- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2007

It has been six years since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, running a one-man blockade that allowed stablemates Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to finish 1-2 in the Great American Race, as promoters like to call it the February event.

So why come out with a documentary now? The answer would appear to be the same that drives the rest of the economy — the means to turn a buck. Because there are no earth-shattering revelations coming out of this production.

Not that “Dale” is not well done, because it is. NASCAR Images and CMT Films have clipped together a very pleasant 100 minutes of Earnhardt’s life, centered around the 1998 Daytona event that the legend finally won after 20 failed attempts.

But if you’re an Earnhardt fan, you are already familiar with virtually every single moment in this production. The driver, who died at 49, was and probably still is the most popular individual ever associated with the sport, a fact that continues to propel sales of Earnhardt memorabilia of every description.

Earnhardt became the sport’s icon simply by being Earnhardt. He was to NASCAR what Mark Messier was to hockey — a mean, gritty, in-your-face athlete who defied a competitor to stand in his way. It was Earnhardt’s way or else. He didn’t earn the nickname “Intimidator” by accident, it was a badge of honor held aside awaiting his arrival.

To the old school of NASCAR fandom, those millions based in the southeast, Earnhardt was their hometown hero just as Jeff Gordon today is worshipped by a slightly different version of the fan base — the chilled wine crowd as opposed to Earnhardt’s cold can of beer bunch.

“He represented blue collar hopes and dreams in this country,” said one unidentified fan in the movie, speaking of the late driver. “He represented us. He was me.”

“He was NASCAR,” said retired driver Darrell Waltrip, Earnhardt’s friend, bitter enemy and eventually friend again at the end and another mainstay of the southeast. “When I saw Dale I thought, ‘Who’s this hoodlum?’ He had on a dirty old T-shirt and you know how he had that moustache. He was a mess.”

But that was Earnhardt, the image the producers of “Dale” make no attempt to alter, the image that lives on with the faithful. There are few pictures of the driver in a suit and tie as he signs documents or tries to drum up publicity for the sport in New York. Mostly, he is in his driving coveralls, trademark Wrangler jeans or a red Goodwrench T-shirt, repeatedly coming up empty at a fishing hole on his North Carolina farm.

But there is no controversy associated here. There is no mention of the protracted legal battle that successfully blocked publication of autopsy pictures, no mention of the restraining straps purportedly altered by Earnhardt himself that, some claim, might have saved his life if they were left untouched. There is little mention of Earnhardt’s first two marriages although his widow, Teresa, is featured prominently.

In fact, the production perhaps unintentionally points out that the family was hardly a close one, despite the fact Earnhardt claims family was all-important. Kerry, Kelley and Dale Jr. are the products of Earnhardt’s first two marriages and do not appear together often with father and stepmother (other than one shot where Junior and Kelley are shown in their hated military school uniforms, a school where they were sent by Teresa). Taylor, the daughter born to Earnhardt and his widow, appears often.

But that takes away from the focus of the production. It charts Earnhardt’s life growing up in Kannapolis, N.C., worshipping his father, Ralph, a championship dirt track driver. It takes the viewer through his early struggles trying to make a living around Carolina short tracks only to fall further into debt.

“He said, ‘I just need somebody to give me a chance,’ ” Darrell Waltrip quotes Earnhardt as saying. “I gave him a chance.”

In return, Earnhardt wrecked Waltrip’s car, but there was no turning back.

“He was like a chunk of coal,” Waltrip said. “We all figured he’d be like a diamond some day, but it was going to take a lot of polishing.”

The documentary includes plenty of race footage, much of it breaking down segments of Earnhardt’s breakthrough 1998 Daytona win, a victory that came after some heartbreaking losses. Virtually every individual in the garage area that day gathered on the track to congratulate the driver as he came down pit road. “I got the cake and can eat it, too,” he said later.

The production was completed well before Junior made his decision to walk away from DEI, the racing enterprise his father founded for his family. It is now owned and operated by Teresa.

It is a movie Earnhardt fans will love and want to see again. It has rough spots, but “Dale” had a few himself and his fans are a tolerant bunch.

“Dale” opens locally Tuesday at the Bowie Crossing 14 in Bowie and Westview 16 in Frederick.

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