"Get the hell out of the race car if you've got feathers on your butt."
When it came to going fast and turning left, no one could call Dale Earnhardt a chicken. Simply, he was The Intimidator. Reflective gold Gargoyle sunglasses hid the twinkle in his eyes, and a bushy moustache added to his cat-who-ate-the-canary grin. But nothing could dim the fire that burned within the modern day stock-car gladiator.
And now that flame is gone, destined to be revered as the brightest star of NASCAR's modern era.
Growing up in the rural South, it was a rite of passage on Sundays, being allowed to sit under the mimosa tree, drinking SunDrop and eating pimento and cheese sandwiches with elders while listening to the race on radio. Eli Gold's voice put many fans in the driver's seat, white-knuckled and sweating, until the checkers welcomed the winner across the finish line. And more times than not, if Earnhardt was the first across the stripe, his car was dinged, banged and dented after trading paint with the other drivers. After all, he said, "Rubbin' is racin'."
For many, those memories have become -- more quickly than anyone wanted -- all that remain.
Feb. 18, 2001, will be remembered by many as the day racing died. NASCAR president Mike Helton delivered the fateful news: "This is understandably the hardest announcement I've ever had to make. We've lost Dale Earnhardt." Forty-nine years, 76 wins, seven Winston Cup championships reduced to four words: We've lost Dale Earnhardt.
For a generation of stock-car fans, Dale Earnhardt epitomized the sport. He was the hard-charging "Ironhead," the hard-headed, devil-may-care, get-out-of-my-way son of Ralph "Ironheart" Earnhardt. Love the man in black or hate him -- Earnhardt was never voted the series' most popular driver in 22 full seasons -- race day meant dealing with the No. 3 car.
For those who do not understand the allure of stock-car racing, simply put, Earnhardt, a ninth-grade dropout, was The Bambino, His Airness, The Great One -- all in one 6-foot-1, 190-pound package. He could drive the superspeedways, the short tracks, the road courses with equal aplomb. And he conquered them all.
"Dale Earnhardt was the driver for NASCAR and played such an important role in all of our energy level and enthusiasm that has built NASCAR into what it is today," Helton said. "It's hard to comprehend the statistic sheets for Dale Earnhardt are now permanent."
Michael Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 driving a Dale Earnhardt Inc. car, said: "I just couldn't wait till I got that big grab on the neck, that big hug. I just knew any minute Dale was going to join me in Victory Lane, and say, 'That's what I'm talking about, right there.' That wasn't to be. My belief is in a twinkle of an eye you're in presence of the Lord. And that's where I think Dale is."
A husband and father of four, Earnhardt once said, "There's no pressure on me when I'm in a race car. Hell, that's when I'm relaxed; that's the best time in my life.'' It also was the best time for a faithful legion of fans who now wear black during their mourning, not because The Intimidator is charging toward the front.
Precious memories. How they linger.