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A Hero's Last Lap

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He moved through life at his own pace, which just happened to have been around 200 mph. But there was more to Dale Earnhardt’s appeal than just speed, or the breathtaking abandon with which he careened around racetracks all over the country, menacing other drivers with his bumper-to-bumper aggressiveness. In many ways he was the modern incarnation of the rural southern male of yore, an independent macho guy who, you can be sure, never worried about flossing after every meal. Nobody ever called him a phony. And nobody could ever deny that he was, above all, a winner. “He represented everything you kind of look up to,” says Jim Beck, 58, from Deland, Fla., who was one of the legion of Earnhardt’s ardent fans. “He never lost that burning desire to be the best.”

But as the famously gruff Earnhardt surely knew, even the best can suffer the worst of fates. His death, two months shy of his 50th birthday and several hundred yards shy of the finish line of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, triggered an immense outpouring of grief from millions of race fans. “I’ve been married 43 years,” says Becky Duckworth, 59, who was drawn to a makeshift memorial outside the vacation home Earnhardt was building in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Besides my husband, Dale Earnhardt is the only man I’ve ever loved.” The winner of seven Winston Cup Championships, Earnhardt was the Michael Jordan of his sport. “Dale had the ability to go places on the racetrack—in the gray areas—where angels fear to tread,” says Humpy Wheeler, the president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., who had known Earnhardt since he was a youngster. “This is a real blow to us personally, but it also [leaves] a black hole in the sport.

Not that it was much consolation, but Earnhardt died doing what he loved most. He was born in the textile mill town of Kannapolis, N.C. His father, Ralph, was a NASCAR champion. Dale himself never made it past the eighth grade. “I tried the ninth grade twice and quit,” he once said. “Couldn’t hang, man. Couldn’t hang.” In between odd jobs he began to dabble in dirt-track racing. His dad was dubious, preferring that his son finish school, which led to some estrangement between the two. But Dale, nicknamed “Ironhead,” was as stubborn as his father, whose nickname was “Ironheart”; he kept on running dirt tracks. In 1973 Ralph died of a heart attack while out working on his car. It was Dale, 22 at the time, who found him. “He was against me dropping out of school to go racing,” Dale told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “But he was the biggest influence in my life.”

By the time he was 18, Dale was married and had a son of his own, Kerry, now 31, who also races cars. But success did not come swiftly, and the young driver began to entertain notions of getting a regular job. In 1975, however, he ran in his first Winston Cup race and finished 22nd. He went on to win 76 Winston Cup races over the next 20 years; his seven Winston Cup Championships tie him with “the King,” Richard Petty, for the most in circuit history.

Away from the track, though, Earnhardt enjoyed less success. His first marriage broke up, as did a second, to Brenda, which produced daughter Kelley, 28, who also races, and Dale Jr., 26, who is in his second season on the Winston Cup circuit and was running just ahead of his dad in the tragic Daytona race. The senior Earnhardt acknowledged that racing had been the direct cause of his split with Brenda; he had poured all his money and attention into his racing cars. “For our family cars,” he once told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, “we drove old junk Chevelles—anything you could get for $200.” (In 1982 Earnhardt married current wife Teresa, with whom he had a daughter, Taylor Nicole, 12.)

Earnhardt’s aggressive driving style, which often entailed perilously threading his famous black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo between cars, angered many of his fellow drivers, who believed that he was crossing the line of recklessness. “I want to give more than 100 percent every race, and if that’s aggressive, then I reckon I am,” Earnhardt once said by way of response to his critics. “It’s not a sport for the faint of heart.” It was a style that fed his mystique as perhaps the most gifted driver ever to strap himself into a stock car. As driver Bobby Hamilton, who had his share of run-ins with the man who came to be known as “the Intimidator,” once put it, “There is never, ever gonna be anybody as good as Earnhardt.”

Or as daring: Five years ago he broke his collarbone and sternum in a horrifying pileup at a race in Talladega, Ala.; just two weeks later he captured the pole position for a race in Watkins Glen, N.Y. But as much as his on-track boldness won over the skeptics, so did his many off-track acts of quiet generosity. Racing writer Ed Hinton, who was a close friend, recalls a time when farmers in North Carolina were facing ruin because of crops washed away by floods. Earnhardt told them not to worry, growling, “Just y’all have those damn tractors ready to roll when that seed gets here.” As Hinton relates, “Later I learn that the seed he sends them, at his expense, is measured in tons.”

Earnhardt always took the trouble to keep communion with his vast number of admirers. Fan George Garrison, 47, from Cocoa Beach, Fla., was eating at the NASCAR Cafe in Orlando recently when Earnhardt walked up and complimented him on the Earnhardt T-shirt he was wearing. Says Garrison, still awestruck: “He signed autographs for us and posed for pictures for 10 minutes.” With friends he was playful if not kidlike. “He’d get this wily grin on his face,” says longtime pal, country singer Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn. “You might be a victim of a headlock at any moment. He’d wrestle you to the ground like an 8-year-old.”

Yet for all his alpha-male aura Earnhardt had considerable crossover appeal. Last year a full 25 percent of NASCAR’s $1.1 billion merchandising sales was for Earnhardt-related items, with much of it purchased by women. His success on the track and business savvy off made Earnhardt a wealthy man. By one estimate he was worth more than $40 million. He built a gleaming headquarters for Dale Earnhardt Inc. near his home in Mooresville, N.C., and over the years had acquired a corporate jet, a helicopter and a 76-ft. Hatteras. He had a work area so big that the mechanics called it the “garage-mahal.”

But success never dimmed his ferocious competitiveness. Just over a year ago he underwent successful spinal surgery to relieve some of the lingering pain from a 1999 crash at the Atlanta Motor Speedway—and to get back on the track. Earnhardt’s absolute unwillingness to give an inch to his foes came to a sickening end on turn four of the Daytona Speedway. Only seconds from the finish line, Earnhardt was running behind Michael Waltrip, the eventual winner and a member of the Earnhardt racing team; Dale Jr. was in second place. He and Sterling Marlin were battling for third, with Earnhardt apparently trying to ensure that his team would finish one-two. As Earnhardt and Marlin maneuvered, the two bumped. Earnhardt hurtled sideways, was hit by another car and then slammed head-on into the concrete wall.

Within seconds firemen and medical personnel were on the scene, desperately trying to get him out of the car. In all likelihood, Earnhardt, bleeding from his ears and air passages, died instantly from head trauma. “When I walked up and saw what car it was, and then looked down at the other physician who was in the car working on him, I could tell,” says track doctor Steve Bohannon. “It broke my heart, what was happening.” Dale Jr. rushed to the hospital, where he met Teresa, who was with her husband when he was pronounced dead. Presbyterian minister Max Helton, who’s counseling the family, says, “They’re in a state of shock. His son [Dale Jr.] is taking it very difficult. He does not feel it’s his fault, but he’s hurting very badly.”

In the aftermath of the tragedy there was much debate over whether Earnhardt might have survived if he had been using a state-of-the-art piece of stock car safety equipment. Known as HANS (for head and neck safety), the helmet restrains the head in relation to the torso during a crash. Dr. Bohannon doubts that the device, which NASCAR recommends but is used by only a handful of drivers, would have saved Earnhardt in such a collision. “With impact of Dale’s nature,” says Dr. Bohannon, “even if you’d had this device on, hitting the wall that fast may have resulted in the same injuries.”

But even a guarantee that it could save a driver’s life probably wouldn’t have persuaded Earnhardt to wear the HANS device; he disdained all but the most basic safety measures. He cared more about his brilliant way with a couple of tons of speeding metal than about his personal safety—a point made all the more vivid by the nationwide grieving of race fans, especially those in his hometown of Mooresville. At his headquarters mourners fashioned impromptu shrines of flowers and cards. Many of the scores of well-wishers who flocked to the complex in the days after the accident openly wept. But he surely would have reminded them that the flirtation with disaster is both what he thrived on and one of the main reasons they loved him. “I’ve heard people say that we’re going too fast,” he said in a recent ESPN interview. “Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. [But] do you want to race or don’t you?” By chance the next Winston Cup event after Daytona was due to be held 100 miles from Mooresville, in Rockingham, N.C., on Feb. 25. It promises to be just as fast and just as noisy as ever. Only it won’t be the same.

Bill Hewitt

Don Sider in Daytona and Michaele Ballard in Mooresville