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Gearheads,Unite!

The Intimidator's martyrdom fuels NASCAR's undying popularity.

The stereotypical stock-car-racing fan is a 320-pound feed-store clerk from Gritsville, Alabama. Got the Stars and Bars flying from the double-wide. Wife also may be his first cousin, but that don't mean he's gonna share that plug of Red Man with her. Leastways, not 'til she changes out the U-joints on the pickup.

Such cliches have prevailed since fourteen-year-old Junior Johnson ran his first load of moonshine in the '40s, Fireball Roberts ruled the half-mile dirt tracks and the 1979 Daytona 500 ended with a fistfight between a pair of leadfoots named Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison. Just ask anyone who doesn't have an oil filter for a brain. NASCAR is for rednecks. It's pro wrestling at 180 miles per hour, a trash sport best left to the lame, the halt and the witless.

Really? That must be why the lords of Winston Cup just signed $2.8 billion in TV contracts with Fox, NBC and Turner Sports. That must be why twelve million Americans went to NASCAR races last year and 250 million more watched on the tube.

That must be why the February 17 crash that killed Dale Earnhardt, the hardass stock-car legend from Kannapolis, North Carolina, on the last lap of the biggest race of the year, is being compared to the deaths of Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy. And not just in Gritsville, either. Truth is, while many sports-minded Americans spent the last decade eating sushi in the box seats at Dodgers Stadium or falling in love with Tiger Woods's long-iron game, NASCAR racing became the number-one spectator sport in the country. Bigger than NFL football. More popular than Major League Baseball, with its armies of light-hitting whiners. More powerful than all other forms of motor racing put together, including the open-wheel CART series that will bring Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi back to the streets of Denver on Labor Day weekend 2002. By combining smart marketing with America's bull market, NASCAR has successfully sold itself as democracy on wheels. Its star drivers may earn millions every year, the wisdom goes, but they're just folks, the neighbors you run into every day at Wal-Mart. These celebrity athletes never fail to pat a baby on the head, sign an autograph or go to church on Sunday. They're family.

Significantly, NASCAR's phenomenal growth has transcended its roots in the South: Winston Cup now runs in formerly alien climes like California, Illinois, Texas, New Hampshire and New York -- in front of sellout crowds who pay $80 or $100 a head to watch Chevys trade paint with Fords. Sure, the good ol' boys still have their days. You can watch the Pettys bang on the Waltrips in a cloud of mosquitoes at Martinsville or Bristol, and there's no forgetting that Virginia farmboy-turned-big-time-driver Rick Mast traded a cow for his first race car. But here's the new world order: A Yankee named Jeff Gordon won three Winston Cup championships in the '90s.

Mandy and Duncan over at the tennis club still may not know it, but NASCAR has arrived.

That makes the sudden death of stock-car racing's greatest star -- Earnhardt was its Gretzky, its Jordan -- not only a profound shock to the faithful, but an occasion for almost everyone to re-examine the codes and assumptions of a sport (a secular religion, really) that holds multitudes in thrall.

No sooner was the 49-year-old seven-time Winston Cup champion taken from the wreckage of his race car at the Daytona 500 than a new cult of personality sprang up around him. Known throughout his storied career as "the Intimidator" and "the Man in Black," Earnhardt was apparently playing against type on the last lap of the 500. Running a close third in his famous black Number 3 Chevrolet, he could have once more become the most feared sight in any driver's rear-view mirror and mounted another trademark charge to the front. Instead, he ran rear-guard interference for the two leaders -- Michael Waltrip (whose car Earnhardt owned) and a young driver named, yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Those two flashed across the finish line first and second, respectively. A hundred yards behind, the Intimidator's Chevy grazed another car, then veered straight into the turn-four wall at 180 miles per hour. Earnhardt died instantly from massive head trauma. Ironically, the Daytona 500 had always been his demon. In 23 tries, he'd won it just once, in 1998.

There's more -- all of it a strain on credulity. In 462 previous Winston Cup starts, Waltrip had never won a single race. Now he'd won the Daytona 500 -- with help from a martyr. After finishing second, a shocked Dale Jr. leaped from his car and sprinted to the scene of his father's death. Within hours, grief overcame the racing world. And a flood of hate mail began to engulf two-time Daytona 500 winner Sterling Marlin, whose car had touched Earnhardt's and whom some dazed fans blamed for the legend's fatal wreck.

At the same time, critics raised safety issues. How did Earnhardt's seat belt break? Why doesn't NASCAR mandate the new head-and-neck restraints ("HANS devices") that are prevalent in Indy-car racing and required in Formula 1? Didn't three less notable (and less mourned) NASCAR drivers -- including the grandson of the great Richard Petty -- die from head injuries similar to Earnhardt's in 2000? And what about the new configuration of the cars at Daytona this year? A combination of larger holes in the so-called restrictor plates on the cars' carburetors (result: more horsepower) and new aerodynamic strips (result: more "downforce," or track adhesion) made the racing closer, just as it had goosed up the thrill quotient at the 500-miler at the Talladega (Alabama) Superspeedway in October 2000. In that race, there were 49 lead changes among 21 drivers before the man who had qualified eighteenth in the field surged to the lead with five laps to go and held on for the win.

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