Earnhardt was the last of the NASCAR cowboys

Earnhardt was the last of the NASCAR cowboys

(FILE PHOTO 5/15/1980) Dale Earnhardt drove almost every car except his own Wednesday in a World 600 practice day at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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by NewsChannel 36 Staff

WCNC.com

Posted on May 10, 2010 at 1:49 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 1 at 7:33 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He is the sport's largest icon. Seventy-six career wins. Seven cup championships.

Known as "The Intimidator," it's difficult to put into perspective how good Dale Earnhardt was from the start.

"You could see from the very first he was going to be terrific, and the thing that struck everyone is he had absolute courage," said Tom Higgins, a former reporter who covered NASCAR for 35 years.

When talking about Earnhardt, Higgins likes to quote another driving great, Cale Yarborough.

"Cale said you couldn't castrate Dale Earnhardt with a chainsaw," Higgins said.

That probably summed it up on the track, but it was Earnhardt's small town, working class roots that helped the fans relate.

"We can say what we want to about who goes to racing, but it's the dock worker, the shrimp boat captain, the guy that runs the backhoe -- working people -- and when we lost him, we lost the working man's driver and we haven't gotten one back. No one took his place," Higgins said.

Earnhardt's death changed the sport.

"I never thought I'd see a driver of any kind on the cover of Time magazine," said Higgins. "It took his death, I think, to realize how big the sport was."

On Feb. 18, 2001, in the final lap of the Daytona 500, the No. 3 car was clipped by Sterling Marlin's front bumper, sending Earnhardt head first into the wall. He was killed instantly.

That night, fans gathered outside Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. headquarters to mourn. His funeral was telecast on several television networks.

At that funeral, fellow Hall of Fame inductee Junior Johnson had the highest praise for Earnhardt.

"I heard Junior Johnson tell a reporter that Dale was the best that had ever been, bar none," Higgins said.

Earnhardt wasn't the first driver to die on the track, but his death was the catalyst for change. Changes like six-point safety harnesses for drivers, soft walls on the tracks and the "car of tomorrow."

"All those safety initiatives came after Dale Earnhardt passed. I think that becomes his legacy," Higgins said.

Ironically, Fox Sports writer Lee Spencer claims had Earnhardt lived, he would have thought the expensive safety enhancements were a "waste."

Spencer said Earnhardt took another more subtle thrill of racing with him when he died.

"When he came into the garage, he walked with an air about him that was somewhere between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood," Spencer said. "I mean, he was the last of the cowboys. He was the last of the NASCAR cowboys."

Today, if he were alive, even after all those wins and those seven championships, Earnhardt likely wouldn't have had too much to say about the latest honor of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"It meant a lot to him but he wouldn't have acted like it," Higgins said. "He was a humble person as far as that's concerned. He may have been embarrassed somewhat."

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