I’ll start this column with a comparison, one I don’t take lightly in making from Memphis, Tennessee. Dale Earnhardt was the Elvis Presley of NASCAR. Richard Petty, of course, is known far and wide as “The King,” but the fact is, Petty has lived too long (78 years) to achieve the brand of legend Elvis did in dying so young (42). But the Intimidator? Earnhardt died in the most dramatic fashion in American sports history: a wreck on the final lap of NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the 2001 Daytona 500. He was two months shy of his 50th birthday when pulled from the wreckage of his iconic number-3 Chevy. There will be no pictures of an old Dale Earnhardt. He was Elvis in a fire suit. And he died racing.
Jay Busbee has written the definitive book on Earnhardt’s life, racing career, and death. Earnhardt Nation goes even further, as it blends the rise of Earnhardt’s son (Dale Jr.) as NASCAR’S most popular driver with the growth of a sport that continues to tease calamity as new heroes chase checkered flags and the seven-figure paychecks that come with them.
It’s a brilliant book, really, as you don’t need to be a gear-head to fully appreciate Earnhardt’s place in American pop-culture history. Busbee provides context for the Earnhardt family’s place in racing history, with patriarch Ralph actually fueling the proverbial engine his son and grandson would rev to heights unseen by many athletes in more mainstream sports. (Busbee studied journalism at the University of Memphis and has written for Memphis magazine. He now calls Atlanta home.)
He was driving on instinct, balls, and will.
Books about auto racing — more specifically NASCAR — don’t fill shelves the way baseball, boxing, or golf literature does. Which makes Busbee’s tome so important, even educational. Now and then a sports book resets the standard for its genre. Think The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn (about the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers) or John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink (Bobby Knight and the 1985-86 Indiana Hoosiers). Likewise, Earnhardt Nation brings to life a phenomenon appreciated even more in hindsight — in death — than it was as Earnhardt was piling up Winston Cup championships a quarter-century ago.
Racing, a sport that combined grit and daredevil grace with a chance to make a few bucks and pose with some pretty women in Victory Lane, stood at the center of the South’s rebirth.
The Earnhardt family was and is quintessentially Southern. Not unlike Elvis Presley’s. Its fan base would color an entire map of the United States, but the density of its devotion — particularly to the Number 3 car — would be heaviest here in the American South. Blue-collar. Rural. Largely white. It’s a fan base powerful enough to once attract the sponsor of all sponsors — Budweiser — to Junior’s team, and without a single season championship to the driver’s credit. All he needed was that name (its own brand), a heavy right foot, and that country smile for stand-up posters.
The All-Star race freed Earnhardt to unleash the last bits of bastard in himself. If his rival drivers failed to catch him, hell, it was their fault for not trying hard enough.
No driver has caught Dale Earnhardt, not even his extraordinarily popular son. He’s passed into the realm of legends, and his story will be told long after the automotive industry is again transformed. (Among the tragic ripples of Earnhardt’s premature death is never having a quote from the Intimidator about the concept of driverless cars.) Like Elvis, Earnhardt was a flawed human being, and by a few measures. But what he did well, he did better than anyone else. And with a style that makes for great reading.