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Original Issue

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR Nation Sixteen months after the death of its biggest star, stock car racing is bigger than ever, propelled by a new generation of drivers burning rubber through the intersection of sports and commerce

The line snakes around the building, folding back again and
again on itself. A labyrinth traced by sagging lengths of yellow
poly police tape winds through the spears of palmetto and twists
across the white-hot decorative gravel, then threads back
between some leafless, blasted saplings before wandering all the
way out past the molten parking lot until it turns again, back
up the alley, hundreds of feet, into the last little rectangle
of lifesaving shade left in Daytona, Fla., where it loops the
Dumpster twice and finally meanders, unmercifully, back out into
that terrifying supertropical sunshine and along the malarial
drainage ditch that parallels International Speedway Boulevard.
There are hundreds of people in the line. The line does not
move. The line only gets longer.

At the racetrack across the street Monday practice is still
running wide open, and the whole blinding afternoon buzzes like
a hive. Over there the line moves at 185 mph. From the
pedestrian footbridge, fans leaving the track notice the
sunstruck crowd surrounding the Barnes & Noble.

"Looks like Disneyland from up here, don't it?"

"Those people look baked."

"Those poor folks look like they been clubbed."

"What time's he comin'?"

"I don't know what time he starts, but I know he's gonna have a
writer's cramp by the time he's done."

And at nearly that moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. ducks out of a
slate-gray SUV and into the side door of the bookstore. He has
come here to sign books. Many, many books.

This is February. It is 51 weeks to the day, almost to the hour,
since his father was killed, not quite half a mile from here, in
the last turn on the last lap of last year's Daytona 500. It is
a long time gone and he is mended now and it is safe for him to
be here; or it is an excruciation, an aching, heartbreaking
effort. No one who is allowed, at last, to walk up for his
swooping lasso of a signature can tell which. The weight of that
name, the noise in his head, the surge and ebb in his chest are
none of their business. He is unfailingly pleasant and polite
with everyone.

He wears a red polo shirt and baggy khaki shorts and a red B (as
in Budweiser) baseball cap clocked around aft in the trademark
manner. He is pale and slender with sharp features and a quick,
thin smile that seems to flicker out the moment he isn't paying
attention to it. "Good to see you," he says quietly to each of
them as they arrive at his table. "GOOD TO SEE YOU!" they shout
or shriek or sob in return, unable to modulate themselves a
moment longer.

The first fan in line, Charles Long, 27, of Winter Springs,
Fla., has been here since 4 a.m. because, he says, "Junior is a
regular guy. Just like me. Who drinks beer. Just like me." He
hoots and whoops and pumps his fists and jumps up and down when
his two copies of Driver #8 are signed. He is then overrun and
subdued for comment by a squad of beautifully groomed local
television reporters.

For hours the others will shuffle forward, the mother and
daughter teams in from Ohio, the glowering bachelors out of
Tennessee, entire tomato-red families down from Jersey. Silent
60-year-old shirtless fat men in straw hats and coveralls,
quivering 14-year-old girls blow-molded into their black spandex
crop tops, husbands and wives in matching pictographic Dale Jr.
T-shirts--everyone has a copy of the book, two copies, three,
nine, to be signed. "No other merchandise," shout the book
people, "will be signed!" Cameras flash, teenage girls flirt or
stare or tremble in their weeping, cops roll their eyes, the
line inches forward, people scale the Art & Architecture shelves
for a better look. "Junior!" they shout, "Hey, Junior!" until
one no-longer-young woman climbs the wedding planners display to
croon, "Helloooooooooooo, Sexy!" and everybody breaks up. The
thin smile flickers. This is how the book about #8 made it to #4
on The New York Times best-seller list.

A mother guides her son toward the table. He is a little boy,
maybe nine, 10 years old. "Hey, Buddy," says Dale, Jr., softly.
The boy doesn't say anything, nor does he have a book, and he
freezes for a second, unsure what to do. His mother nudges him
gently from behind. "Go ahead," she says. Expressionless, the
boy hands Dale Jr. a picture he's drawn. It is a smudged pencil
rendering of Earnhardt's number 8 Budweiser car, complete with
cartoon speed lines trailing off the roof and rear spoiler. It
is neither precociously good nor unimaginably bad. Earnhardt
accepts it and says, "Thank you, Buddy." Someone turns the boy
around and his mother says "Smile" but he doesn't, and then the
flash explodes blue and white and impossibly cold, and the two
of them, man and boy, are frozen together for an instant. Forever.

When I was just a little squirt, I clipped pictures of race cars
from magazines and taped them to my bedroom walls. From floor to
ceiling and wall to wall ran the elegant and delicate Formula
One machines of the mid-'60s, like the Lotus and the BRM, as
fragile and complicated as insects, and the factory Ferrari, as
low and wide and red as appetite itself. Next to these were the
exotic 24 Hour GT-Prototypes from Sebring and Le Mans, the blunt
Porsches and the swooping Jaguars and the perfect Ford GT 40s.
Among them ran the muscle-bound and slab-sided family sedans
from Plymouth and Chevy, big-block Detroit iron, their V-8
pistons fat as feed buckets, thundering around the Southern
stock car circuit. Beside these were the last of the bulging,
broad-shouldered front-engine Indy cars, as poky and
old-fashioned as stagecoaches even then.

I scissored out pictures of the drivers, too, and around the
room grinned the heroic faces of Hill and Clark and Stewart, the
Unsers and the Pettys, Foyt, Andretti, Yarborough and Lorenzen,
even the great Fangio. I dreamed of being one of them.

At night, in the desolate freedom of those dreams, I moved
across a shadow landscape at terrifying speeds, goggled and
tattooed with grime, an eight-year-old boy with a front-page
smile, rakish and death-defying, trailing a white silk scarf and
the noise of a distant crowd. Speed was everything.

Only much later did I learn that at this speed the wall is
liquid. At this speed you are deaf to everything but the greedy
furnace blast of the engine, blind to anything but the tunnel
you drill through the glare. At this speed time itself thins and
cracks into useless theory. Your future--that impossible mirage
of fame and adulation beyond fantasy, of privilege beyond
measure, of houses and cars and those ice-cold millions
uncountable--shimmers out there in that demon heat six inches
ahead of you, and your past, that earthbound and dismal history,
is nothing but a greasy breeze feathering into the stands 600
yards and a lifetime behind you. Drive fast enough and you hit
life's escape velocity: dead or famous, and you're better off
either way. So manage your fear, ride it, man, keep that oily
churn in your gut buckled down tight. 'Cause if you don't, it
might climb into your throat and choke you.

At this speed you are bared to the marrow, stripped of
everything human except ambition and want--you become a pure,
hard consciousness, without love or regret or identity. You are
speed itself, simple acceleration, a rushing vector of infinite
possibility. At this speed the track swims and unspools beneath
you in a murderous blur. You are fast. Fast out of all
proportion to sense or physics or the slow and tortured turning
of the earth, you are centrifugal, orbital, as vast and ancient
and celestial as something flung down from heaven to wreak a
black and unblinking havoc on a thousand thousand generations of
sinners. At this speed you are the very sword of God.

At this speed you'll start Sunday's race 35th in a field of 43
cars. Or so it seems on any NASCAR qualifying day.

At 27, Dale Earnhardt Jr., "Little E," currently embodies,
metaphorically and otherwise, NASCAR's gleaming future. He is
arguably the sport's first crossover star, a full-bore billboard
MTV breakout bad boy (That hat! Those glasses! Rage rock!
Hip-hop! Lock up your daughters, America!), running
wide-effing-open down Madison Avenue, bringing beer and sass and
sex into your shabby, joyless living room.

In years past the model for the great motoring heroes of the
circuit was perhaps a little, um, straight-arrow. Scrubbed a bit
too clean, bled out, colorless. The Other Other White Meat. In
some cases there was a bit too much red, maybe, right around the
neckbone. The muttonchops and nylon windbreakers don't peg the
tach with those Greenwich focus groups. Preaching only to the
converted, they sold motor oil, brake rotors and mentholated
dippin' snuff.

Until the time of his father's death, Dale Jr., and to a lesser
extent his brother Kerry, a successful Busch series driver, had
inspired in fans only the kind of tentative, speculative
affection that surrounds the son of any famous man. Sure, he'd
won two championships in the Busch series, NASCAR's Triple A
circuit, but did he have the grit, the steel, the mud, to run in
the Show, the Winston Cup? He could drive, O.K., but the talk in
the pits was that he had more cojones than cortex, and when was
he gonna step, as they say, UP? Lordy, even Frank Sinatra Jr.
can carry a tune. The only question is, how far?

Flung far and fast into the naked limelight by that slow-motion
crash up the mountainous reach of Turn 4, Earnhardt Jr. might
have become nothing more than a curiosity, another lounge act.
Worse still, he might have believed all those newspapers trimmed
in mourning black that presented him, generously but wrongly, as
JFK Jr.: a handsome, harmless attendant of the family's eternal
flame, whose public life must be lived in the long, chilly
shadow of his dead father and whose accomplishments can't help
but seem small when seen in the wan, reflected light that
infrequently falls on them.

So Dale Earnhardt Jr., grandson of short track legend Ralph
Earnhardt and son of the mighty Intimidator, ol' Ironhead
hisself, goes out and does the onliest thing he knows to trump
the lame, melodramatic script that everyone else is trying to
write for him. He races. He runs, as they say, good. Top 10. Top
five. He wins. At Daytona in July. At Dover. At Talladega. He
finishes 2001 eighth in points and with $5.8 million in
winnings. On top of that he makes monster endorsement money, and
the fans' affections, their swarming passions, untethered after
his father's accident, are beginning now to bear down on him.

Which brings us back to the Day of the Locust crowds that attend
his every move. It starts during those two long weeks in
Daytona, 2002. The book's a hit. He's everywhere on television.
He can't walk anywhere without being pestered, pictured,
pursued. If he stops long enough to take a breath, a bouquet of
microphones materializes in front of him. He has to hide in the
garage or strap himself into his car. He runs good the first few
weeks. Top 10. Top five. During any given race he has more women
sitting on his toolbox in the pits than most other drivers, a
sure sign of, well, something. At Texas in early April he spins
and wads the car up pretty good in Turn 2, and security tries to
close the garage because so many fans come pouring over the
fences to watch his crew try to bang the frame straight. His
failures now attract greater attention than some drivers get in
Victory Lane.

At Bristol, in the surprising early-season cold of the Tennessee
hills, he shows up in his pit thuggin' it, dressed like P. Diddy
at Gstaad, with a knit cap pulled down to his evil shades and a
mustard ski jacket the size of a spinnaker. The crowd of 147,000
pours ovations down on him in that tiny, tidy bowl. The loudest
of the day comes right after the race, however, when he and
Robby Gordon bang each other hard going back into pit road. It
is intentional and juvenile, and it will cost them both
thousands of dollars in fines. But it is also old-school,
Friday-night, dirt-track turf-war gamesmanship. The people roar
for it, for him. In the motoring press a week later are the
recriminatory editorials about sophomoric behavior and dark
murmurs about a missed promotional appearance. Drowned out by
the cheering, they go unheeded.

At Talladega back in April, under that angry Alabama mother sun,
the fans rose in the stands every time Dale Jr. ran his car out
for practice. In the shade of the garage between sessions he
would peel himself out of the top of his driver's suit, hitch
his pants and stand, flushed and frail-seeming, in front of the
swamp cooler by the car. Yahooing cries of "Junior!" rang out
during the prayer before the race, a 40-year-old echo of the
days when Junior Johnson was the Last American Hero. When the
race began, so did the roaring, from a grandstand nearly a mile
long, louder even than the cars. Every time he ran out front the
roar grew and people stood and people fainted in the heat and
the roar swelled again and became a solid wall of noise for the
last few laps and the people swooned in the light and the noise
and the hot, heroic love of something they felt was bigger than
all of them. And he won. At the moment he crossed the finish
line, borne forward by the apocalyptic cry of 200,000 fans,
scores of thousands of cameras flashed, impossibly cold and
blue, the moment frozen.

Why is NASCAR so successful? In part, I think, because unlike
most other sports, in which fans can see only dim reflections of
themselves--when was the last time you hit a 450-foot home run
off a 98-mile-an-hour fastball, or carded a 63 at Medinah, or
tomahawked some stank down on Shaq's head?--NASCAR is at once
death-defying and prosaic. When was the last time you drove?

NASCAR works overtime to engage its fans in many ways. Foremost
among these, obviously, is the racing itself, with its
manufacturer rivalries, its life-or-death risks and rewards and
its stars trading paint and sharp words at speed on the
high-banked ovals at Darlington or Martinsville.

NASCAR is also one of the strictest, albeit one of the most
fluid, rule-making bodies in sport. The organization's nabobs
intend for mechanical parity to ensure close racing and further
fan interest, so they not only micromanage the engineering of
the race cars at every point but also often modify the
construction rules from week to week or even day to day, half an
inch here, half a pound there, to prevent one make or model from
gaining an unfair advantage over the others. The teams, of
course, do everything they can to gain that unfair advantage, so
the tension between enforcement and violation of the many
technical restrictions creates a kind of nervous equilibrium.
Outright cheating is now rare, but elaborate conspiracy theories
still fuel the garage rumor mill. Though the cars still look
vaguely like sedans you might see at a dealership, they are, in
fact, 780-horsepower purpose-built thoroughbreds. NASCAR is so
successful in calibrating their equality that the average margin
of victory in the 2001 season, across 10 months and nearly 40
races, was a little more than a single second.

And NASCAR, unlike sports without a central governing authority,
makes sure fans have unprecedented access to the athletes--that
family autograph opportunities are plentiful at every racetrack
and at the many personal appearances the drivers routinely make.
Like the music business down in Nashville with its annual
FanFest, NASCAR enforces a grassroots interaction between its
stars and the paying customers. At a time when NFL players are
nothing more to most autograph seekers than an angry silhouette
behind the tinted glass of a giant SUV fleeing the stadium
parking lot, NASCAR understands the responsibilities of
mythmaking and corporate endorsement and touts its heroes as
good ol' boys from right next door who will sign just about
anything you hand them and would love to hunker down with a
bottle of Bud and some nachos if they only had the time.

In the interest of customizing this mythmaking, NASCAR
manufactures matinee idols of several stripes, from the young,
square-jawed All-America hotshots like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie
Johnson and Tony Stewart to the avuncular, deep-fried elders
like Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace. And once a
driver earns himself a regular ride in the Show, he'll find that
he's got a prefab, presold fan base and a gleaming merchandise
hauler on the racetrack midway hawking his now-heroic headshot
on hats and shirts and jackets.

All this is far more than a redneck cult of personality,
however. NASCAR has, for its fans from Manhattan to Manhattan
Beach, transcended its self-limiting Southern origins. Instead
it has institutionalized Southern hospitality and charm. Even
the television announcers are unrelentingly sunny and upbeat.

"It can't be good when the car starts burnin' that way, can it,

"No, sir, not even one little bit!"

Fans are also taught to cheer the teams and car owners for whom
their idols race and to follow even the performance of their pit
crews with an abiding passion. (There are televised competitions
now among the crews. Gold medal fill-ups! World-class tire
changes! The base, animal thrill of windshields wiped squeaky
clean!) And, as in no other sport, fans applaud the equipment,
too, devoting themselves, sometimes for life, to the cars,
either Ford or Chevy, Pontiac or Dodge, driving one brand to the
exclusion of all others, a loyalty manufacturers have been
exploiting since stock car racing began in earnest after World
War II. "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" is as true now as it was
when the hottest ride on the track was a Hudson Hornet.

Eight weeks ago 100,000 fans washed over Fontana, Calif., over
the track and the stands and the garages, running and pooling
everywhere, lapping gently against the fences and the walls and
the cars and the drivers. On a Saturday afternoon Dale Earnhardt
Jr. watches this tide flow quietly around him from the
upholstered anonymity of his immense motor home.

Even stretched to full length on the sofa, watching yet another
race on TV with his buds, he seems restless and animated. He
shifts his weight, sits up, reclines again, energetic but
relaxed, ready for something--the race tomorrow, maybe. Jeans,
shirt, cap. Chin whiskers this week. He looks you straight in
the eye when he listens and when he speaks. He can dial the
North Carolina in his voice up or down, but it's nothing you
could dip a biscuit in. He looks stronger, more substantial,
away from the car. He is handsome, certainly, but he is not the
looming Apollo his billboards portray. He looks more like the
lube 'n' tune guy he used to be at Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet than
the object of national obsession he's become. In the right light
he looks like a guy who looks just like the guy on the billboard.

"Two years ago, when I'd walk from my motorcoach to the car in
practice, there were less than half the people asking for
autographs, so I see that there's a big change as far as the
hard-core fans that we have now. It's changed quite a bit.
There's a responsibility that goes with it now. A lot of the
fans say, 'Man, we like you because you're yourself--stay
yourself, always be yourself.' And that's true to a point, but
I'm finding now, more and more, that we're under the microscope,
that some of the things I would do in the past aren't accepted
now. Something that was just a prick on the rosebush before is a
huge problem now, something I might say in an interview or
something. It's taken quite a lot more seriously now." And he's
right. His every remark is broadcast, typeset, satellited, sent
resonating down that clacking NASCAR telegraph. Whom does he
date? How many beers does he drink? What's his favorite band? An
encyclopedia of banalities. Try as he might to unplug himself,
he can't.

On his way out the door for yet another interview he is
confronted by thousands of reminders of his father--portraits,
banners, flags snapping in the breeze. "I used to miss him every
minute," he says. "Now I've got it down to about every five
minutes." Then he's gone.

On the 228th lap at Fontana, Kevin Harvick cuts a tire coming
through Turn 4 and swerves dead left into the right rear quarter
panel of the devil-red number 8. Betrayed by a sudden absence of
traction and Sir Isaac Newton's buzz-killer humbug on the
subjects of mass and force and momentum, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is
launched uphill into the wall. Spinning, he hits first front
then rear, hard; hard enough to accordion the car down to about
two thirds of its original length; hard enough to bring an
audible gasp from the frontstretch grandstand; hard enough even
to silence the TV announcers, if only briefly. The car slides
down onto the grass, vomiting steam and smoke and oil, and sits
ominously, heavily there for what seems like a long time. This
is by far the worst hit of his career. In less than 30 seconds,
though, the EMTs have him out of the car. Bent double,
grimacing, he has had the wind knocked out of him.

Twenty minutes later he comes swinging out the doors of the
infield medical center on crutches. He sprained an ankle when he
braced his feet against the firewall. Torqued a shoulder joint,
too, and the russet bloom of his bruises is just beginning.
Nothing serious. He is pissed off and joking, but mostly pissed
off, and his one grumbled comment, "I hit hard, goddammit, you
know the rest," will no doubt have to be translated into
uplifting, PG-rated sports jabber for the morning papers.

Fans throng the fence line as Earnhardt is driven away on a golf
cart, applauding, whistling, bellowing encouragement. One man,
though, remains still. He is a round little handful of a man,
maybe 40 or so, and he holds above the fence, at stubby arm's
length, a large mirror framed in rococo gilt. It's the kind of
thing you'd see in a sports bar or an overdone rumpus room.
Across its bright face in lurid Victorian gold and red stencil
as high as he can, dazzling in the sun, until Junior is gone.
Before anyone can ask why he's brought it here, he, too, slips
away. Whatever did he expect Dale Earnhardt Jr., or any one of
us, to see in it?

From a sport whose origins are rooted in the misty hills and
hollers of the postwar rural South, where the white-lightning
ridge runners boomed through the moonless night trying to outrun
the po-leece and the gubmint revenuers, NASCAR has evolved into
the new model for the synergies of cutting-edge, multiplatform,
cross-promotional corporate performance. And Dale Earnhardt Jr.,
whose fame is now self-sustaining and whose career arc will
become the responsibility largely of strangers, who is the Next
American Hero or the new Eddie Haskell, depending on who does
the telling, will be asked, like it or not, to carry it all
forward on his perfectly average, 40-regular shoulders.

At Richmond, the first weekend of May, he crashes unremarkably
and limps out of that rain-swollen weekend 12th in points for
the season. Two weeks later he electrifies the crowd at
Charlotte with a late-night, last-lap charge to the front in the
Winston, NASCAR's cannily formatted All-Star street fight. By
choosing not to punt eventual winner Ryan Newman out of his way
with two turns left in the race, Earnhardt Jr. forfeits around
$750K but earns the manic affection of the motoring press and
several hundred 24-karat column inches on the topics of probity,
maturity and good sportsmanship. "Getting to him was easy," says
Junior at the media center just before midnight, "getting by him
was something different."

"He made a helluva run!" the fans boom from car to car, still
waiting at 1 a.m. for the traffic to thin, "one helluva run."

"His old man'da crashed 'im," the state cop says, arms
windmilling, uselessly indicating the distant exits.

A week later he runs well until he gets tangled up with a slower
car and brushes the wall. The car goes sour; then it overheats
and goes away entirely, and he finishes deep in the field at the
Coca-Cola 600. At Dover, Del., he finishes 30th and drops to
14th in the points race. At Pocono he's 12th. At Michigan, 22nd.
At Sonoma, 30th. Everywhere they scream for him as the season
inches on.

His future, whatever it may be, will draft a survey of the
entire NASCAR landscape, across which roll and intersect not
only the easy streams of popular culture, in which we find the
commonplace objects of our desire--cars and money and fame--but
also the wide, hard ribbons of American religion and race and
class. NASCAR distills to an essence America's obsession with
speed and sex and death. In it beats the heart of our national
experience as citizen consumers and hell-bent rebel yellers. In
it lies our central postmodern metaphor: racing ever faster in
circles, chasing a buck. In it we fire and forge our next
generation of American Heroes. In it we rediscover our restless
frontier habits, our deep rural need to move fast across the
land, fleeing the oppression of boredom, pursuing a different
sun gone down on a new horizon and finding at the end of that
day peace or satisfaction or perhaps only, ever, always,

For Winston Cup results, standings and news, plus a weekly diary
from Jimmie Johnson, go to


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES(EARNHARDT JR.) JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT Earnhardt now looms as the most compelling figure on the circuit, his every move scrutinized by fans from Fontana to Bristol (above).


COLOR PHOTO: NIGEL KINRADE HIGH AND LOW NASCAR's fan base stretches from bus drivers to showgirls (here congratulating Sterling Marlin for his win in Las Vegas), and from trackside to the tops of RVs.


COLOR PHOTO: NIGEL KINRADE [See caption above]





COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES FATHER FIGURE The bitter irony for Dale Jr. is that the death of his dad (right) paved the way for his breakout success.

Those who still think baseball is the national pastime need to
have their tires rotated

Stock car racing is by far the fastest-growing spectator sport
in America. Unique in the world, it is a crossover
sports-and-entertainment empire set squarely at the confluence
of pop culture, commerce and American mythology. NASCAR cites a
fan base that comprises nearly one third of our entire
population. The prize money, corporate sponsorships, ticket
sales, broadcast and cable TV contracts, advertising sales,
hotel and restaurant revenues, etc., world without end, push
billions of dollars through the economy every year. And just how
much money the fans, fully 50% of whom are women, spend on the
products whose logos they see emblazoned on the hoods, trunks
and quarter panels of the cars, and on the fireproof fronts,
backs and bottoms of the drivers themselves, can only be guessed
at. Billions more, undoubtedly, on everything from the sponsors'
bulldozers to beer to bath mats, from Nike to Tide to Viagra.