DALE EARNHARDT PRESSED HIS FOREHEAD AGAINST A fence separating the garage from an infield parking area at Daytona, with his disguise-sized mustache—it could recall Wyatt Earp or Groucho Marx, depending on whether he was up to mayhem or mischief—tickling the chain links. Usually you could feel the Intimidator's presence, but I didn't notice him at first, steeped in bewilderment as I eyed a flat on my beater hatchback. "Maybe if you stare at that tire long enough, it'll change itself," he yelled out over the engine noise in his Carolina twang.
It would have been a fine moment for a young NASCAR writer to impress the greatest driver since the invention of the wheel with her pit-crew skills, except for one problem: I had removed the jack to make room for golf clubs. I decided not to offer up that nugget and, as I walked to the infield pressroom, told him, "I'll get to it after work. See you later."
Hours later, in the early darkness of that February evening in 1993, I started to look around the parking lot for a ride home when I caught a glimpse of my car: The tire had been changed. With my spare. That had been in the trunk of my locked car. The next day a gate guard told me that one of Earnhardt's guys, apparently armed with a Slim Jim and a jack, had fixed the flat.
In hindsight this was the paradox of the Man in Black: The most feared, irascible, aggressive and ruthless driver in the history of NASCAR left a legacy defined by acts of kindness. In the 10 years since Earnhardt died in a crash on the final turn of his 23rd Daytona 500, he is recalled as a decorated driver who reached folkloric heights, but he is also revered for having the unadorned soul of a simple man. As each year passes since his death at age 49, the number of NASCAR Cup races (676) and championships (seven) he won never changes, but the tales continue to add up of how Earnhardt touched others on the back roads of Kannapolis, N.C.—aiding the luckless dirt-track driver or cash-strapped farmer—and throughout his journey. "He always was fair about what he did in life," his daughter Kelley said after her father's induction ceremony into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in May. "He wanted to see others succeed too, and he helped give them the resources to do that."
Maybe we keep adding layers of context to Earnhardt—I hadn't thought of the mystery flat in 15 years—in order to keep the arc of his narrative alive even after his death. It's as if we still want Earnhardt to age with us, because his personal evolution was a parallel to the lives of ordinary people. He was poor as a young man and used bedsheets in his windows when he couldn't afford curtains; he worked for bosses he couldn't stand. He was young and crazy, too. In his youth he did everything at high speed: He rushed to drop out of high school after 10th grade so he could start racing. ("My dad wanted me to stay, but I quit anyway," he said in interviews I had with him.) His brashness was pedal-to-the-floor when he warned competitors and NASCAR officials alike not to "mess with this ol' boy," and he went hurtling into the first of his three marriages at 17. ("Here I am, 40," he said in 1992. "I'm a family man with a three-year-old at home, a 19-year-old in college and a 22-year-old with kids. I'm a grandfather. The grandkids call me Dale.")
Dale Sr. was open and beautifully blunt—to hell with sponsor sensitivities—unlike many of his Q-rating obsessed contemporaries. On a superstar sports landscape, where so many athletes are manufactured and marketed, Earnhardt separated himself from the Jordans of his era by allowing his followers access to his humanity. He let them in. He was candid about his string of Daytona 500 failures—"I don't think I'm snakebit; I might be alligator-bit or 500-bit," he once said—and equally transparent in his joy when he finally broke through in 1998. Earnhardt pulled a stuffed gibbon from beneath his uniform shirt in front of the press and exclaimed, "I've got that goddam monkey off my back."
The same Earnhardt who could melt hex bolts with his stare in his early days softened as time went by. "I think you'll see me change this season," he said in '92. He was mellowing, he promised with a smile. He was beyond wealthy, he admitted with some guilt. But he also was emphatic about remaining the same hard-driven racer with an uncomplicated persona. "I still eat from a can," he said with a plastic fork plunged into a serving of tuna.