Fishing for Answers
After NASCAR Tragedy

 by Doug Belliveau
March 1, 2001

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Like many others, I have been seeking some kind of answer as to why tragedy occurs. The Sunday night after the Daytona 500 was virtually a sleepless one for me as my mind raced and my heart was pained. So many questions went through my head, as I lay awake for hours on end. Why did the accident happen at the Daytona? Why on the last turn of the last lap? What if they didn't have the aero package or restrictor plates? What if the huge Tony Stewart accident on lap 175 had taken Dale's car out of the race like 17 other drivers? What if Kenny Schrader's car had not spun Dale's car perpendicular to the wall? What if Dale had been wearing the HANS Device? What if a safety belt didn't break or fray?

I wasn't able to obtain any answers to these questions that Sunday night. The bottom line is that I may never be able to get answers to many of these questions. The "what if" scenarios will play out for years to come. Everyone will offer opinions as to what may have saved Dale's life in the accident. And sadly enough, some fans stricken with grief placed the blame on Sterling Marlin. Dale's son appeared on a new conference and said that placing the blame on Sterling would not be tolerated. I couldn't agree more.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a third generation race car driver (photo by Doug Belliveau)

Now fast-forward a week to the next Winston Cup event that took place in Rockingham, North Carolina, also known as The Rock. As I prepared myself to watch the race and generate a race report for AutoRacing1, another flood of questions came to mind.

How does Dale Jr. strap himself in the #8 car after suffering through such a life-altering event only a week earlier? How can Teresa Earnhardt bear to watch her son race? How will the tragedy affect Michael Waltrip, who just won his first career race as a DEI employee? What emotional strain will be placed on Kevin Harvick who substitutes in the newly painted #29 car? In general, the main question is "how does the NASCAR community go forward?" By chance, I may actually have found an answer to this question.

My favorite sport is surfing. Well, let me refine that answer. My favorite sport is channel surfing on the television, which drives my wife insane at times. Our television remote control has deep grooves around the buttons where I've worn off layers of hard plastic with my thumb and fingertips. You'd think I would eventually give up late at night when there is absolutely nothing to watch on any of the channels. Fortunately this time I came upon a piece of television programming that may help explain something. As I was switching through the channels, I saw some video footage of a dramatic sea rescue by the Coast Guard. I didn't think much of it at first, but then I started to get caught up in the heightened tension of the rescue.

It turns out that this public television special was about the commercial fishing industry. It highlighted two specific groups of fisherman. One group fished for lobster off the coast of Maine, while the other crabbed in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Both groups encounter atrocious weather conditions, especially when fishing in the coldest months of the year to harvest their product. Apparently the Coast Guard is on constant patrol in these two areas as the weather can change for the worse in a matter of hours, causing havoc with the sailing vessels. Commercial fishing, much to my surprise, is one of the most dangerous ways to earn a living. In 1999 alone, 19 fishing ships sunk and 17 fishermen lost their lives in the Bering Sea.

The show followed the story of a fishing crew as they went about their duties on the high seas off Maine. The crew consisted of a son, his father and his cousin. A huge storm came upon their boat during the nighttime hours. Darkness makes it near impossible to find and rescue boats in distress. As the huge waves smashed the hull of the boat, it began to turn over and capsize. The son watched helplessly as his father could not escape the ship, and was taken down under the sinking boat into the swelling sea. As the son waited for a rescue attempt, his cousin's body eventually became lifeless as they floated for hours in the 35-degree water. The son was eventually rescued, he himself near death from hypothermia.

The fisherman's son in this story was interviewed later about how his life had changed since the incident. He had returned to the sea, and was fishing for lobster in the same area his family had suffered such terrible loss of life. When asked how he could continue fishing, he responded: "This is all I know. Fishing is in my blood, passed down through the generations. I could never be sitting behind some desk in an office. On the sea is where I belong. If it takes my life, then at least it will be taken honorably while doing what I love". 

The Wallace's are a typical racing family.  Rusty, along with brothers Mike and Kenny, all competed at the Rock last week   (photo by Doug Belliveau)

As I watched this compelling story of a tragic sea incident, I began to think about something. Maybe the fishing industry helps to explain certain aspects of stock car racing. Like the fishing industry, racing has always been a family business. Names like Petty, Andretti, Allison, Wallace, Waltrip and Earnhardt have been in racing for generations. For those drivers who are not part of an actual racing lineage, the racing community acts as their surrogate family. This close-knit community, while rivals on the track, are friends, protectors and supporters off the track.

So how does the racing community go forward after their biggest Hero has fallen? How does Dale Jr. get back into a racecar after helplessly watching his father pass on? We need to look no farther than the lobster fisherman for an answer. Racing is all many drivers have known. Racing is in their blood, passed down through the generations. Drivers could never be sitting behind some desk in an office. On the track is where they belong, doing what they love. 

Dale Earnhardt is missed more than anyone could have imagined. The impact of his passing has been worldwide. Outpouring of support has even come from millions who never followed racing. He was an icon who represented racing to the world. But as we all grieve from the tragedy, the show must go on. Other drivers with racing in their blood will return to the track, where they belong, doing what they love. And I'm certain Dale would want it that way. "The world doesn't stop and he wouldn't want it to stop," declared 1965 Winston Cup champion Ned Jarrett. "He would want the sport to go on. He would want his son to be there next week, racing. "

The author can be contacted at dougb@autoracing1.com

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