published Friday, February 18th, 2011

A decade without Dale

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    Jeff Burton (31), Clint Bowyer (33), Martin Truex Jr. (56), David Reutimann (00), Carl Edwards (99), and Greg Biffle (16) race during the second of Thursday's two qualifying auto races for Sunday's NASCAR Daytona 500, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Bobby Tuders remembers the day NASCAR changed forever, but the accident that claimed Dale Earnhardt's life is not what the Marion County resident wants to think about today, the 10th anniversary of the legendary driver's death.

That memory is too painful for Tuders -- known as "Earnhardt" to his friends -- to discuss at length. Instead, he prefers to recall a personal moment with the Intimidator, a memory that shines a light on why Earnhardt's popularity still surges so long after he died on that last-lap accident at Daytona.

"Me and my family used to go over to Dale's car dealership [near Charlotte, N.C.] each year when he had his fan appreciation day," Tuders said Wednesday. "My daughter Raylin, who was a little thing back then, had a black-and-white cheerleading outfit on and she wanted to do a cheer for Dale.

"We got to talk to him a bit, and he signed something for me, but we started to walk away when Raylin said, 'I didn't get to do my cheer.' Dale called us back over and she did a cheer where she cut Jeff Gordon. Dale loved it and I remember him turning and telling some friends, 'Ya'll get the TV crew over here. I want everyone to see this baby do this cheer.'

"He thanked us and told my family as we left, 'If it wasn't for people like you, I wouldn't be anybody.'"

It's such memories that will make today a mournful one for fans such as the 56-year-old Tuders, who drives a 1984 Chevrolet truck painted, with decals, like the No. 3 Mr. Goodwrench car Earnhardt drove to most of his seven Cup titles.

Any time a sport loses a legend, it changes that sport. For NASCAR and its fans, the death of Dale Earnhardt seemed to end an era when an average, hard-working man could rise through the ranks and become king.

It was his rare connection with fans that earned the driver such a passionate following, and that connection is what makes the memory of 2001 so painful even a decade later.

"I remember that day," Tuders added, his voice tailing off. "Me and my family were watching the race at home, and when we saw the accident, I remember saying, 'He'll get out of it.' But he didn't. Everybody thought he was Superman. I was at Talladega when he had a horrible wreck that looked much worse and he walked away with a hurt shoulder. No wreck could take him.

"When we found out later, my whole family cried. It was like we lost a part of the family."

Like Tuders, Roger Goodwin will watch Sunday's Daytona 500 and he will pull for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Along the way the manager of North Georgia Tire in Ringgold will reflect on Earnhardt Sr.'s legacy.

"I miss his presence in the sport," Goodwin said. "He was a leader. If somebody had an issue with something, or if he had an issue with something, he would go to the top brass and make his presence known. And they listened to him.

"The sport lost probably the best race car driver of this time. In Dale Earnhardt's era, the sport grew out of the South and into the rest of the United States. It exploded and he was the biggest part of it. I mean, he was the Intimidator. When he died my heart fell into my stomach. It was just awful."

Earnhardt's death triggered a massive effort by NASCAR to upgrade safety measures, going so far as to build a research and development center and hire NASA engineers. In a six-month period of 2000, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper had died in separate accidents. Since Earnhardt's death, there have been no fatal accidents in any of NASCAR's top three divisions.

If there is one thing Earnhardt fans today can take solace in, it's that fact.

"Since his death, everybody knows a lot of safety advancements have come to light," Goodwin said. "The sport changed because of him. It's a shame it took something like that to get the changes, but it's always been that way in NASCAR."

Goodwin and Tuders already were race fans when they started following Earnhardt. Jamie Barrie, a 34-year-old pharmacist, became a race fan because of Earnhardt.

"I grew up in Elizabethton and my dad took me to a race at Bristol back when the track still had concrete stands on the backstretch," Barrie recalled. "It was my first race and I remember Dale was driving the Wrangler car that day. He was two or three laps down when he came storming back and nearly won the race. It was unbelievable, and I was hooked right then."

Millions of fans will remember Earnhardt's death this weekend as the NASCAR season begins at Daytona. Bobby Tuders will watch Sunday's race and cheer for Junior, but the passion he once had for the sport is gone.

"It killed NASCAR for me when he died," Tuders said. "We used to go somewhere every Sunday or at least every other Sunday to a race. It was a part of our lives. I still watch them, but it's not the same."

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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