A pit-crew view of a definitively dangerous sport–turned–big business and cultural bellwether.
Forget the fireworks and half-clad cheerleaders: when Dale Earnhardt (1951-2001) showed up at a racetrack, “his presence alone was enough to get the denizens of a nursing home up on their feet.” Yahoo! Sports writer Busbee’s account is appropriately lively, a tour de force of bravado. Still, death pervades the book, which begins with the unexpected end of “the Intimidator” on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. “Whenever Dale Earnhardt wanted a win,” writes the author, “he’d eventually get it”—but not on this chaotic, big-purse day, when crashes had taken out half the competing field already. Tracking back and then forward, Busbee examines Earnhardt’s storied career, not so much with an eye to the wins and thrilling victories as with a view to how Earnhardt changed auto racing, monetizing it with souvenirs and endorsements, driving not just a car, but the business and brand that he built, which “rivaled the most popular athletes of the era—Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.” Earnhardt’s son continues on, though with many differences: “His father treated the press like broccoli, an annoying necessity. Junior’s press conferences are often remarkable—part therapy session and part stand-up routine.” Whether by virtue of father or son or, for that matter, grandfather, the Earnhardt legacy remains strong in racing today. Those who denigrate NASCAR racing as the sport of stars-and-bars–waving louts may be surprised at Busbee’s fluency and thoughtful approach to his subject as well as his knack for just the right transition—including the closing, which is perfect, for after all the business and profit-taking and statistics are racked up, what remains for the rest of us, in appropriate homage, is to find a stretch of empty road and “floor it.”
A smart look at an iconic but not necessarily admirable superstar and at what goes on behind the scenes in big-money sports.