Sunday, February 21, 2016

Harmonic convergence

I'm taking the kid today.

I'm taking the kid even though, at 41, the kid is no kid anymore, and his identity is no longer indelibly tied to his father's. That will happen, 15 years after the father goes into the wall at Daytona and dies, leaving an entire American culture bereft of its Elvis. Time moves on. Someone else eventually wheels a stock car with that forward-leaning No. 3 on it. The kid grows up, becomes one of the leading voices of the sport his father once so thoroughly dominated, becomes, in the way of these things, his own man.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not his father. And so if he is beloved, 15 years after that black day at Daytona, it is no longer merely because he's the son of Dale Earnhardt, but because he is Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose equanimity has survived the crushing weight of expectation and come out whole on the other side.

In other words: He's a good and remarkably well-adjusted man. Despite everything.

And yet, today is as much about his old man as it is about him. It's about all those memories flooding back, 15 years along.

How gently that iconic black 3 car nosed into the wall two turns from the finish, and how cruelly deceptive that was. How frantic the track workers were when they reached the car and peered inside, he first sign that something was horribly amiss. The sight of the ambulance leaving the track at a walk, with the sirens off. And then the benediction from Darrell Waltrip that none of us realized immediately was a benediction.

"Hope Dale's OK," he said in the midst of celebrating his brother Michael's victory that day.

Which meant Waltrip already sort of knew Dale wasn't OK.

Wider America discovered something about NASCAR that day, and for days afterward those of us who'd been around it for awhile tried to explain it. NASCAR racing was more than just rednecks driving the wheels off loud, fast advertising billboards.  It was more than a sport, really. It was indeed a culture -- a certain way of looking at things in a changing nation that scared that culture not because there was reason to be scared, but because it wasn't what they were used to.

NASCAR, though, made sense. Earnhardt -- blue collar, up from nothing, king of his world -- made sense. And so came the adulation, the outpouring of grief, the thousands of fans silently holding up three fingers on the third lap of every race the rest of the season.

Fifteen years along, some of them still do that. Fifteen years along, the engines will fire again today along pit road in Daytona, and spring will become real for some of us the way 65-degree days in February make it real, and here we go, here we go.

Fifteen years along, I'm taking the kid. Because you never know.

Harmonic convergence might actually be a thing.

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