A QUICK LOOK at the credits of Dale, a documentary on Dale Earnhardt airing this week on CMT, doesn't inspire much confidence. It's put out by NASCAR Images, and officially sanctioned NASCAR productions tend to be about as balanced as something TASS might have released circa 1980.
But Dale is different. In fact, Dale is terrific. Made with the cooperation of the Earnhardt family, the 100-minute film, narrated by Paul Newman, delivers such an intimate look at the driver that it feels as if we've all been invited out to the Earnhardt ranch to watch some home movies. There's Dale as a lanky kid, already with that smirk he'd flash a thousand times, looking like a cross between DJ Qualls and Mona Lisa. There he is, before he cultivated the whole Man in Black persona, lounging by the water in only denim cutoff shorts and a cowboy hat. There he is, teaching Dale Jr., who looks to be about five, to water ski. (Though up to his chest in water, the elder Earnhardt is, of course, wearing a cowboy hat.)
What made Earnhardt such a popular driver—his resiliency and dedication—also made him, for much of his life, an absentee father. Instead of skirting the issue, Dale lets his family members tell it like it was. In one heartbreaking scene, as Dale Jr. reminisces about how he longed for his father's attention, the film shows a young Junior offering his dad congratulations, only to have Earnhardt immediately turn his attention back to having his picture taken in Victory Lane. "When me and [sister] Kelley were born," Junior says, "he was in no position to be a father."
Later in life, though, when Junior began racing, Earnhardt and his son formed a strong bond. The film's most moving moment—and there are several—comes when Darrell Waltrip, an old friendly rival, watches footage of an interview he did with Earnhardt three days before Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500. "I'm a better person than I used to be," says Earnhardt, with a giddiness he rarely displayed. "I've got it all right now, I really do."
Near the end, Waltrip takes stock of Earnhardt's evolution from an anonymous short-track racer to the biggest name in the history of the sport. "That's a long road," he says. Dale covers it all, though, and it's an enjoyable, enlightening ride.
MARK CUBAN won't be the only athletic entrant on Dancing with the Stars this fall. After he won the Stars competition earlier this year, Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno raved about his experience to IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves and suggested he go on the show. The sales pitch worked: On Wednesday it was to be announced that Castroneves (right) will be part of the cast when the new Stars premieres on Sept. 24. "I'm sure people think that driving a race car more than 200 mph is frightening," says Castroneves. "But for me, dancing in front of millions of viewers will be scarier."
VIEWERS WILL take two things from the documentary Air Guitar Nation, which is now out on DVD: 1) You don't have to be a world-class athlete to get to the heart of why we love sports, and 2) In some corners of society neon-colored leggings are still the height of style. Nation follows the road to the World Air Guitar Championships in Finland. The backdrop is a geeky pastime, but the film is really about the joy (and heartbreak) of competition. That, and how difficult it is to windmill while wearing spandex.
GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES (EARNHARDTS)
BEST BUDS After a rough start, Dale Sr. and Junior became fast friends.
COURTESY OF CMT (EARNHARDT DVD)
TONY GUTIERREZ/AP (CASTRONEVES)
DOCURAMA (AIR GUITAR NATION)