Pittsburgh, PA
July 10, 2020
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
Pirates Q&A
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  Sports >  Columnists Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
Cook: Driver's death makes fans weak

Friday, February 23, 2001

It might not be wrong for grown men who had never met Dale Earnhardt to weep openly at his death.

It might not be wrong for strangers to drive hundreds of miles to Charlotte yesterday to pay their respects at Earnhardt's memorial service.

It might not even be wrong for someone to leave a hand-written card at Earnhardt's makeshift memorial that read, "You were God to me."

Who is to say if someone deserves that kind of sendoff? Who is to say what is the proper way to grieve?

Kris Marklein, left, and parents Lee and Marcy drove from Las Vegas to be in Charlotte and watch the services on TV from the Founders Hall in the Bank of America Center. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

But the reaction to Earnhardt's death Sunday during the Daytona 500 has been curious, at the very least.

It has been strange, even sick, in a lot of ways.

And it has been frightening.

This isn't the first time a celebrity's unexpected death has led to an outpouring of human emotion. People still remember where they were and what they were doing when John Kennedy was shot. Much of the world grieved when John Lennon was killed by an assassin's bullet. And don't even mention Elvis. Some still refuse to believe he is dead.

The incredible reaction to Earnhardt's death is just one more sad reminder of our misguided priorities. People working for world peace or searching for a cure for cancer toil in anonymity, yet our entertainment and sports celebrities are elevated to pedestals where no human being belongs. Who knows why it happens? Maybe people get a vicarious thrill from it. Maybe it makes them feel better to attach themselves to someone so successful in such a visible profession. Or maybe it just makes them feel a little more immortal when they think of someone else as being that way.

That might not be wrong, but it is unhealthy.

"It's like Superman is dead," one Earnhardt fan told The Associated Press this week. "Heroes aren't supposed to die."

Doesn't that trouble you just a bit?

What's happening to our world when a race-car driver is a bigger-than-life hero to so many?

Or, for that matter, a guy who can skate or hit a baseball or throw a football or shoot a basketball or break par day after day?

Why is Earnhardt's life more valuable than those of the people who are mourning him?

It's not, of course, but you'd have a hard time convincing NASCAR fans. They might be the most loyal fans in all of sports. Their world revolves around the big race on Sunday.

Those fans couldn't help but be touched by Earnhardt in some way. He wasn't just the most successful driver. He had a common touch. A lot of people loved him, respected him and, maybe most of all, related to him because of it. Some hated him, sure. Some people always try to bring down the successful. Either way, no one was ambivalent toward Earnhardt.

His death truly was sad. It's always sad when someone is struck down in the prime of life. It's sad when it happens to a loved one or friend or neighbor or work-place acquaintance or someone you just happen to read about on the obituary pages. And, yes, it's sad when it happens to a celebrity.

The difference is those other deaths don't happen on national television or receive the attention Earnhardt's did.

Maybe that's why a lot of people didn't think clearly this week. The most offensive reaction to Earnhardt's death was the threats sent to fellow driver Sterling Marlin, whose bump into Earnhardt triggered the crash. Does anyone out there really believe Marlin wanted this accident to happen? He did nothing that Earnhardt hadn't done hundreds of times. He used the same tactics that earned Earnhardt the nickname "Intimidator" and made him such a popular champion.

If anyone caused this crash, it was Earnhardt, who was running interference for cars he owned that were driven by Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished one-two.

"Good, hard racin'," his fans say.

Insanity at 185 mph, I call it.

Sorry, but it's hard for me to think of Earnhardt as a hero. It's easier to think of him as a reckless fool.

That isn't to say Earnhardt got what he deserved. No one deserves to die. But Earnhardt did choose willingly to make his living -- a fabulous living -- in a dangerous sport. Like all drivers, he accepted the risks each time he climbed into his car. For years, he beat the odds, surviving accidents that looked much worse than the one Sunday. This last race, though, death beat him.

It just proved one final point:

There are no Supermen in this life, no matter how much we might want there to be.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections