Sports Illustrated senior writer Montville (Manute, 1993) puts a lot of twangy energy into this biography of stock-car great Dale Earnhardt, who died this year after hitting the wall on the final turn of the final lap at Daytona.
Stock-car racing has come a long way from its moonshiner and revenue-agent roots, and Earnhardt is a kind of poster boy for the transformation: a man who drove as if his hair were on fire, a fearless southern boy who loved to draft along on another’s bumper at 200 mph, who could come out of nowhere to win at the wire, all the while flipping the finger at any driver daring to impede his progress, who nonetheless learned to wear neckties, attend board meetings, and submit to public-relations handlers. Still, “he brought the dirt track with him into the big time,” says Montville in what approaches an idolatrous voice: Earnhardt was dangerous and fun, pretty much the embodiment of stock-car racing, and his fans were legion. Montville traces Earnhardt’s racing life, through all the junkers and crashes and tiny dirt tracks, the long wait for a good car and asphalt, his friendship with Neil Bonnett (drivers don’t often become friends: “Do you want to get close to someone who might not be around in the near future?”), right up to the Learjets and yachts. Then his death at Daytona, a race he had finally won a couple years before after 19 tries. Montville works a little too hard at being thunderstruck by Earnhardt’s death, with stunted sentences to convey his distraction and disbelief—“Seven titles. Six in a nine-year span. Who could argue with this kind of success? He was the best. Maybe the best who ever lived”—that compromise the embrace of his narrative.
A private man uncomfortable with words, Earnhardt was no biographer’s dream, but Montville draws a forceful portrait, letting the evolving atmosphere of NASCAR and Earnhardt’s achievements speak for themselves. (Color photographs, not seen)