“On a long enough timeline, everyone’s survival rating drops to zero.” – Chuck Palahnuik
“One, Two, Earnhardt, Four …” – North Carolinian school children learning to count
The eyes widen like sewer lids. The stomach plunges through the floorboard. The knuckles Superglue to the steering wheel as a sharp, mean right turn looms up from highway 41. The treacherous turn had been waiting in the rain and darkness – and now it wants to kill me.
The little Acura’s speedometer has been hovering at around 90 miles per hour throughout the canyonous descent, so the tsunami turn of death rises quickly. My instincts scream, “Brake! Turn harder!” But obeying equals a slip, a flip over the railing, and a silent, fatal plunge. Wolves would pick my bones before police could find the wreckage.
Damn the instincts. Pump the brakes, downshift to fourth and turn off the headlights. Check for oncoming traffic, all good. Headlights back on, now a drift into the oncoming lane. Start high and end low like the video games; lean into the bastard and pray for traction.
The tires slip, and so does my soul. But then suddenly rubber finds asphalt, and I shoot out of the turn intact – a white bullet heading for the Pacific coast. It’s the kind of thing that leaves you feeling like a minor deity, but a deity none the less.
Dale Earnhardt – legendary NASCAR driver, fellow speed demon – died Sunday when his brain suddenly snapped off his spine in the kind of superwhiplash that occurs when you hit a wall going 190 mph.
The 25-year veteran, who wore the famous #3, was racing toward third place in the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500 when his Chevrolet Monte Carlo’s rear end was bumped into a fateful slide. The brief head-on wall collision looked tame compared to the flipping, burning wrecks that usually comprise the evening news snuff clips, but doctors soon found the same violent brain injury in Dale that killed three other drivers over the past two years.
I will not mock Ironhead’s recent passing, nor will I shed a tear for the Man in Black. I may pour some of my 40 of Cammo on the street, but I will definitely not join the chorus of mourners demanding safety from NASCAR. I like my car races fast and bloody, and Dale did too.
The appeal of high-speed driving and deadly car crashes is more American than apple pie. Car accidents are the No. 1 killer and maimer of people my age. Guns, AIDS, and drugs lag considerably. Every day in traffic, every night on the news, we live in collective trauma of drunken drivers, head-on collisions, 10-car pileups, and assorted sordid run-overs. Babies caught under tires, parents carbon monoxiding in the garage – shit, the automobile is America.
To watch some lucky bastard flip 21 times and climb out of the flaming wreckage is a testament to our tenacity, not to mention depravity. Deep down, we all know it could be one of us in those freeway dividers.
Many NASCAR critics want stock-car drivers to wear a bulky head-protection system that will cushion the base of the skull during sudden impacts that can snap a neck. As though a piece of foam around your neck is going to do diddly squat when someone T-bones your door at 150 mph. It’s the same kind of nonsense that makes seatbelts and speed limits such stupid laws.
Let me repeat, for the record, letting humans pilot anything faster than their own feet carries with it inherent dangers, and no matter how good you are, no matter how much protection you wear, speed always kills.
Dale died doing what he loved, which is more than you can say for 99.9 percent of humanity. He understood the fundamental correlation between speed and death, and he straddled that line for more years than I’ve been sentient.
I wore my seatbelt last night on highway 41, but it wouldn’t have mattered if there was black ice, or the tires were bald, or some jackass lightly tapped my rear bumper and spun me out. A million random factors conspire against us every time we get behind the wheel, yet we swallow the cognitive dissonance between driving’s danger and fun as just another facet of life in a perilous 21st century.
Dale Earnhardt and all the other crazy fucks who race around in circles, risking life and limb for glory and a paycheck, elevate that dissonance to the level of spectacle. They embody the ambition of speed and pay for it with their bones. In the end, they prove that final point that no matter how good you are, no matter how long you’ve been racing, the wall always has the last word.
Peace out Dale, you were hardcore.
Daily Friday editor David Downs wanted Tom Cruise to die in “Days of Thunder.” His columns appear every frickin’ Wednesday.