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Original Issue

Books Compassion drives a paean to Dale Earnhardt and his legions of grieving fans

At the Altar of Speed
by Leigh Montville/Doubleday, $24.95

A "fast book" is publishing jargon for one that's written in a
big hurry to capitalize on some ephemeral public event, such as
the death of a celebrity. Since the purpose of most fast books is
to make fast bucks, they are frequently shallow, phony,
overwritten and manipulative. This one is overwritten and
manipulative, but it's neither shallow nor phony. If Montville, a
former senior writer at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, is not sincere in his
compassion for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the driver's grieving fans,
then he's a remarkably convincing hypocrite.

Chances are you've heard that Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup
champion, was killed on the final lap of last February's Daytona
500. You've also probably read many saccharine eulogies of old
number 3, comparing him to every American icon from Elvis Presley
to the Dukes of Hazzard. Be warned: You'll read it all again
here, along with enough heart-tugging cliches to fill a Hallmark
shop. Still, Montville skillfully unspools the story of
Earnhardt's life, with lots of odd poetic anecdotes: He grew up
on Sedan Avenue (really) in Kannapolis, N.C.; he could ride a
bicycle backward as fast as he could forward; and his first car
was accidentally painted pink. The story of Earnhardt's racing
career is richly told, too, but there is very little about his
private life. We learn, for instance, that Dale had a stormy
relationship with his father, Ralph (Ironheart) Earnhardt, a
dirt-track racer, and that he had two failed marriages. Yet the
book provides few details of this, or of Earnhardt's subsequent,
happier family life. Why not?

Because, Montville writes, Earnhardt so fiercely guarded his
privacy. On the track he held nothing back. In his private life,
however, Earnhardt rarely revealed what he felt. After one of his
few trusted friends, fellow driver Neil Bonnett, died at Daytona
in 1994, Earnhardt went even deeper into his shell. "Grief was an
emotion to be dealt with internally," writes Montville. That's
how a lot of Americans deal with grief, and it's no coincidence
that many who do were Dale Earnhardt fans.

It is on the subject of these fans that Montville is most
persuasive. The news of Earnhardt's death set a tavern full of
men "howlin' like hound dogs," as one of the mourners put it.
Another man confessed that he was no less upset by Earnhardt's
passing than he would have been by his own son's. Are these guys
nuts? No, Montville insists, but they tend to lead hard,
unglamorous lives. They are "the uncounted, with tired legs that
are stuffed inside denim and uniform cotton...the uncomfortable
with hungover heads that are stuffed under hard hats in the
morning." Like Earnhardt, they, too, hold their fear and grief
deep within, but their hero's triumphs had made them feel
powerful and free. No wonder they miss him so much.