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Itís Great To Be King by Steve Samples
Shame on Richard Petty. Stock car racing's all time winningest driver has dared to criticize NASCAR's most recently departed superstar. The gall. Suggesting that Dale Earnhardt was "not really a dominant driver," and "just did Ok" against Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. What motive could there be for such disrespect? Was Richard upset because Dale was close to breaking his record for Winston Cup titles? Was there a silent feud between the Petty's and Earnhardt's, as might be suggested by Dale Jr's comment that he didn't call the Petty's after Adam died? Frankly, I believe the answer to those questions is no. To understand Petty's comments, you have to have been around for awhile-- a long while.
In Richard Petty's era things were different. At the race track everyone played by the same rules. Ditto for basketball, football, and every other sport. There were no Michael Jordan's who were allowed to push off a defender, even on the last shot of their career, without being called for a foul. There were no Darryl Strawberry's who got a second, a third, and a fourth chance to "repair" their lives. And there were no Dale Earnhardt's who were allowed to spin competitors at will, with NASCAR always looking in the other direction. Yes, I know he "was just racing." But a lot of other drivers have raced in NASCAR over the years and have never been given the green light to win "by any means necessary." Even the politically powerful and adored Curtis Turner was suspended by the sanctioning body for once trying to organize a drivers union. And Curtis had his thumbs mashed by Bill France for reckless driving time and again.
You see, in Petty's era a foul was a foul. A drug addict was expelled from the major leagues forever. And a driver who ran over competitors on his way to the finish line was fined, and retaliated upon the following Sunday. In the latter case NASCAR did tend to look away. It was racing's version of the brush back pitch. You go after me, I go after you.
The nobility of sport was different then. When superstars died, they were buried, mourned, and the next day life went on. No one held up two fingers on each hand in the ensuing races after Fireball Roberts died. And in many ways Fireball's death was more tragic than Earnhardt's. Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was only 34 when he died as a result of injuries suffered in a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1964. He was in his racing prime, and shared the superstar spotlight with only two other drivers-- his teammate Fred Lorenzen and Richard Petty.
Unlike Earnhardt, Roberts was not killed instantly. He suffered a miserable death with burns over 70% of his body. He was in Charlotte Memorial Hospital for five agonizing weeks before passing. The day after his death the sports pages ran headlines. Drivers commented on his contributions to racing and he was buried. There were no Fireball Roberts shirts to buy the following week. No models of his famous number 22 Ford, no Fireball Roberts crayons, or memorial pictures. No lunch boxes or radios with his likeness. He was allowed to pass with dignity. Life went on.
Today things are different. Maybe better, maybe worse, but definitely different. When a superstar competes, it seems that he is given a different set of rules than his competitors. When he makes a mistake, people look away. When he dies, he is canonized.
The marketing of a man's death can be larger than the marketing of his life. Enter Elvis. Enter Dale Earnhardt. Millions of dollars will exchange hands this year. Estates will grow. People will become rich. All Richard Petty was saying is that Dale Earnhardt was not God. He was a race driver. And he is now gone. Forever. Let the man rest in peace, and don't ever forget there were other people who did the same thing that Dale Earnhardt did, and did it just as well. One such man was Fireball Roberts. Another was Richard Petty.
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