By Jerry Bonkowski
Wednesday slipped by many of us as just another day. It was only the real true, die-hard fans of NASCAR that remembered its significance:
The eight-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's tragic death.
Feb. 18, 2001 was a day that started out sunny and ended dark and gloomy, both literally and figuratively. The Intimidator, the man who many thought would never die, was tragically killed in a wreck on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
He was 49 years old, just over two months shy of his 50th birthday.
I have marked Earnhardt's death every year with a column, and this year is no different. But this time, the focus will be very different.
Whether you loved or hated him, none of us will ever forget Earnhardt and what he meant to the sport. We will always remember his thick mustache and steel-eyed stare. And who can forget the way he raced: if you were in his way, you either moved over real quick or he'd just move you, plain and simple.
As controversial as this is going to sound to all the Earnhardt diehards, now is the time to let the legacy go and let the man in black rest in peace once and for all.
Isn't it about time to end things like the candlelight vigil that took place Wednesday night at DEI's headquarters near Mooresville, N.C.? I thought candlelight vigils were typically held for those who are either critically ill in a hospital or for those who recently passed away.
Not someone who passed on nearly a decade ago.
Let's put things in perspective here.
Granted, Earnhardt died in one of the most tragic ways possible. But he also died doing something he loved.
Ask any race car driver if he or she could choose how to leave this world and I bet many -- if not most -- would say behind the wheel, just like Earnhardt, was the way they'd want to go.
But after eight years, the energy expounded in mourning his death year after year needs to be redirected. Face it, Earnhardt isn't coming back, not today, next week, next year or even 20 years from now.
And no matter how much his widow, Teresa, keeps bringing the gullible fandom new souvenirs and trinkets every year designed to keep his memory alive, it's also somewhat of an insult to that same memory that his death has become nothing more than an exploitative cash cow for the widow and her multi-million dollar estate.
Let's try to make some sense to all this.
On the one hand, you have a driver who was beloved by millions, was one of the best there has ever been and was arguably the single-most important factor that helped make NASCAR what it is today.
Now, let's put that in perspective.
On the other hand, do we see candlelight vigils every year commemorating the nearly 3,000 people who died in the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.? That type of thing ended several years ago, yet all those victims live on in our memories.
Or, do we see yearly memorials for John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr., commemorating their deaths?
So, how is it that we are supposed to mourn Earnhardt every year, yet we don't do the same with thousands of others who deserved to be mourned so much more?
Something is inherently wrong with that. Folks like those killed in 9/11 or Kennedy or King were martyrs. Earnhardt was just a race car driver who just happened to be killed in a dangerous sport, one that he knew the risks and accepted that he could one day be a victim of.
It would be a sacrilege to say he was better or more important than them.
Let's put the act of mourning in perspective as well. When a former U.S. president passes away, the nation has a 30-day period of mourning, where flags fly at half-staff in the late world leader's honor.
And if you follow some customs, widowers are supposed to mourn up to a year for their deceased mates before dating again.
Yet, here we have Earnhardt's memory brought back to us either via the ever-present souvenir trailers we see at every race, or at things like a candlelight vigil every Feb. 18.
Yes, I know his son, Dale Jr. (as well as siblings Kerry, Kelly and Taylor) suffered a horrible loss, knowing his father wrecked, crashed and died right behind him as he and then-teammate Michael Waltrip breezed to a 1-2 finish in the 2001 Daytona 500.
I can't imagine how Junior could ever continue racing after seeing something like that, but he has moved on. Sure, he still remembers his father every day, but when was the last time you saw Junior take part in a candlelight vigil at DEI? When was the last time you saw him hawking some souvenir marking the date of his father's death?
Junior has moved on, and we should all do the same. He doesn't exploit his father's memory, and we shouldn't, either – regardless of what his father's widow thinks or does, using the lame excuse that she simply wants to keep Dale's memory alive.
Sorry, Teresa, but keeping a memory alive shouldn't come with a price tag attached to it like we see on those $50 shirts, $20 ball caps and other things you offer to gullible fans.
Frankly, it's almost embarrassing at how the widow Earnhardt has followed in the footsteps of Priscilla Presley. For nearly 32 years, she's kept Elvis' memory alive in a variety of ways, including releasing previously long-lost songs, re-releasing greatest hits compilations and overseeing a multi-million dollar empire dedicated to someone who died when Jimmy Carter was president.
But Teresa can't bring back Dale Sr. in his race car or re-release some of his greatest races.
I mean no disrespect to the late Intimidator, but isn't it about time we do what we'd do with anyone else we have lost over the years: just keep them fondly in our memory banks and not put on a production or show that really means little in the whole scheme of things?
What's next? Will we soon see schlocky black velvet "true life" paintings of Earnhardt being sold on street corners for $5 bucks – right next to those of Elvis.
The simple man from Kannapolis, N.C., deserves much better. It's a given that we will never forget him, and we most certainly don't need something like a candlelight vigil to remind us of what he meant to the sport.
I'll even go so far as to say I bet that if he had one chance to come back to earth and give us his take on all the attention the day of his death still garners, he'd probably say something like this:
"Turn that energy into something more meaningful, like spending more time with your loved ones while both they and you are still alive. Honor them, not me, because they're still here. It's time to move on."