In years past the model for the great motoring heroes of the circuit was perhaps a little, um, straight-arrow. Scrubbed a bit too clean, bled out, colorless. The Other Other White Meat. In some cases there was a bit too much red, maybe, right around the neckbone. The muttonchops and nylon windbreakers don't peg the tach with those Greenwich focus groups. Preaching only to the converted, they sold motor oil, brake rotors and mentholated dippin' snuff.
Until the time of his father's death, Dale Jr., and to a lesser extent his brother Kerry, a successful Busch series driver, had inspired in fans only the kind of tentative, speculative affection that surrounds the son of any famous man. Sure, he'd won two championships in the Busch series, NASCAR's Triple A circuit, but did he have the grit, the steel, the mud, to run in the Show, the Winston Cup? He could drive, O.K., but the talk in the pits was that he had more cojones than cortex, and when was he gonna step, as they say, UP? Lordy, even Frank Sinatra Jr. can carry a tune. The only question is, how far?
Flung far and fast into the naked limelight by that slow-motion crash up the mountainous reach of Turn 4, Earnhardt Jr. might have become nothing more than a curiosity, another lounge act. Worse still, he might have believed all those newspapers trimmed in mourning black that presented him, generously but wrongly, as JFK Jr.: a handsome, harmless attendant of the family's eternal flame, whose public life must be lived in the long, chilly shadow of his dead father and whose accomplishments can't help but seem small when seen in the wan, reflected light that infrequently falls on them.
So Dale Earnhardt Jr., grandson of short track legend Ralph Earnhardt and son of the mighty Intimidator, ol' Ironhead his-self, goes out and does the onliest thing he knows to trump the lame, melodramatic script that everyone else is trying to write for him. He races. He runs, as they say, good. Top 10. Top five. He wins. At Daytona in July. At Dover. At Talladega. He finishes 2001 eighth in points and with $5.8 million in winnings. On top of that he makes monster endorsement money, and the fans' affections, their swarming passions, un-tethered after his father's accident, are beginning now to bear down on him.
Which brings us back to the Day of the Locust crowds that attend his every move. It starts during those two long weeks in Daytona, 2002. The book's a hit. He's everywhere on television. He can't walk anywhere without being pestered, pictured, pursued. If he stops long enough to take a breath, a bouquet of microphones materializes in front of him. He has to hide in the garage or strap himself into his car. He runs good the first few weeks. Top 10. Top five. During any given race he has more women sitting on his toolbox in the pits than most other drivers, a sure sign of, well, something. At Texas in early April he spins and wads the car up pretty good in Turn 2, and security tries to close the garage because so many fans come pouring over the fences to watch his crew try to bang the frame straight. His failures now attract greater attention than some drivers get in Victory Lane.
At Bristol, in the surprising early-season cold of the Tennessee hills, he shows up in his pit thuggin' it, dressed like P. Diddy at Gstaad, with a knit cap pulled down to his evil shades and a mustard ski jacket the size of a spinnaker. The crowd of 147,000 pours ovations down on him in that tiny, tidy bowl. The loudest of the day comes right after the race, however, when he and Robby Gordon bang each other hard going back into pit road. It is intentional and juvenile, and it will cost them both thousands of dollars in fines. But it is also old-school, Friday-night, dirt-track turf-war gamesmanship. The people roar for it, for him. In the motoring press a week later are the recriminatory editorials about sophomoric behavior and dark murmurs about a missed promotional appearance. Drowned out by the cheering, they go unheeded.
At Talladega back in April, under that angry Alabama mother sun, the fans rose in the stands every time Dale Jr. ran his car out for practice. In the shade of the garage between sessions he would peel himself out of the top of his driver's suit, hitch his pants and stand, flushed and frail-seeming, in front of the swamp cooler by the car. Yahooing cries of "Junior!" rang out during the prayer before the race, a 40-year-old echo of the days when Junior Johnson was the Last American Hero. When the race began, so did the roaring, from a grandstand nearly a mile long, louder even than the cars. Every time he ran out front the roar grew and people stood and people fainted in the heat and the roar swelled again and became a solid wall of noise for the last few laps and the people swooned in the light and the noise and the hot, heroic love of something they felt was bigger than all of them. And he won. At the moment he crossed the finish line, borne forward by the apocalyptic cry of 200,000 fans, scores of thousands of cameras flashed, impossibly cold and blue, the moment frozen.
Why is NASCAR so successful? In part, I think, because unlike most other sports, in which fans can see only dim reflections of themselves—when was the last time you hit a 450-foot home run off a 98-mile-an-hour fastball, or carded a 63 at Medinah, or tomahawked some stank down on Shaq's head?—NASCAR is at once death-defying and prosaic. When was the last time you drove?
NASCAR works overtime to engage its fans in many ways. Foremost among these, obviously, is the racing itself, with its manufacturer rivalries, its life-or-death risks and rewards and its stars trading paint and sharp words at speed on the high-banked ovals at Darlington or Martinsville.
NASCAR is also one of the strictest, albeit one of the most fluid, rule-making bodies in sport. The organization's nabobs intend for mechanical parity to ensure close racing and further fan interest, so they not only micromanage the engineering of the race cars at every point but also often modify the construction rules from week to week or even day to day, half an inch here, half a pound there, to prevent one make or model from gaining an unfair advantage over the others. The teams, of course, do everything they can to gain that unfair advantage, so the tension between enforcement and violation of the many technical restrictions creates a kind of nervous equilibrium. Outright cheating is now rare, but elaborate conspiracy theories still fuel the garage rumor mill. Though the cars still look vaguely like sedans you might see at a dealership, they are, in fact, 780-horsepower purpose-built thoroughbreds. NASCAR is so successful in calibrating their equality that the average margin of victory in the 2001 season, across 10 months and nearly 40 races, was a little more than a single second.