and-center Sunday before his final race.
He wore an open-faced helmet and shunned some of NASCAR's other basic safety innovations. He said the restrictor plates NASCAR used to slow speeds at its fastest tracks were for sissies, and he refused to don a new-wave HANS (Head And Neck Safety) brace that has recently been touted as a way to lessen the blow of severe impacts.
Dr. Steve Bohannon said Earnhardt likely died of severe head in
juries, particularly to the base of the skull. "I know the full-face helmet wouldn't have made a difference," Bohannon said. "I don't know if the HANS device would have helped. I suspect not."
There was also a gentle side to The Intimidator that played up his Southern roots and values, just like the sport he dominated.
An observer this week spoke of watching Earnhardt goad fellow competitors into taking a picture with a sick child at a publicity function. He also began to steady his once-shaky relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son who will take over his mantle much sooner than anyone ever figured.
After finally triumphing at the Daytona 500 in 1998, after 19 failures, pit crews, drivers and owners stood atop their cars and applauded wildly. No other driver could command such respect.
Fans flocked to the offices of Dale Earnhardt Inc., in Mooresville, N.C., to pay their respects. "How can you get over something like this?" said Lee Dickey, a 42-year-old fan. "I never thought nothing would happen to him. He's like Superman. He could run through brick walls. It's just unbelievable."
That respect flowed from fans and colleagues Sunday:
President Bush called the Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, Sunday night to express his condolences. Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the president's "prayers are with the Earnhardt family and the NASCAR community." Bush, who has attended NASCAR events, considered Earnhardt and his wife to be friends.
"He had a tremendous impact on NASCAR racing," said Ned Jarrett, who won Winston Cup series titles in 1961 and 1965 and has worked as a TV race analyst. "He's done so much to help the sport get where it is today."