The first fan in line, Charles Long, 27, of Winter Springs, Fla., has been here since 4 a.m. because, he says, "Junior is a regular guy. Just like me. Who drinks beer. Just like me." He hoots and whoops and pumps his fists and jumps up and down when his two copies of Driver #8 are signed. He is then overrun and subdued for comment by a squad of beautifully groomed local television reporters.
For hours the others will shuffle forward, the mother and daughter teams in from Ohio, the glowering bachelors out of Tennessee, entire tomato-red families down from Jersey. Silent 60-year-old shirtless fat men in straw hats and coveralls, quivering 14-year-old girls blow-molded into their black spandex crop tops, husbands and wives in matching pictographic Dale Jr. T-shirts—everyone has a copy of the book, two copies, three, nine, to be signed. "No other merchandise," shout the book people, "will be signed!" Cameras flash, teenage girls flirt or stare or tremble in their weeping, cops roll their eyes, the line inches forward, people scale the Art & Architecture shelves for a better look. "Junior!" they shout, "Hey, Junior!" until one no-longer-young woman climbs the wedding planners display to croon, "Helloooooooooooo, Sexy!" and everybody breaks up. The thin smile flickers. This is how the book about #8 made it to #4 on The New York Times best-seller list.
A mother guides her son toward the table. He is a little boy, maybe nine, 10 years old. "Hey, Buddy," says Dale, Jr., softly. The boy doesn't say anything, nor does he have a book, and he freezes for a second, unsure what to do. His mother nudges him gently from behind. "Go ahead," she says. Expressionless, the boy hands Dale Jr. a picture he's drawn. It is a smudged pencil rendering of Earnhardt's number 8 Budweiser car, complete with cartoon speed lines trailing off the roof and rear spoiler. It is neither precociously good nor unimaginably bad. Earnhardt accepts it and says, "Thank you, Buddy." Someone turns the boy around and his mother says "Smile" but he doesn't, and then the flash explodes blue and white and impossibly cold, and the two of them, man and boy, are frozen together for an instant. Forever.
When I was just a little squirt, I clipped pictures of race cars from magazines and taped them to my bedroom walls. From floor to ceiling and wall to wall ran the elegant and delicate Formula One machines of the mid-'60s, like the Lotus and the BRM, as fragile and complicated as insects, and the factory Ferrari, as low and wide and red as appetite itself. Next to these were the exotic 24 Hour GT-Prototypes from Sebring and Le Mans, the blunt Porsches and the swooping Jaguars and the perfect Ford GT 40s. Among them ran the muscle-bound and slab-sided family sedans from Plymouth and Chevy, big block Detroit iron, their V-8 pistons fat as feed buckets, thundering around the Southern stock car circuit. Beside these were the last of the bulging, broad-shouldered front-engine Indy cars, as poky and old-fashioned as stagecoaches even then.
I scissored out pictures of the drivers, too, and around the room grinned the heroic faces of Hill and Clark and Stewart, the Unsers and the Pettys, Foyt, Andretti, Yarborough and Lorenzen, even the great Fangio. I dreamed of being one of them.
At night, in the desolate freedom of those dreams, I moved across a shadow landscape at terrifying speeds, goggled and tattooed with grime, an eight-year-old boy with a front-page smile, rakish and death-defying, trailing a white silk scarf and the noise of a distant crowd. Speed was everything.
Only much later did I learn that at this speed the wall is liquid. At this speed you are deaf to everything but the greedy furnace blast of the engine, blind to anything but the tunnel you drill through the glare. At this speed time itself thins and cracks into useless theory. Your future—that impossible mirage of fame and adulation beyond fantasy, of privilege beyond measure, of houses and cars and those ice-cold millions uncountable—shimmers out there in that demon heat six inches ahead of you, and your past, that earthbound and dismal history, is nothing but a greasy breeze feathering into the stands 600 yards and a lifetime behind you. Drive fast enough and you hit life's escape velocity: dead or famous, and you're better off either way. So manage your fear, ride it, man, keep that oily churn in your gut buckled down tight. 'Cause if you don't, it might climb into your throat and choke you.
At this speed you are bared to the marrow, stripped of everything human except ambition and want—you become a pure, hard consciousness, without love or regret or identity. You are speed itself, simple acceleration, a rushing vector of infinite possibility. At this speed the track swims and unspools beneath you in a murderous blur. You are fast. Fast out of all proportion to sense or physics or the slow and tortured turning of the earth, you are centrifugal, orbital, as vast and ancient and celestial as something flung down from heaven to wreak a black and unblinking havoc on a thousand thousand generations of sinners. At this speed you are the very sword of God.
At this speed you'll start Sunday's race 35th in a field of 43 cars. Or so it seems on any NASCAR qualifying day.
At 27, Dale Earnhardt Jr., "Little E," currently embodies, metaphorically and otherwise, NASCAR's gleaming future. He is arguably the sport's first crossover star, a full-bore billboard MTV breakout bad boy (That hat! Those glasses! Rage rock! Hip-hop! Lock up your daughters, America!), running wide-effing-open down Madison Avenue, bringing beer and sass and sex into your shabby, joyless living room.