Friday, March 09, 2007

A regular guy

He stands at the edge of the lake, casting his line out into the water. He's wearing a red Valvoline short-sleeved t-shirt and a pair of pants.

If you didn't know any better, you'd swear he was the guy down the street. He reminded you of somebody you've fished with, or the guy you chatted with at Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon. If you judged the book by its cover, you'd never think he was worshipped by millions.

That's the way it was with Dale Earnhardt.

I'm not a No. 3 fanatic. At best, I'm a casual NASCAR fan. I watch several races a year, usually with my dad or my longtime friend Matt Shelton.

But I always loved to watch the guy with the big mustache race.

You could relate to Dale in a way, appreciate the fact he wasn't a pretty boy or a privileged son. He came up the hard way, worked for everything he earned and became a hero to a lot of folks.

It's that Dale Earnhardt, the blue collar champion, that is celebrated in "Dale," the engaging new documentary from NASCAR Images and CMT Films. My buddy Shelton called up and asked me to go to a private showing of the film tonight at Regal Pinnacle Theater out west. It was well worth it.

The film flashed between interviews with the late Earnhardt, archival race footage and new interviews with the Intimidator's friends, family and co-workers. It was a working fan's show from the moment CCR's "Fortunate Son" blared over the opening credits.

Watching his gold and blue (and especially his later black-clad) machine come flying up behind a driver, you could almost feel the lump form in the throat of those in his way.

Dale was no saint. He knocked guys out of the way. He fought with friends, especially Darrell Waltrip. He played to win. He himself said his career took him away from his family.

But the "badass" was respected. When he finally notched the elusive Daytona 500 win in 1998, every crew member from every team lined pit road as his black Chevy took its victory lap. You may never see that again.

America has always loved a rags-to-riches story. Think of all the presidents who won the White House on such an image. It explains why a film as unassuming as "Rocky" could win Best Picture.

Dale became that kind of hero to his fans. He was the guy who'd win races on Sunday afternoon and be up at 4:30 a.m. Monday morning feeding chickens and shoveling hay on the farm. The guys who dug ditches could relate.

"Dale" will be appreciated most by those type of folks. But in its way the film is more than that, more even than a NASCAR biography. It taps into something uniquely American, this notion that a regular guy can become a star.

That, perhaps more than anything else, is why you'll forever see somebody at a NASCAR track sporting the No. 3.

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