Dale Earnhardt, Sr., was blocking the competition for his teammates, Michael Waltrip and his son, Dale, Jr. It was the Intimidator doing what had not come naturally to him over the 30-plus-years he had driven the NASCAR circuit. Normally on the last lap of the biggest race in NASCAR, Earnhardt would have been charging, butting and bulling his way through the competition trying to win the race he’d only won once in his illustrious career. But that was what Sterling Marlin was doing February 18, 2001.
Marlin was bumping, pushing, tapping, trying to bull his way around Earnhardt so he could use all his tricks to get around Dale, Jr., and Waltrip and steal a victory in the last lap. The crowd, those cheering for Earnhardt, Sr. or Jr., or Waltrip, and those cheering for someone to take a victory away from the Childress team that day, roared like a great beast across the Florida scruff.
Marlin’s silver Coors Light Dodge had a front end that showed all the dings and dents a knight might have shown after a day of jousting. His right front bumper tapped Earnhardt’s left rear one more time. Not much, but just enough to cause the Intimidator to veer to the left and down to the flat apron of the track. Earnhardt, ever the competitor, fought the forces of physics that day and muscled his car back to the right. It was too much muscle, however, and the car turned farther to the right and began its climb toward the wall.
Ken Schrader’s Pontiac hit Earnhardt’s Chevrolet, and then the Intimidator struck the wall at about 160 miles per hour. The two cars slide down the track toward the infield. Schrader climbed from his car and ran to help Earnhardt, but he took a quick look inside the black Chevy and turned to the infield frantically waving for the emergency crews. He didn’t know it then, but Earnhardt was already dead.
The cause of death was a basilar skull fracture. That’s the fancy medical term for the injury that killed Earnhardt. Basically, he died when his head whipped forward as his car hit the wall and stopped suddenly. Earnhardt also suffered broken ribs and a broken ankle, and he had abrasions where his seat belt rubbed his collarbone and hips.
Dale Earnhardt, Sr., the son of a stock car pioneer and the father of one of the racing games newest stars had died doing what he loved doing: driving a fast car and trying to win a race. His death was a shock to the Daytona crowd, and a shock to the nation.
Thousands of fans made their way that night to Dale Earnhardt, Inc., in Monroe, North Carolina, to leave shirts, hats, flowers, anything they had that symbolized their love affair with this southern good old boy.
I heard the news as I and several students from Appalachian State University were returning from the spring convention of the Associated Collegiate Press Association in New York City. We were heading down Interstate 77, near Fancy Gap, Virginia, when the word came that Earnhardt had been taken directly to the hospital. That was ominous news. Usually drivers injured on the track are first taken to a first aid station that NASCAR provides. The station is almost an emergency room itself, so by bypassing this facility one had to wonder if the news was already bad.
NASCAR delayed announcing Earnhardt’s death for two hours. One would have thought a head of state had died. The Intimidator made the cover of Time magazine. His death was on all the news shows for the next week. His funeral was carried live by the networks: Pretty good for a race car driver.
Earnhardt wasn’t the first driver to die on the track. And despite all the efforts of NASCAR to build cars around driver safety, he won’t be the last. There has always been this element of risk and danger associated with racing, but particularly with the southern version where a driver puts his foot to the metal and drives around the oval as fast as he can go hoping to outrun everyone else on a particular Sunday. Stocks are southern. The roots lay with the dusty red clay tracks in sleepy southern towns. Mechanics would soup up an old car, bring enough gas and oil, and a couple of extra tires, and spend the afternoon running around the dusty ovals. If they were fortunate, they might win enough money to buy some groceries for the week, or if the gate was particularly good, maybe some shoes for the kids.
Racing was a dirt and grease under the fingernails working class sport. The fans came out of the textile and furniture plants that dotted the Carolinas and the South. The big boys raced at Wilkesboro against Junior Johnson, or at Bristol, Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Rockingham, Martinsville, Daytona, Darlington, or Talladega. The wannabees could be found on the dirt tracks or the quarter-mile ovals in places like Hickory, Asheville, Spartanburg, or wherever a race lover could get the financing together to build a small track.
On the day Dale Earnhardt, Sr., died, the stands at Daytona were packed. But a decade later the stands at NASCAR events are showing signs of fan dissatisfaction. The stands are not filled. Traditionally the fans for NASCAR came from the textile mills and furniture factories scattered across the Piedmont from Virginia, through the Carolinas, and into Georgia. No track was so far away that a working stiff couldn’t load the wife and kids into the old car and make it to the race of the week, or get back home in time to go to work at 7 a.m. on a Monday morning. Those plants are padlocked today. The companies that used to hire the southern worker have moved to China or Vietnam or Indonesia. The southern worker has been left behind without a job and without much of a future since many of them were high school dropouts, or only had a high school diploma.
For almost a century the southern worker avoided union attempts to organize them. They accepted the promise that the owners would look after them; the plants would always be there. But with the arrival of the 21st century, the crash of the Dot-Coms, and a recession that followed the Bill Clinton years, manufacturing began to implode. Many blame Clinton, who shepherded the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress. NAFTA began the flow of American plants to Mexico, then to any place in the world where the cost of labor was cheaper. For the southern working class, the recession did not end during the George W. Bush years. In fact, one might say the economy crashed on to the southern worker like the concrete and steel that crashed to the ground on September 11, 2001. Three thousand souls were lost that day when terrorists from the Middle East crashed airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. More than a million souls ultimately discovered their jobs were gone and the plants they had made careers at were padlocked.
One could say that the George W. Bush administration was as unable to stop the imploding manufacturing economy as it was unable to stop Osama bin Ladin’s plot to wage war against the United States. When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, one might be forgiven for believing our lives changed for the worse. Life became harder for most of us. We became meaner as a people and much more suspicious of our neighbors and a lot more unforgiving toward those who didn’t have it as well as we had it.
George W. Bush was governor of Texas when he ran for president in 2000. Before he became governor he pretty much was the recovering alcoholic son of George H.W. Bush, a New England Republican who had traveled to Texas to make a fortune in the oil business before he turned to politics, finally winning the presidency in 1988. He was a one-term president when the economy turned sour on him after he led a coalition of forces against Saddam Hussein. When that war ended so quickly in what appeared at the time to be a stunning victory, we celebrated like we had won World War II. In truth we had only won two decades of heartache and sorrow in the Middle East.
Shrub, as the late Molly Ivins so lovingly called W., came to power after the country had pretty much tired of the parade of trailer-trash women chased by Bill Clinton, the democratic president of the 1990s. Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky in a private office in the White House was one dalliance too many and his lying to cover it up led to his impeachment by the Republican-controlled Congress. But that was a political battle and Clinton was saved when the Democrats hung together to prevent a conviction on the charges. But it soured the public on a Democrat in the White House. Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, ran as the Democratic nominee against the Republican nominee, George W. Bush.
The campaign was long and dirty, and on Election Day the American people were conflicted. Gore had a commanding lead in the popular vote, but the popular vote doesn’t win you the White House. You have to win the Electoral College in the United States and there Gore was coming up short. Had he just won his own state of Tennessee we would have been talking about the Gore administration today. But Gore lost Tennessee and neither he nor Bush had enough electoral votes to win the office while Florida remained locked in controversy.
The nation didn’t know for weeks who would win. Gore hung on as the Democrats sought to recount all the ballots. We were treated to night after night of news reports of hanging chads and write-in votes. Very quickly the count became a legal issue and Republicans found the Democratic-controlled state supreme court favored counting the ballots. The Republicans had to get the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, controlled by conservative Republicans judges. The Republicans were able to win the legal battle and the U.S. Supreme Court did what everyone expected, it closed down the recount and delivered the state to Bush. Gore did the only thing left to him; he conceded the election to the Republican candidate.
Bush, in what we would see time and again for the next eight years, wasted no time in claiming a mandate of the people to do things the people clearly opposed.
For nine months, George W. Bush frolicked in the White House, seemingly in an aimless fashion. The son had finally matched his father’s achievement; or so he probably thought in his mind. The country, however, was beginning to see there was a power behind George W.’s throne, and that was former congressman, White House aide, defense secretary to the elder Bush, and now vice president to the son.
A lot has been said and written over the years about Dick Cheney’s decision that only he had the mettle to be vice president in 2000. The country could not be faulted for believing Cheney was the acting president on September 11, 2001. Cheney was the man holed up in the basement of the White House while an ashen-faced George W. was flown from one location to another, apparently unsure of what was going on or what was happening around him.
After Bush had returned to Washington, his eyes welled with tears and his voice choked when reporters asked him what he would do. One was left to wonder if this swaggering version of a Texan, albeit one with Connecticut roots, really had it in him to take on a monster. It wasn’t until Bush had his emotions under control and could visit ground zero that we saw him act like our John Wayne defined version of a steely-eyed Texan. You know the image: One riot, one ranger. At least that is how the story is told about a single Texas Ranger arriving on the train after the local sheriff had telegraphed the town was rioting.
It was this man to whom we had given the task of ordering the military, the army, to attack the country housing the training camps of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It was this same man who a few weeks later would almost kill himself tossing Cheetos into his mouth while watching a football game in the presidential residence. America found it impossible to move enough troops to Afghanistan to attack the Taliban and to search for bin Laden. The war became a CIA operation using Special Ops troops to form a bond with the Northern Alliance, the only credible fighting force not part of the Taliban.
For the next ten years America’s fight against global terrorism was fought in the back alleys of the Middle East. The truth, however, is more damning. We never put enough troops into the country to defeat the Taliban. We only ran them across the border into Pakistan. And when it came to capturing the elusive bin Laden, well, we were told it wasn’t important if we captured him. Only later did we come to understand that Bush’s handpicked general was too interested in retiring and playing golf and not interested enough to put American troops at a critical location to hammer bin Laden into surrender or to kill him. So, we allowed the mastermind of 911 to escape and to go into hiding for the next decade, many of those years hiding out just yards away from Pakistan’s largest military base and only 30 minutes from Pakistan’s military arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Two years after bin Laden’s escape into the unknown regions, Bush sent American troops across another border and into its second war in the Middle East. This time the target was Iraq, and with that decision America entered five years of hell. As our gaze was turned to the world of Saddam Hussein, a truly bad man but one who had nothing to do with 911 or bin Laden, we took our eyes off Afghanistan and the crumbling economy here at home.
American wages had been stagnant since the 1970s, and during the Bush years, especially after the crash of the Dot Coms (the fantasy world of computers and online commerce), job growth slowed and reversed as factories began to close across the country. Globalization was on full display. North Carolina alone lost almost a million jobs in this five-year period as most textile mills closed the factory gates and left for China, and the same for furniture. Today the governor sends out press releases seeking cheers when they can get 20 or 30 jobs in some town in the state, but remains very quiet when some national firm shuts its doors and takes 1,000 jobs to India or China. From 2003 to 2005, no one was watching the hen house as the fox destroyed not just the eggs in the nests, but ate the hens.
Because those who came to power in 2000 and were re-elected in 2004 believed in an unregulated free market, Wall Street and the big banks created investment packages that were nothing short of fraudulent. It wasn’t much of surprise to many that the whole system almost melted that autumn, but for the free marketers who had built their house of cards out of the libertarian rants of Ayn Ryan it came as a rude awakening, but one they buried while blaming the very people hurt the worse by their criminality. It was the biggest crisis since the Great Depression. George W. Bush once again looked into the pit and turned ashen with fear.
His two terms in office had begun with the first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, and it ended with the country standing on the edge much as a man at the edge of a cliff waving his arms desperately trying to regain his balance before pitching over the edge. His terms in office ended with the bailout of the very institutions that had caused the collapse of the American economy. His legacy is one of enriching his already rich and powerful cronies and those already well off, but sending more and more Americans into poverty. You could say he hit the wall twice, but unlike Dale Earnhardt, Bush was able to walk away and leave the mess for someone else to clean up.