Ten years to the day last Friday, Dale Earnhardt tragically passed away when he crashed on the final lap of the Daytona 500. During last weekend’s running of The Great American Race, there was a moment of silence on the third lap to honor the legend who drove the No. 3 car, and that gesture capped a week of tributes to a man who was NASCAR’s heart and soul. The outpouring of support reminded everyone of how much Earnhardt’s memory hovers over the sport he helped put on the map and make mainstream.
If there was someone comparable with Earnhardt in politics, it would be Ronald Reagan. Reagan made conservatism mainstream and every Republican presidential candidate is compared with him, just like every budding NASCAR star is inevitably compared with the man they called The Intimidator.
So it was fitting that NASCAR Nation payed tribute to Earnhardt the same year Americans are celebrating Ronald Reagan’s centennial.
Reagan and Earnhardt were polar opposites in terms of style. Reagan wore the white hat, optimistically championing the virtues of freedom, embracing American exceptionalism, defeating the Soviets without firing a bullet, and comforting the nation after tragedies, such as when the space shuttle Challenger exploded upon takeoff. Reagan was sunny, graceful, and had a majestic nature about him.
Earnhardt often wore the black hat. He got under the skin of drivers. He bumped cars out of the way, forcing himself to the victory lane. He glared at his enemies—on the racetrack and off of it. There was no smoothness and grace. He was curt, to the point, and sometimes in-your-face.
But both men captured the imagination of the common man because, deep down, both were exactly that.
Speaking about Earnhardt, Richard Childress told the New York Times that Earnhardt was “one of them. … He was a guy that worked in a mill. He was a guy that worked on a farm. He was great for our sport.”
He was. The first toy stock car my dad bought me was the No. 3 car. And Earnhardt reminded me of my dad—gruff on the outside, genuine on the inside, and lacking the genes to ever go “Hollywood.”
The same type of sentiment often gets repeated about Reagan. Blue-collar Americans—shipyard workers, factory workers, farm workers—all gravitated toward Reagan because they believed in their guts that Reagan was one of them, of their stock, representative viscerally of their core values.
As the NASCAR season gets under way while the GOP presidential nominating process begins to simmer, it is striking how both NASCAR and the GOP have tried desperately to find their next Earnhardt and Reagan.
For Republicans, George H.W. Bush, who got elected to Reagan’s third term, never won over Reagan’s core supporters, and he lasted only one term in office. And while some in the cognoscenti wondered whether George W. Bush would turn out to be Reagan’s “son,” that DNA test would turn out to be a false positive. Countless other candidates have tried to compare themselves with Reagan, while many of the party’s elite have tried to brand others as the next Gipper, all to no avail.
Similarly, NASCAR also lacks a national face that it can market and brand all around the way it did so successfully with Earnhardt.
NASCAR and Republicans may never see another Earnhardt or Reagan. But it is important to realize what made Earnhardt Earnhardt and what made Reagan Reagan.
Like a wrestling superstar who catches the imagination of the fans, there isn’t a formula that people can follow to create such a superstar. There isn’t an algorithm consultants can plug into a computer to make a candidate say the right things to make someone become like Reagan and Earnhardt.
Reagan and Earnhardt, regardless of their differing styles and mannerisms, viscerally connected with their audiences because the audiences felt the men were extensions of them.
Like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line about hard-core pornography, if the next Earnhardt or Reagan ever comes along, people will just “know it when they see it.”