Lessons of the Gladiator
by Michael Spencer
Stock car racing is one of those gems of America’s heartland that must be a complete puzzle to the coastal cultural gatekeepers. With its roots in running moonshine and it’s heroes being very blue-collar, non-PBS types, it surely seems a very bizarre universe of grown men acting like teenagers and hillbillies cheering cars driving in a circle, albeit very fast.
The death of Dale Earnhardt has made the media look at what has become a uniquely American success story. NASCAR now makes other professional sports organizations take notice, winning new fans week by week and adding corporate sponsors that will never touch Major league baseball, the NBA or NFL. Earnhardt was one of a few NASCAR drivers who took their sport to a level undreamed of even twenty years ago.
NASCAR’s appeal has never been a mystery to those who follow the sport. (Interesting how many media types now admit they are NASCAR and Earnhardt fans, often as a family affair.) Cutting-edge technology combined with life-and-death competition; the American love affair with the automobile; raw competition, and, more recently, the emergence of the driver as a sports superstar and American icon. In the transition from backwater sport to cultural and economic force, Earnhardt was the epitome of all that NASCAR has achieved.
The media, such as TIME Magazine, has done an outstanding job of chronicling Earnhardt’s career and place in NASCAR’s success, but I haven’t seen anyone note that Dale Earnhardt was a uniquely American success story and a lesson in American values. Particularly, the values that liberals love to hate.
Earnhardt would never have showed up on the Rosie O’Donell Show. On his way up through the ranks of NASCAR, he earned his nickname of “Intimidator.” Earnhardt was rowdy, unsophisticated and untamed. More than one eulogy has mentioned that Earnhardt seemed a throwback to NASCAR’s days of moonshine running and illegal competition. When he died, Earnhardt’s critics were still after him, showing that he inspired as much animosity as loyalty.
Earnhardt raced to win. He pushed the rules, pushed the machines and pushed the competition. He wasn’t trying to spread the trophies around; he was unashamedly trying to take them all home. Earnhardt openly ridiculed those who wanted to slow the game down and make it safer. He was unapologetic about the sport’s dangers and lack of limits. He refused to wear new safety gear and he was blocking the field so his team could win when his life attended. Earnhardt wasn’t planning a long retirement on the golf course. Going out on the last lap of the Daytona 500 would have suited him just fine.
His success on the track was matched only by his success as an entrepreneur. Earnhardt merchandise dominates the many NASCAR oriented outlets around the country. He translated a dominating presence as a driver into a similar domination of the economic aspects of the sport: sponsorship and fan dollars. Everyone in NASCAR looked up to Dale Earnhardt, because he was standing head and shoulders above the rest of the field in every measurable way.
The appeal of Earnhardt is the appeal of American values. Without education, privilege or advantage, a man takes a car and creates his own empire. Unvarnished competition and tenacious dedication to beating everyone else. Reaping the financial rewards of success in this amazing country, and doing so in a way that makes people feel good about laying down their money. Keeping your edge and ignoring, utterly, those who want success to be less dangerous and deadly. Intimidation, to the very end.
Liberals, obviously, find all this distasteful, crude and threatening to their vision of America. To see Dale Earnhardt on the cover of TIME has a great deal to say about the media’s long overdue discovery of the country between the coasts. (The Red States as one writer said.) This is the America that still goes to church, likes a winner, waves the flag, and owns some guns. They understand the redneck kid who became the greatest success in racing history, and they hail him as a hero. If you want to know why Al Gore lost Tennessee, look at the fans of Dale Earnhardt and NASCAR.
Dale Earnhardt wouldn’t have been who he was in England or Russia or China or Sweden or France. He became what he was in America where we reward the guy who fights his way to the top with relish and guts. We’ll pay to see him do it again. We’ll weep when he hits the wall. We’ll stand in his honor, as a gladiator who went to the arena well aware he might exit on his shield.
And we’ll be at the races next week, cheering the gladiators again. Only in America, and may it always stay that way.