liz clarke interview: the death of dale earnhardt

:: This is part four in a series of four posts (to see all of the posts on one page, click here) ::

Me: I know you have that history with Dale Earnhardt, and I know covering his death must have been horrible. I know in the book you wrote that his death changed you in a lot of ways, so how did it change you exactly? And how did it change the way you cover the sport? Did it change the way you cover the sport?

Liz: Oh, that’s hard. Let me first say, I’m certainly I’m not remotely unique. I think I speak for honestly millions of people when I say his death changed me and affected me. I don’t at all pretend to say my loss or my grief was any greater than other fans or certainly his own crew and own family. But, ya know, there was no personality quite like him and the circumstance, just the notion that he could have been killed was impossible to accept. To your question itself, I just was inconsolably sad and it wasn’t just when I went to the race track that I felt the loss. I just felt like the most charismatic, complex, fun, entertaining person had been taken away. Whether I covered a race and he spoke to me or not or he made some joke aside, or if I just saw him from across the garage, I mean, everybody watched that black car, everybody watched him when he got in the car.  Ya know and he made you feel differently about yourself, he really did and I think every driver would tell you that. I mean he’d aggravate you or compliment you. I think sometimes when he ran you really hard that was his way of complimenting you.

There was one time they had built the track in Dallas, that awful first year of that race, and I was working for the Dallas Morning News and I was taking one of our metro columnists for a walk around the garage. He had never been to a race and I was trying to explain, ya know here’s the order that they park the cars and here’s what this means, be really careful ‘cause they’ll come in with their engines off and you won’t hear ‘em, ya know a lot of basics when you’re sort of showing somebody around. Earnhardt came around the corner in the car; he was in a practice session so they were in and out and in and out. And he whipped his car, hand to God, about two inches from my foot. Swung it right toward me, the guy next to me almost fainted. And I said, “Oh, he’s just saying hello.” And he was grinning and that was totally him. I’m not sure I talked to Dale that day but that’s the kind of stuff he would do. He’d do stuff like that to Schrader, Mark Martin. It was just his little way. It’s an aside, but the notion that he was gone; it was just a hole of blackness. This profound hole, it was like the sun was gone. It was just something so integral to way you saw the world was gone. I still feel that way, I still feel that way. I know Rusty Wallace feels that way, we’ve talked about it. It’s not something people talk about in racing too much. But I don’t think seven years has lessened it at all.

Me: Why do you think NASCAR was so slow, I guess is the word, to put in those mandatory safety features until after Dale Earnhardt’s death, especially the HANS device, especially after all of those incidents?

Liz: That’s really a shameful chapter in NASCAR’s history, and of course it’s easy to say in hindsight. From the day NASCAR started it was very clear that drivers were independent contractors. And what NASCAR meant by that is if you’re hurt we don’t owe you disability. You don’t work for us; you’re your own boss.  And you can come play in our sport but we’re not responsible for you, we have no liability for you and it was a really smart posture to take. And they really, I think for business reasons, wanted to hold on to that as long as they could. Therefore, ya know, with every rule you make about how you stay safe, if something goes wrong with that then you’re technically liable. I mean, on the HANS device I can sort of empathize with NASCAR’s choice to not make that mandatory because there were several drivers who felt very, very strongly that it would keep them from being able to get out of a burning car. And the prospect of being trapped in a burning car understandably is the worst scenario for a race car driver and the fuel cell solved a lot of that. But still drivers would say flat out if it’s a choice of breaking my neck and burning up I want to break my neck. There were drivers who didn’t want to do it and made clear they wouldn’t want to do it. Earnhardt would have been chief among them. He wouldn’t even wear a closed face helmet, again not because he was being a tough guy, but he really thought peripheral vision was his best safety device. And he felt a closed-face helmet limited his peripheral vision. So he had very personal, very strongly felt views about his safety and that that’s what kept him safe. A lot of drivers felt the HANS device was not a deal they wanted.

There’s also a tradition in all forms of racing that every fatal accident is a freak accident. That there’s nothing to be learned from it in terms of the race car or the track or the rules of the sport, whether that’s racing back to the caution. It doesn’t really warrant further study because it was a freak deal; it’s not going to happen again. It was only because this part on the car failed, or the weird convergence of events, it’s just a way of rationalizing it away and therefore no drivers or driver’s family really have to wonder “is this safe?” It’s sort of a way of coping and a way of doing business and those were really entrenched that you don’t make wholesale changes after one guy dies and then another guy dies and then Earnhardt was the fourth in 11 months, I’m pretty sure.

Me: So do you think the whole idea of a drivers association, kind of like the NBA has and the NFL has, could ever happen in NASCAR?

Liz: I don’t think it will ever happen in NASCAR and I regret that. I think there’s a lot of use for the drivers on certain occasions speaking as one, having a representative. And they’ll tell you that that happens now that it’s ad hoc. They go in and speak to Mike Helton and Robin on matters of concern and I know that does happen. But I just like level playing fields and in NASCAR for all the bravery the drivers have, they’re not represented in the decision making, to me, to the extent they should be. I would love to see a drivers association with somebody like Jeff Burton be the head of it for the first couple years. He’s just so well spoken and reasoned and really smart about what’s in NASCAR’s interest, what’s in the driver’s interest, he’s not emotional. And I know there are other guys, I mean, Mark Martin would be perfect for that. It’s really only rarely have drivers sought that. It’s been a long time, it’s been seven years since I’ve even heard it discussed.

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