Sitting in what was then my future mother-in-law’s living room, I heard the venom first hand.
A group of future family members and friends huddled around the television watching the NASCAR race unfold in front of us, still a couple of years before the sport really took off and became so popular two separate networks paid for the rights to broadcast just half a season.
These, I have to say, were the real NASCAR fans. You know who I’m talking about, whether you fall into the category or not. These were the kinds of people who not only understood the sport, they could tell you why the car would act the way it would, and why it wouldn’t.
When it came to NASCAR, they were way ahead of the curve, leaving the casual fan deep on the backstretch in danger of falling a lap down.
And most of them hated two drivers. Hated them.
The first one, I’m sure you know, is easy to figure. This was a time when a young Jeff Gordon was at the top of not just his game, but all of the sport. And many die-hard fans who had been along for NASCAR’s ride for decades didn’t like it. Actually, that’s not a strong enough way to put it. Because when a group of people cheers a wreck before anyone on the broadcast crew even knows the condition of the driver, that’s a different level of dislike.
And it was perfectly OK. Accepted. Nobody seemed bent out of shape about it, least of all Gordon, who went about his business piling up wins, championships and wealth.
But the other despised driver?
What was interesting about the period was that while the entire room respected Earnhardt for his ability — how could you not? — at least half the learned fans there took that respect and happily threw it out the window netting. And they weren’t alone. Not by a long shot.
To so many NASCAR fans at the time, Dale Earnhardt was arrogant. Dale Earnhardt was a jerk. Dale Earnhardt was a showboat. Dale Earnhardt was only out for himself. Dale Earnhardt was a lot of things that can’t be printed here.
Even as his trials in the Daytona 500 left the greatest driver of his generation without the sport’s grandest prize for so long, the rhetoric from much of the NASCAR masses bordered on what St. Louis Cardinals fans say to Chicago Cubs fans inside Busch Stadium. Actually, it was much worse. That kind of missed opportunity for one so great tends to soften the haters’ vision of the man, but even as the drivers lined up along pit road in 1998 to congratulate the Intimidator when he finally took the checkered flag, many NASCAR fans weren’t so easily swayed. And they made their feelings known.
Certainly, when Earnhardt was killed in the crash at Daytona in 2001, everything changed. Not just in NASCAR, which finally began its long process of taking real safety measures to the track and inside the car, but to the fans.
But something else happened, and it moved the masses. Earnhardt’s shocking death seemed to change everyone’s opinion about him. Almost in an instant, he became beloved by everyone who followed the sport, and over the last decade, it has been truly difficult to find anyone who will admit he so much as even once rooted against Dale Earnhardt.
Is that a good thing? Probably. It proves even the most hardened of souls has a heart. Of course, nobody ever wanted the man to die. (Although it should be noted that some most certainly wished for something like that in the heat of battle — you know they did.)
But it still seems that something else has been lost. Something bigger.
Why is it taboo to admit that Earnhardt was perhaps the most polarizing figure in the sport’s history? Why should anyone be afraid to risk scorn for admitting he despised Earnhardt when he was in his prime? Why can’t Earnhardt be discussed in anything less than a fawning manner?
No one can deny that the definition of a NASCAR fan has changed since the sport went through its meteoric rise in the early 2000s. So have the drivers. But as ticket prices skyrocketed and cookie-cutter tracks in megamarkets closed the milers-and-unders tucked away in the hills that were once the backbones of the sport, a kind of sterility has permeated the scene as a whole.
NASCAR just isn’t as tough as it used to be.
Who knew that Dale Earnhardt, of all people, would reveal such a thing?