NASCAR turns death into dollars
"Could they just let the poor guy rest in peace?" Those were the words of a colleague at Daytona International Speedway after we watched the unveiling of a black No. 3 Chevy commemorating the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's 1998 Daytona 500 victory.
The car is a replica of the one Earnhardt drove to his only Daytona 500 victory -- except that it's an Impala and it has a front splitter and a rear wing. Yes, it's a "Car of Tomorrow." Or if you prefer, a "Car of Today." Or as NASCAR prefers, a "new car." What it isn't, however, is an authentic replica of Earnhardt's 1998 Monte Carlo. And connoisseurs of irony will note that this new car exists because of a company called Motorsports Authentics.
Motorsports Authentics (which is owned by International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc.) is selling die-cast collectible versions of this fantasy car for $74.99. It's another effort to make money off Earnhardt, who died after wrecking in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Should we be surprised? Certainly not. Seven years after his death, Earnhardt remains one of the most marketable figures in NASCAR. Many, me included, believe the notoriety of his death led to NASCAR's phenomenal growth in the first part of this decade (growth, incidentally, that continues to recede as many fans complain the sport bears no resemblance to what it was in Dale's day).
No one could dispute Daytona International Speedway President Robin Braig when he said at the news conference, "We certainly make some money off of Dale, let's put it that way." That's the kind of brutal honesty we haven't heard since Jim Carrey's "Liar Liar" movie.
Should we be offended? Probably not. The culture of the dead celebrity has a long history (Elvis, anyone?) and isn't going away. And it's no secret that newspapers and magazines run "anniversary" stories, often about deceased subjects, because we think people will read them and, you know, buy our product. What is offensive, though, is the complete lack of authenticity. It smacks of trying to change history, the same way NASCAR absurdly slaps the name of its current Cup series sponsor on historical notes. Here's an example from the current media guide, about former driver Tim Flock: "In 1949, Tim, brothers Bob and Fonty and sister Ethel became the only four siblings to drive in the same NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, with Ethel finishing ahead of her brothers." Hmm, wonder what kind of plans Sprint offered on its cell phones in 1949?
Richard Childress, Earnhardt's former car owner, laughed when asked what Dale would have thought about having a wing on his car. "I knew that question was probably going to come up," Childress said. "It was a little tough to get him to change sometimes, but if he knew it was better, he would be for it."
Racing a car with a wing might not have bothered Earnhardt (and if the COT were in use in 2001, he might be alive today, but that's another story). But that's not the point. What would he have thought about trying to draw a connection between himself and a car model he never drove? I think his response would have been unprintable, as many of them were.
Selling COT models of Earnhardt's 1998 car is disingenuous. Think of Nike trying to sell portraits of Bobby Jones teeing off at St. Andrews with a square-headed Sumo driver. Or if you prefer a comparison from the automotive world, think of putting a wing and a splitter on Tim Flock's Hudson Hornet.
NASCAR has been very sensitive to criticism of the COT, not all of which has been fair. But to ham-handedly try to align it with the sport's most revered icon is reprehensible. But what do I know? Motorsports Authentics will probably sell a million of them. None to me, though.
And no, no one is going to "let the poor guy rest in peace." But we can at least do him the courtesy of remembering him the way he was, not the way that will sell the most $74.99 souvenirs. seattlepi.com