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Harris: What Mood Would The ‘Big E’ Be In Today?

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 16 2011

Dale Earnhardt celebrates winning at Daytona. Would he be celebrating the changes which have taken place since his death? (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

A lot of people are reflecting this week on the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death  and what the tragic last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 has meant to the stock car sport.

As I pondered that question this week,  I also found myself wondering what The Intimidator might think now of the sport he so loved and the changes that have taken place over the past decade.

Things have changed a lot since his death.

Of course, it’s likely that Earnhardt would have retired from driving by now since his 60th birthday would be on April  29, but he certainly would still be involved in the sport as a team owner.

Earnhardt was the most powerful voice among the drivers in what was then the Winston Cup garage, and, even with longtime friend Bill France Jr. no longer in charge, Big E would likely still have the ear of the NASCAR hierarchy more than any other participant – especially since no one else in the garage area has stepped into that void.

It’s equally likely that Dale Earnhardt Inc. would still be in existence, instead of part of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, and that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would still be driving for the family team. Would they be winning? Would Junior’s career have taken a different, more successful turn? Maybe with the elder Earnhardt’s guidance, passion and drive.

Everyone knows that Earnhardt’s death led to numerous new safety regulations and the sooner-than-

The HANS device has become standard equipment.

planned introduction of NASCAR’s bigger, safer Car of Tomorrow

His death from a broken neck in an accident that looked pretty benign was the catalyst for an almost immediate move by NASCAR to make such restraints mandatory. Since he liked to drive in an almost reclining position and didn’t much like change, Earnhardt likely would have been one of the drivers who initially balked at wearing a head and neck restraint, a device that could possibly have saved his life.

Other changes, like the COTs, energy-absorbing SAFER Barriers at the tracks and safer seats, Earnhardt would have loved. They made things safer for everyone and, therefore, made it safer to race hard.

That brings me to one change I know Earnhardt would have loved. That is NASCAR’s decision last year to “Have at it, boys.’’ It was the way he always raced anyway, but it would have given Earnhardt a big smile to have a license to do what he loved to do best on the racetrack – bump, bang and race hard for wins.

Along those lines, the double-file restarts that NASCAR adopted a couple of years ago would probably have made his mouth water in anticipation.

Earnhardt was also a traditionalist, who loved watching his father, Ralph Earnhardt, and many of the other old timers race as he grew up. The Chase probably would not have been much to Earnhardt’s liking, especially since it tends to get people running for points instead of wins.

Earnhardt was a go-for-broke kind of guy. To tell him to ease off the throttle instead of sticking his nose in where it might get bitten off would not have sat well with Big E.

The current changes to the points system would likely have rolled off his back. Earnhardt always

Nobody had to tell Dale Earnhardt to "have at it". (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

wanted to beat everybody else, no matter how they counted the points.

And, finally, it’s hard for me to picture old Ironhead, as Rusty Wallace dubbed him when they were battling each other on the racetrack, taking advantage of social media, as so many drivers and car owners do these days. Dale Earnhardt  tweeting? I don’t see it.

I got to know Dale Earnhardt well during the early years that I covered NASCAR. We had our good moments and bad. But, through it all, I grew to respect and like Earnhardt and I think the feelings were mutual.

Other than maybe A.J. Foyt, I never knew a more ferocious or single-minded competitor.

Sitting high above the Daytona track in the press box in the minutes after his fatal crash, knowing and not wanting to know that he was dead, remains one of the worst moments of my life.

The events of the week that followed, the press conferences, the memorial service, the race the next week at Rockingham, are pretty much an unhappy blur in my mind.

This week, the 10th anniversary of that fateful day, have brought a lot of those buried memories back to the surface, and it’s not a pleasant feeling.

But it’s also brought back happy memories of interviews with lots of give and take, lunches at the track where Earnhardt loved to talk about Formula One and Indy cars and mundane things like the marketing of souvenirs. And more, much more.

If Earnhardt was alive today, the world of NASCAR would be a better place for it, and I’m guessing Big E would still be the same ferocious competitor. But I’m not so sure he’d like the new NASCAR.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 16 2011
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