- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001

I don't get it with auto racing.

I don't understand the appeal.

This is not to dismiss it, only to note I am an outsider.

I've been there, around the sobs of loved ones, following a wrong turn and crash. I've been to the small-track races in Hampton, Va., where the money was incidental to the adrenaline rush.

I've heard the cries of the wife, the kids, the parents and friends. I've heard the attempts to find meaning in it. He died the way he wanted, in a crumpled-up box of metal, and there was something almost noble about it.

Racing is imbedded in the culture of the South. It is a celebration of fast lives and fast cars, even fast women. It is loud and obnoxious. It is America in that way.

They drive around in circles, pushing their machines to the maximum, and sometimes they crash, and sometimes they die.

That is where NASCAR is this week, trying to come to terms with the loss of Dale Earnhardt.

The racing community is looking to find the right words, the right perspective, and the television cameras are there to help, to provide the Princess Di-like treatment.

A man, with a camera trained on him, cries on cue. He is a fan. He does not know Earnhardt. But he cries anyway. He cries like a baby.

Earnhardt was a testament to the power and glory of testosterone. He was the man in black, the Intimidator. He was the link to the sport's moonshine-running days, a period steeped in romance and myth, like the outlaw West.

He was the latter-day version of the gunslinger, as all the drivers are, courting death, hitting turns at 180 mph, inches from disaster.

They accept the pact. They ask you to accept it, too. They don't expect you to understand, not unless you are one of them, bonded by geography and class and a thirst for something stronger than 85 proof.

Earnhardt was from an itty-bitty mill town in North Carolina who might have ended up in the mill or a convenience store, who might have had a big hurt inside him all his life if he had not found his destiny. He had guts in the beginning, and the dirt tracks, and gradually, he became somebody, a comer in the sport who could overcome the mistakes in his personal life.

So now the inquisitors, educated and distant from the culture, want answers from NASCAR. They want stronger safety measures. They want to understand, although they can't.

Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, might as well be speaking in tongues around the well-meaning inquisitors.

"We're not going to react just for the sake of reacting," he says.

Death goes with the territory, and the risks rise incrementally with each change in the sport.

The drivers are fearless to a fault, sportsmen distinct from all the rest, including boxers who flirt with danger each time they step into a ring. Four NASCAR drivers have died in the last year: Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty, Tony Roper and Earnhardt.

The death toll won't end with Earnhardt or with the one after him. Death is the front-seat companion of the drivers.

Earnhardt's crash wasn't spectacular by NASCAR standards. His vehicle did not go airborne. It did not do somersaults or burst into flames. It just spun out and crashed into the wall. Drivers routinely walk away from scarier mishaps than that one.

But it was Earnhardt's time, as somebody said, and where the sport goes from Daytona is to the next big race and track. Introspection is not a strength of the racing community. You plumb your depths too much, and you could be the next one.

There was no national outpouring for the wife who lost her husband on a small track in Hampton. It was just another minor race on a Saturday night, attended by 5,000-6,000 spectators.

The wife expressed no bitterness. She had made peace with the sport before that awful night. She understood. It happens. Yet it hurt. Gosh, it hurt. But that just was the way it was. You, the outsider, could never understand, she said.

The lure was not the thrill of danger, of defying death. It was something deeper, in the core. It was, maybe, a piece of who her husband was, a good ol' boy of the South.

Maybe that's all it was, and no outsider from the North could be expected to grasp it.

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