dale earnhardt, daytona 500, 1998, Brian Cleary, bcpix, photography, nascar
16/02/08 18:37 Filed in: Story Behind the Picture
I became an Earnhardt fan back in 1979 when he was running for "rookie of the year", driving the #2 Osterlund Racing Oldmobile. I liked his quiet confidence, his bold driving style, the way he sat "laid back" in his race car and the fact that he was not afraid to race head to head with my heroes, Petty, Allison, Baker, Yarborough, etc.
As my career in motorsports photography progressed, I saw firsthand the Dale Earnhardt was not only an" intimidator" on the racetrack, but off-track as well. When a photographer aimed a camera at him, he had a way of staring point blank down the lens in a manner which almost dared the photographer to take a picture of him. He'd stare down the photographer in manner that said, "Hurry up, take your damn picture and get it over with!"
I saw him do some amazing things on the track and have some very vivd memories of his exploits, many of which I was lucky enough to witness in person. I was there when he cut a tire down on the last lap at Daytona, handing Derrike Cope a Daytona 500 win, I was standing on Daytona's turn 4 tunnel as he zoomed past trailing shreds of seagull after striking the unlucky bird on the backstrecth ending another gallant, but ill-fated Daytona 500 bid. In 1997 I saw him flip on the backstretch at Daytona only to get back in the car to finish the race.
Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin slammed the wall right in front of my photo location at Talladega one year in one of the most violent impacts I'd ever seen and I watched in disbelief as he walked to the ambulance under his own power clutching his injured shoulder and refusing a stretcher. That is what racing's all about, I thought at the time. And I was also there in Talladega for the final victory of his great career.
But I think that one of my strongest Earnhardt memories was at the Daytona 500 in 1998. I photographed the race from a platform high above the Roberts Tower grandstands. It was playing out in typical fashion, which a dominant Earnhardt leading the charge into the race's late stages. I, like probably everyone else in attendance waited for the "other foot to fall" and some strange bit of bad luck to once again snatch the 500 from Earnhardt's grasp. When the final caution flew and Earnhardt beet Bobby Labonte to the line to finally secure the win, I followed the car around the track in my viewfinder and photographed the historic checkered flag.
The real significance and emotion of the event didn't sink in, however, until I removed my eye from the camera's viewfinder and looked down on pitroad where virtually every crewman and official on the property had lined up to congratulate the triumphant Earnhardt. I think that will always be my strongest Dale Earnhardt memory!