It is hard to believe it has been six years since we lost Dale Earnhardt. I remember that day so well. I remember the details of that Daytona 500 like they were yesterday. I remember Earnhardt slinging up towards the wall, getting hit by Kenny Schader. I remember Darrell Waltrip in the Fox Sports booth saying, after yelling for his brother's win, " I hope Dale is alright." I remember veteran racer Kenny Schader taking a startling step back from Earnhardt's car in the infield and motionally frantically for emergency workers to get to the car. I remember Dale Jr., still in uniform, running to the infield care center.
I remember a visibly shaken Mike Helton, then President of NASCAR telling the world, "we have lost Dale Earnhardt."
It felt like a family member had died.
Dale Earnhardt was one of us. He had worked his way out of the cotton mills of North Carolina to become arguably the greatest NASCAR driver of all time. He did so with a determination to win and boundless courage. He was my hero.
There was more to him than just on the track. A couple of years before his death, my brother and I had stood out in the rain at Greenville-Pickens Speedway for an autograph session with Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty. Petty was a nice guy, as well, I must note. But, for some reason, Gordon would only sign certain things. When I got to Earnhardt, all I had for him to sign was my Earnhardt cap I had on my head, which was soaked. You never forget your encounter with a legend, so here is how it went.
Earnhardt looked up for the table and smiled at me. "This thing is all wet." Then he paused, and said, "thank you for standing out there for so long, let me see if I can find a dry place to sign." Earnhardt did. He signed on the corner of the bill that was dry. He handed the hat back to me and said, "go somewhere and get dry." That cap sits on the bookshelf in my home office. It was one of my most prized possessions.
That was Dale Earnhardt. One of us. A hero. I am still a hardcore NASCAR fan, but I sure do miss ole Earnhardt. He was and is still "the man."