Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s first and only Daytona 500 victory came in 1998, and I spent that Sunday on the couch with my father, watching it happen. This was something of a career-validating moment for Dale Sr., who had tried and failed to get a win in his 19 previous trips to the track; he never seemed like a big feeler, but it was easy to imagine the emotion he must have felt driving down to victory lane. The entire NASCAR world was happy on that day, too. Its favorite son had just won its biggest race, and in so doing claimed the only achievement in the sport that had previously eluded him.
I was on the same couch three years later, watching the same race; once again, I was joined by my father. He wasn’t much of a NASCAR fan -- he’d grown up in New York and Cleveland, where Sundays didn’t belong to NASCAR -- but I liked it, and there was little else to watch on a mid-February Sunday, and so this was a thing we did. We watched as, on the final lap, Earnhardt Sr. got turned by Sterling Marlin up the track and crashed head-on into the wall. It looked like many of the other wrecks that happened on that Sunday.
As we all found out shortly thereafter, it was not like the others. Dale, rebel until the very end, was not wearing the HANS safety device recommended to drivers -- it’s now required -- and the impact of hitting the concrete wall killed him.
I remember the press conference announcing Earnhardt’s death and not knowing how to deal with the news; most everyone who cared about NASCAR probably felt at least somewhat the same. Earnhardt was one of my favorite drivers at the time, but at 10 years old, I wasn’t deeply affected by his death, or so I thought. At that age, having never dealt with death, the concept seemed abstract and death felt so far away. Growing up is, in part, a matter of realizing how much closer that all is than we’d known as kids.
Less than two years later I was forced to deal with the reality of death. In November of 2002, my father passed away from a heart attack, which was caused by liver failure, which in turn was caused by him being an alcoholic. Sports were always our connection. Baseball and football were passions that we shared; we watched Braves games every chance we could, which is to say on those few weeknights and weekends when he wasn’t working and I wasn’t playing baseball.
My father played three sports in high school -- football, basketball, and baseball -- and the way he told it he would’ve had you believe he was a three sport “star.” His love of sports was not something that stuck with my brother, who is five years older than I. Whether by genetics or by his insistence, I fell in love with sports in the same way he did and became his son -- the one that spent the most time with him because of that common bond.
As a result, most of my memories of my father -- the positive ones, anyway -- involve sports. I played baseball for 10 years and he was the one that taught me how to hit and pitch and field. If he came home while I was playing basketball in the driveway he would run me through drills, although despite his best efforts I still can’t make a left-handed layup.
I never felt as close to my father as I did when we were in the yard together, or watching a game in the living room. This was a way to get close to a man who, as I eventually found out, rarely let people in. I did not know, then, how much he kept hidden and at a remove from me and everyone else. I did know that I wanted to be near him, and that these games were when that was easiest.
NASCAR was, mostly, something to watch on Sundays when little else was on. The older I get, the more those afternoons on the couch watching a game or race -- taking breaks to throw the ball around, but making sure we were back for the final laps -- seem worth cherishing. In those short late-winter days before baseball started up, NASCAR was the best chance to be together that I had.
I was on a different couch -- my own, in my place -- watching the final laps of the Daytona 500 on Sunday night. My favorite driver, Tony Stewart, had been knocked out of the race in a wreck; my pick to win, Kasey Kahne, had long since been eliminated from contention. Even still, I found myself invested in the race with a new rooting interest. Without really knowing it was happening, I was pulling more and more for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get this win.
This is not something I do, generally. I’ve never identified as an enlistee in Junior’s Army, a group which constitutes an enormous portion of the NASCAR fan contingent. I’ve always like Dale well enough, but also felt he was a touch overrated as a driver; this isn’t a controversial opinion, either. I’ve always preferred the likes of Stewart or Kyle Busch, mostly because they embody the aggressive style I like in the drivers I liked the most. Rusty Wallace is one of those. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was another.
Genetics aside, the two Earnhardts were not terribly similar as drivers. Where Dale Sr. earned his “Intimidator” nickname, Junior has always been a more calculating driver, working his way through the field with skill and precision rather than his father’s wild bravado and power. This stylistic difference has often been used to slight Junior’s driving ability -- “he’s not the driver his daddy was,” in various different phrasings -- in the same fatuous way that you might hear analysts saying that Kevin Durant does not have the appropriate killer instinct or that Peyton Manning lacks the clutch gene. These are narratives driven by talking heads and fans in need of an easy target or conversation topic. It’s not a thing people say because they’ve thought about it, really. With Junior, I’d never really thought about it much myself, honestly.
But when Junior took the checkered flag that night, I was not just happy, but actually emotional. As he unhooked his safety harness and took off his helmet, donning his sponsor’s cap, he revealed the unbridled joy on his face. I saw him acknowledge his fans with a huge smile, and found I had the same stupid grin on my face. There were, puzzlingly, tears in my eyes.
This didn’t make sense, and it did. In that moment, for whatever reasons I needed to, I saw Junior as the racing embodiment of myself, which is of course part of what makes NASCAR fans like NASCAR drivers. This was not just that, though. The two of us have both spent the better part of 12 years dealing with our fathers’ deaths while working in the same industry, searching for some way to honor them while first becoming and then being our own selves. There was, in his victory in this race, a sense of reconciliation, a sort of closure. This was, for me, an easy thing to cheer for.
NASCAR fans have watched Junior grow up -- and deal with his father’s passing and complicated legacy -- in public. He has handled it with an almost shocking grace, most recently by being very supportive of Austin Dillon taking over his father’s old number three. Junior’s had to deal with questions about his father for years. He, I’m sure, to this day has folks tell him stories about his father and how he impacted their lives. Reminders of his father are everywhere in the NASCAR universe. They are everywhere, and much more painful, at Daytona.
This is not how it works with my father, but most any time I meet someone that’s worked in the media in Atlanta for some time, I hear a story about my father. He was a traffic reporter for years, and widely recognized as one of the best in the business. No one worked harder than he did, I’m repeatedly told. Everyone that worked with him has a story to tell about him; the ones I hear are always positive.
My relationship with my father was more complicated than that, of course. When around, he was great. We shared our sports connection, and he is in many of my happiest memories as a kid. But those opportunities became fewer and fewer as his commitment to his job became greater. I hear stories about how he was a great guy, and I truly believe he was, but I am at some point just taking these storytellers at their word. I know, from experience, that the job always came first. This is what made him so good.
My memory of my father has constantly changed. For the first few years after his death, I remembered him fondly -- watching games, playing catch, riding in the helicopter that was his workplace. I only thought about the fun things, the things an 11-year-old would remember best.
Once I got into high school and the financial implications of his death became more apparent and I learned more about him -- the alcoholism, why he wasn’t around much, the things he told my mother about his job being more important than the family -- the image of my father changed. I began to understand him differently. I began to resent him.
I am still working on this. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I have learned to balance those good memories with the understanding that my father was an exceptionally flawed individual. The stories that people have told me about him in the media room, oddly or not, helped with this. As people share their stories, I politely smile, not really knowing how to respond to them -- my go-to is “yeah, dad was great” because it’s the least awkward way of dealing with it. But it’s fascinating all the same. I knew Keith Kalland the father and family man -- a role that he played not by choice but by force. They knew Keith Kalland the traffic reporter and media personality, which was a role he cherished and to which he dedicated himself totally.
Watching how Junior’s dealt with questions about his father and a decade and more of being regaled with stories of his father’s greatness has -- without my quite knowing it at the time -- shaped the way I deal with a similar experience. In this area, his performance on the track aside, Earnhardt is undoubtedly great: unfailingly gracious, reliably appreciative of every story, many of which he’s doubtless heard many times. His personal relationship with his father is just that; like mine, it was undoubtedly more complicated than most would imagine. Unlike me, he is reconciling all this in public. But the grace with which Junior has embraced his father’s legacy while creating his own has given me something to aspire to as I try to make my own way in my father’s world.
Moments in which I am compared to my father, or told familiar stories about him, are few and far between for me now, although occasionally after a radio spot someone will mention that I sound just like him. For the most part, I’m around the same people in the media room night after night; I’m not confronted with that situation very often anymore.
Junior, 13 years after his father’s death, is not asked often by the media about his father anymore, either, although I’m sure it came up frequently after his win in Daytona. But there’s a distance to it, now. He is his father’s son, and himself. He’s “Junior,” and he’s just Junior. That ability to find comfort in a difficult past, understated and human and seemingly quite natural, is something to admire. For me, it’s also something to aspire to.