Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Do We Need Vigils, Souvenirs To Keep Earnhardt's Memory Alive?

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."


  1. Dr. King Deserves Better in Charlotte, NC!

  2. I have thought the same thing for years. I think all the 'special' souvenirs and the candlelight vigils are an insult to his memory and a shame to his name.

  3. Maybe it is time to stop these things, but this year, possibly the gathering at DEI was about mourning the loss of it too. I know that his name is still apart of a race team, but the 'Garage Mahal' is no more. If it took only 8 years for something like that to fail, all factors aside, then what will happen to these start-up teams who are trying to build now.

    I know Jr. leaving was a blow to DEI, but there was one person who could have stopped that, and she is the CEO. But I have to think that Dale would have told Jr. to go drive for someone else if the job wasn't getting done at DEI...I honestly do. I just wonder if there will be anything left for Kerry, Kelley, Jr. and Taylor when TE is done with it.

  4. Every year on 9/11 they read all the names that were killed. We hold a moment of silence when the first plane hit tower. Elvis, James Dean, Albert Einstien, Tupac, JFK have all come out with merchandise every year. Dale was in the top 10 in sales. Jerry Bonkowski you suck!

  5. A much better tribute to him would have been Teresa keeping DEI alive! To late for that now!

  6. I love it when brave souls is a hearty "you suck" and then don't take ownership of their sentiment.

    Actually, what I think he meant to say, Jerry, was "Right On" to let you know how much he agrees with what you said. I'm trying to remember what the last JFK merchandise was I saw advertised. And for the life of me, it's just not coming to me.

  7. Collectibles Today releases a new plate of JFK every June. Last year upper deck paid the Kennedy family 2.2 million so they could get 2 papers or pictures that JFK signed. Upper Deck takes the part that is signed and cut it. Than they put it into a card and put it in packs. Topping the list for the second year running, is the former King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis Presley. Without so much as lifting a finger, the Memphis Flash earned a whopping $52 million in the last year. That's more than some of the music industry's biggest living acts command--Justin Timberlake pulled in $44 million last year; Madonna $40 million.

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    Yahoo! BuzzThe 30th anniversary of Elvis' death helped boost attendance and merchandise sales at Graceland, and new ventures such as an Elvis Sirius Satellite Radio show add to a long list of publishing and licensing deals.

    Debuting on the list in third place is Australian actor Heath Ledger, most famous for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight, the latest installment of the Batman movie franchise. At the time of his tragic overdose in January, the 28-year star seemed poised on the cusp of a lucrative film career.

    Ledger had reportedly secured a deal for his role in The Dark Knight that included merchandising (think Joker action figures) and a percentage of film revenues. With The Dark Knight grossing $991 million in box office revenue worldwide, we estimate his earnings at $20 million.

  8. I don't have a problem with people criticizing me. But man up or woman up and at least give your real name if you're going to criticize me. Otherwise, it just shows a lack of credibility on your part -- that you want to hide behind anonymity, while I'm not hiding behind anything. And as for the other anonymous poster who mentioned about the JFK plates, etc., thanks for the info. But you also missed the main point I made: do we have vigils and memorial services every year for icons like JFK and Martin Luther King, who, in the whole big scheme of things, were much bigger and important in life than Dale Sr.? Selling souvenirs of a dead race car driver, or commemorative plates of a assassinated president or civil rights leader still points to the same thing: someone is blatantly still trying to make a buck off their memory. If they didn't care about the money, they should give those items away for free -- in that person's memory -- or become non-profit companies that give all profits to charity. Think about it ...... JB

  9. Jerry,
    I could not agree with you more. And for all those who disagree, read further…
    In Memory of those who have gone before him, and have not had a yearly vigil.
    From 1991 to present:

    1991 August 11
    NASCAR driver J.D. McDuffie is killed in an accident during the Budweiser at the Glen Winston Cup race at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

    1992 August 13
    Three days before the Champion 400 at Michigan International Speedway, 27 year old Clifford Allison—son of Bobby and younger brother of Davey—is killed during a practice run.
    May 15
    Philippine IndyCar driver Jovy Marcelo, 27, is killed in an accident while practicing for his first Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    1994 February 11
    Four years after suffering a serious head injury in a crash that threatened his career, NASCAR veteran Neil Bonnett, 47, is killed on the first day of practice for the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway.
    February 14
    Three days after Bonnett's crash (the day of his funeral, in fact), 31 year old rookie driver Rodney Orr dies from injuries sustained in a practice run crash at Daytona.
    April 30
    Formula One rookie Roland Ratzenberger, 31, of Austria, dies during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy.
    May 1
    Three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, 34, dies during the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, of injuries he sustained after his car went off the track, slid across a long grassy area, and hit a concrete wall. A national hero in his native Brazil, President Itamar Franco declared three days of national mourning and closed schools on the day of his funeral.

    1996 May 17
    IndyCar veteran Scott Brayton, 40, wins the pole position for the 1996 Indianapolis 500 but is killed after a tire deflation causes his car to crash into a retaining wall during a practice run at the Indianapolis (Ind.) Motor Speedway. He becomes the 40th driver to be killed at the sports' most famous race track.
    July 14
    Rookie driver Jeff Krosnoff, 31, dies from injuries sustained in an accident on the 92nd lap of the 95-lap Toronto Molson Indy at Exhibition Place. Krosnoff's car made wheel-to-wheel contact with another car, sending it into the air, over a concrete barrier, and into a tree. A track employee was also killed in the accident when he was struck by Krosnoff's wrecked car.

    1997 January 11
    NASCAR truck series driver John Nemechek, the 27 year old younger brother of Winston Cup driver, Joe, dies from serious head trauma during an accident at Homestead, Fla.

    1999 September 11
    Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) driver Gonzalo Rodriguez, 27, of Uruguay, is killed during practice for the Shell 300 at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif.
    October 31
    CART series driver Greg Moore, 24, of Canada, dies in a crash in the final race of the 1999 season at California Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Moore lost control of his car at 220 mph on lap 10 and crashed into a wall, sending his car into wild spins.

    2000 May 12
    NASCAR driver Adam Petty, 19, is killed after his car spins out and crashes into the wall in Turn 3 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H. A fourth-generation NASCAR driver (along with great-grandfather, Lee, grandfather, Richard, and father, Kyle), Petty was practicing for a Busch series race the following day.
    July 7
    Eight weeks to the day after Adam Petty's crash, NASCAR Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin is killed in the same turn on the same race track in Loudon, N.H., during practice for the 300. Irwin's car hit the concrete wall and flipped on its roof. Both Irwin's and Petty's crashes at the speedway are blamed on a stuck accelerator that prevented the drivers from slowing down.
    October 13
    NASCAR Craftsman Truck series driver Tony Roper, 35, dies in a crash during the O'Reilly 400 at Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth, Texas. Roper's car brushed another during the 32nd lap and slammed head-on to the wall, bursting into flames and spinning out of control.

    2001 February 18
    Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, 49, dies in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. Earnhardt is killed when his car bumps Sterling Marlin's car and spins out, is hit on the side by Ken Schrader's car, and crashes head-on into the outside wall at approximately 180 mph. Earnhardt is the 27th driver to die at Daytona since the track opened in 1959.

  10. I couldn't agree with you more Jerry. Honor the man by remembering him in your hearts, not with your wallets. Your wallets are only keeping TE on vacation. Maybe if she were forced to earn her money on the racetrack, the teams performance would be better!

    My dad has told me, "Son, when it's my time to go don't cry for me, I've lived a good life. Prop me up next to a keg and let's have a party."
    And even more bluntly, my grandmother who hates long, sad funerals and memorials has told me on more than one occasion, "Make sure my funeral isn't any longer than 30 minutes. If it is I'm getting up and walking out!"

    I would challenge the folks who spend money on the memorabilia of those passed, did a family member or friend of yours not have more of an impact in your life than Dale Earnhardt, Elvis, or James Dean? Why aren't you wearing T-shirts for that person?

    "It's not as cool" would be the only answer I would accept. The memorabilia exists due to the propaganda machines, which are shameful.

  11. Thank you, Taglia and Dutty. I couldn't have said it better, especially Dutty's explanation. You nailed it perfectly. Thanks again to both of you for your support and loyalty.

  12. Why does everyone blame Teresa? Richard gets a cut too. 35% goes to Teresa, 35% goes to Richard, 20% goes to MA and 10% goes to Nascar. Teresa can't use the #3 unless Richard approves it.

  13. Who knew Tony was prescient? 'Without Dale Jr.,DEI will merely be a museum'. Good job,Teresa.

  14. Jerry some of us do this because it is a way to remember someone who was a special person to us. I do the same for my mother and father who have both passed and for all the 9/11 victims. Think of it as I do. On 9/11 I was 3 blocks from the World Triad Centers, when my mother passed I was in Iraq (first tour of two), when my father passed I was by his side, and when Dale passed I was setting just down from turn four at Daytona. These things mean a lot to me and I will remember them for ever. As for making money from the loss of someone that is special in a lot of peoples harts, I think everyone who does this should be ashamed of themselves. But I have fought for the freedom to do these things, and as log as someone wants to do this it is there wright here in the USA. Also I am not hiding behind anything my e-mail is if anyone wants more, I will be happy to answer you.

  15. This is yet another reason why Richard Childress needs to put the 3 back on a race car. Yes, it will be difficult for some fans to accept, but it's time to move on, and it wouldn't be the first number that belonged to a beloved driver to re-emerge. I'm sure all of us still think about Davey Allison when we see the 28 car, and Alan Kulwicki when we see the 7 car. The fact that those cars are now driven by different people doesn't really seem to matter to most. I think it would be the same if Jeff Burton were sporting the 3 on his car. Plus that would be pretty special since he was Dale Earnhardt's choice to drive the 3 car when he retired (according to a Childress interview on Speed). It might also drive home the fact to these perpetual mourners that he ain't coming back no matter how much they may want him to.

  16. I agree Jerry, Dale SR will never be among us again. We need to move on. But, that said, maybe we need to take a moment ever year either at the first, last or even the race closest to Memorial Day to publicly read the names of every NASCAR driver who died ontrack. Then we can have a moment of silence for each one, all special and deserving in their own way, who died doing what they loved


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