(Fred Weinberg/The Penny Press) – Ten years ago this weekend, an American icon was killed, and in some respects, it changed the media forever.
When Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, an interesting phenomenon occurred in the newsrooms of the then big three television networks and newspapers like The New York Times.
All of a sudden there was this outpouring of grief from middle America over, of all things, the death of a stock car driver, and people in the big-time news business had to ask each other who was this guy Earnhardt and why did anyone care?
It was the first really noticeable crack in the idea that the mainstream media was in touch with who Bill O’Reilly now calls “the folks.” That’s you and me. People who at least know what NASCAR is and why 30-million Americans consider themselves at least casual fans.
Until Earnhardt’s untimely death, stock car racing was an almost guilty pleasure. To go out to a track with 150,000 of your closest friends and hear big, American engines power big, American cars. To fly a confederate flag on the infield of Talladega or Daytona while you were drinking beer and rooting for a guy from the South named Earnhardt, Petty, Waltrip, Elliott, or Wallace was the kind of fun they didn’t talk about in polite company and maybe sneered at a little bit in places like New York or Washington D.C.
Sure, President Reagan was in Daytona in 1984 to see Richard Petty’s 200th win. But, then, Reagan understood what made the average guy tick.
I guarantee you that the majority of the White House press pool on Air Force One that day thought those people in the stands were nuts.
But when Dale Earnhardt died, that was reversed.
Thirty million Americans who understood what happened began to realize that much of the mainstream media was nuts. That what the media cared about had nothing to do with the lives of the people who make this country go forward in good times and in not so good times.
Dale Earnhardt was not a hero.
He was an ordinary guy who was extraordinarily talented. He was able to capture the imagination of people who realized that ordinary people could do extraordinary things—especially in America because here, you make your own luck.
In many respects, Dale Earnhardt is a classic example of the concept of American Exceptionalism.
And, only in America, when he died—doing what he loved—his death only strengthened the concept.
In America, you could be a dirt-poor kid from Kannapolis, North Carolina, who really wanted to do something and with enough drive (pun absolutely intended) you can get to the top of your profession by sheer grit.
The truth is that many of the folks who work at places like NBC, CBS, The New York Times and the Washington Post still don’t get it.
Come Sunday, they’ll sneer at the quarter of a million or so people in the stands at the Daytona International Speedway and the huge television audience watching Darrell Waltrip screaming, “Boogety, boogety, boogety, let’s go racing boys!” on Fox.
But 10 years AD (after Dale), 30-million Americans now understand that many of the people who purport to tell them the news of the day really don’t have much of a clue about real life. And if that’s the case, how much can they really know about the news?
And, of all the things Dale Earnhardt can take credit for, that may be the most inadvertent and the most important.