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Flat Spot On: If Senna met Earnhardt…

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 31 2020

Dale Earnhardt celebrates winning at Daytona. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacingToday.com

In a forum I checked into recently, I found this rather incredible question posted in an online Q & A with longtime TV commentator Bob Varsha. The site was SafeisFast.com and a participant asked, “What if Ayrton Senna had met Dale Earnhardt?”

As the author of “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing,” this question, perhaps inevitably, stuck with me. The only time these two titans actually met was on the opposite ends of motor racing’s safety revolution. The revolution began in F1 after Senna’s death from an errant suspension piece and culminated with Earnhardt’s death from a basal skull fracture at Daytona. Although it’s still a possibility, we no longer must regularly accept drivers dying behind the wheel in the major leagues as a result of this revolution, which came too late for Senna and Earnhardt, whose deaths, among others, marked the end of an era. 

Given the current circumstances of limited travel and no races, I’ve had more time to ponder this idea of the two drivers meeting. I also exchanged some e-mails with Varsha, a fellow Atlantan and a long-time colleague who was around Senna more often than I while covering F1. If Senna and Earnhardt epitomized motor racing and helped drive its popularity internationally and in the U.S., surely a meeting between the two would have been interesting.

Imagine if you will, to borrow a line from Rod Serling, that Earnhardt is in London for an honorary prize in 1991 after his fifth Winston Cup title. (This is not too far-fetched, since he received the Gregor Grant trophy in 1996 at the Autosport Awards, where he met Mika Hakkinen and Damon Hill.) What if Senna, as the reigning Formula 1 champion after winning his third title, was present in London at the massive and posh Grosvenor House Hotel for the same Autosport Awards prize giving? 

Earnhardt won four IROC titles. (Photo by Nigel Kinrade)

Let’s say Earnhardt asks his hosts at Autosport about meeting Senna. Well, one thing leads to another and, during the afternoon prior to the awards, the two titans get together in the suite of the Autosport publisher, where invited guests are the cognoscenti of the European racing world.

Late in the afternoon, as agreed, Earnhardt arrives accompanied by wife Teresa. Senna is standing with his date, the tall Brazilian blond TV emcee he favors when it comes to dating. In a sport that revolves around the brilliant men at the top, the ones who stir the soul while self-consciously fighting to craft their own unique legend, the two champions stand out in a salon full of notables, as if energizing the same high-voltage current.

Earnhardt prefers a formal shirt with a black collar fastened by a stud. No bow tie for this cowboy. His tuxedo jacket has a more traditional full cut and favors his broad frame. Senna is wearing a black bow tie and a jacket with a subtle cut, which highlights his lithe physique.

Soon Senna is shaking hands with Earnhardt as they introduce their respective dates. “It is a pleasure to meet a NASCAR champion like yourself,” says Senna, at ease in the upper crust atmosphere of European racing and acting like a polite host. “They told me you would be here for the awards.” 

Known to be shy in unfamiliar surroundings, the greeting by Senna puts Earnhardt more at ease. He had been wearing that offhand, give-a-damn look much of his time in London, keeping his eyes to himself. But the NASCAR champion’s chiseled, Intimidator face begins to relax and his eyes are alight, a hint of blue amidst the gray. “It’s nice to meet you,” he says to Senna with typical southern manners. “I watch you guys on the satellite in the mornings before we race.”

The jousting has begun and Senna replies, “That’s interesting.” Not one for small talk, he goes straight for the heart of the matter, brown eyes assessing the stock car driver, who is slightly taller but much broader and thicker through the shoulders beneath the trademark bristly mustache. “What do you think of our races?”

“I like seeing you guys race in the rain,” says Earnhardt, also eyeing Senna as if to estimate the surprisingly slender driver’s weight. “We can’t race in the rain on ovals. But if you ever want to drive a stock car on an oval, I can probably help out. Maybe we could swap cars.”

Ayrton Senna tested a Roger Penske-owned Indy car in 1992. (Photo by LAT Images)

“Do you think you could fit in an F-1 car?” replies Senna, gently razzing the Intimidator.

“You know, if Nigel Mansell can do it, they probably can find a way to fit me,” says Earnhardt, now pushing to stay in the lead. “Have you ever thought about driving a stock car? You look like you’re skinny enough to squeeze in through the window.”

“Stock car racing is very popular in Brazil,” replies Senna, smiling. “They race on the same track as Formula 1 in Sao Paulo. One day I may want to try driving a stock car. But you know, to be a champion you have to stick with one thing.”

“Well, we have a series for champions called IROC,” says Earnhardt, aggressive now in the friendly way that he has with fellow racers off the track. “We’re racing Dodges there. I don’t know what you’ve got in Brazil that’s like a Dodge. We get some drivers with Formula 1 experience racing with us at Daytona and Talladega and have a pretty good time. Martin Brundle has raced in IROC. He beat all of us last year on the road course in Cleveland at the airport. He almost won the championship.” 

“Yes, I imagine stock cars on ovals can be an interesting kind of racing,” says Senna. “It is my understanding fenders are used a lot. And you are one of the best. But I really don’t think this is the right kind of racing for me. I think it’s most important to be the fastest. In Formula 1, you have to be brave, yes. You always have to go for the gap. Sometimes in NASCAR I think the gap is made with the fenders.” 

Senna says this with eyes that are mischievous, drawing up his accusation more like a polite question.

Earnhardt, warming to the idea of racing with Senna, declines to take the provocation and offers one of his own. “Man, you’d fit right in. We run 200 mph for an entire lap without wings. The way you drive in the rain, you could probably handle that.”

“Oval racing is something I really would like to try at the Indy 500,” says Senna with real conviction. “I would like to try driving stock cars on an oval, too. I like cars that don’t depend so much on computers like we have in Formula 1. But I do not know about racing a stock car, because that is another situation. To experience this kind of car at 200 mph would interest me. I think it would be very different from the cars we drive in Formula 1 with the precise steering. The aerodynamics would be a new experience.”

“Bill France Jr. and I are friends,” says Earnhardt. “He owns the track at Daytona. We need to get you over there for a test. You can drive one of my Richard Childress cars and McLaren can bring a car. You can give me some tips on how to drive on the road course at Daytona in your car and I could help you with one of my Chevys. We could get some great publicity for both our teams.”

 “I’m glad my team owner is standing on the other side of the room,” replies Senna slowly, trying to ease the brakes onto the conversation. “They call you ‘The Intimidator,’ am I right? If I tell Ron Dennis that ‘The Intimidator’ wants to borrow one of his cars to drive at Daytona, he might have a heart attack.” 

Would Earnhardt have fit in an F1 McLaren? (Photo by Nigel Kinrade)

“I promise I won’t hit nothing,” replies Earnhardt, laughing. “We’ll have a good time. I got a boat and we can go fishing. The weather’s pretty good for racing and fishing in Florida in the winter. Then you’ll be ready to do some IROC racing.”

“I like fishing. But Martin Brundle told me about racing in IROC. He said you spoke to him about his pregnant wife and child just before an IROC race in a way that you were trying to scare him. I count on God to help me stay calm, so I am never scared in a race car. But I do not see myself as immortal. So, I do not think we should be on the same track, maybe, at the same time. There might be a really big crash!”

Earnhardt laughs again. “Man, we’ve got to go fishing on my boat. It’s called Sunday Money. Let’s meet in the Bahamas and we’ll figure this deal out.”

The lights flicker, alerting attendees that banquet seating is under way. “It was a pleasure to meet you and your wife,” said Senna, still wary of committing himself to anything other than Formula 1 and possibly the Indy 500. He trusts Earnhardt will not share their conversation with the media and create a flap.

“Nice meeting you, too,” says Earnhardt. “If we ever can figure this deal out, boy, we could skin some snakes.”

 The two couples begin to move toward the exit door, Senna considering that this meeting with a fellow champion, although enjoyable, will soon become a thing of the past. Suddenly having a good time in the unfamiliar and strange atmosphere of London, Earnhardt can sense Senna’s real fascination with Indy cars and recognizes little is likely to come of their brief exchange. But he is glad to have met the man behind the yellow helmet. A bit of a sly intimidator himself.

(Editor’s Note: Jonathan Ingram is entering his 44th year of writing about motor racing. His seventh book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt—How the HANS Device Helped Save Racing” is in current release. To see “CRASH” excerpts, visit www.jingrambooks.com.)

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, March 31 2020
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