2011 marks a decade since Nascar lost Dale Earnhardt on the final corner of the final lap of the Great American Race. It also marks 10 years since my family and I boldly made the trip to the Sunshine State to go and see Nascar for ourselves. Obviously the death of a bonafide hero cast a shadow over our holiday of a lifetime, but for those who truly identified with the Man in Black it will have a cast a far longer shadow over their lifetimes.
As Dale’s life ebbed away his eponymous team took a one-two with Michael Waltrip leading home Dale Earnhardt Jnr; Senior would have followed them home in third place for the perfect family finish had fate not so cruelly intervened.
However tragic the event was in itself, what really humbled me was the atmosphere the following day. We were staying well over an hour away from the track and even out there the grief was palpable. The usual chorus of “missing you already” was gone, the ever-chirpy Florida service industry had wiped the smile from their faces. Perhaps we were so close to the epicentre of it all or maybe Americans wear their heart on their sleeve a little more than the reserved Brits, but to us it felt like a more tangible tragedy than Princess Diana’s death had been back home.
A decade has passed since then and the subject still makes this Limey well-up. Some small consolation came as Earnhardt’s replacement Kevin Harvick took the victory three races later at Atlanta. Then Dale Jnr won the July race at the track that claimed his Dad’s life. To achieve that while going through such a horrible time and thrust under the spotlight placed on him by the good-natured fans that were the younger Earnhardt’s real inheritance, that was real character. Even Jnr’s win in Wrangler colours, carrying the now fabled number 3 at Daytona last year was something special, it never gets old. I guess it’s because these successes are never enough to heal the old wounds, but they do provide some welcome relief.
But what really hit the heart hard was the number 3 salute given by the fans on lap three of every race in 2001. It has to be the most touching gesture from fans of any sport – 150,000 people holding aloft three fingers on the third lap of the race as the commentators hush. This lovely sight returned at Daytona last year as the 3 car took the lead, what a cruel but beautiful sport racing can be. Watch this magic moment here.