At the Altar of Speed: The Fast Life and Tragic Death of Dale Earnhardt

At the Altar of Speed: The Fast Life and Tragic Death of Dale Earnhardt

4.5 10
by Leigh Montville

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He was The Intimidator. A nightmare in the rear-view mirror. A unique winner in the boardroom. A seven-time Winston Cup champion. A driver whose personal success story and dedication inspired the adoration of millions of fans. Then on February 18, 2001, just seconds from the Daytona 500 finish line, the world of stock-car racing suffered a devastating loss as DaleSee more details below


He was The Intimidator. A nightmare in the rear-view mirror. A unique winner in the boardroom. A seven-time Winston Cup champion. A driver whose personal success story and dedication inspired the adoration of millions of fans. Then on February 18, 2001, just seconds from the Daytona 500 finish line, the world of stock-car racing suffered a devastating loss as Dale Earnhardt fatally careened into a track wall. The tragic shock waves, and an unprecedented outpouring of respect and love, have not stopped since.

At the Altar of Speed takes readers behind the scenes of Earnhardt's celebrated life, tracing his rags-to-riches journey to the top of America's fastest-growing sport. Beginning with Earnhardt's early days growing up in small-town North Carolina, veteran sports writer Leigh Montville examines how a ninth-grade dropout started on the dusty dirt tracks of the South, went through two marriages and a string of no-future jobs before turning twenty-five, then took about a million left turns to glory. Through the pitfalls and triumphs, Earnhardt would ultimately become a celebrated champion, whose lifetime earnings would top forty-one million dollars. The son of a legendary racer, the father of a NASCAR star, he lived a total auto-racing life filled with triumph and sadness, great joy and great pain.

Transporting readers to the colorful, noisy world of stock-car racing, where powerful engines allow drivers to reach speeds of 200 m.p.h., At the Altar of Speed vividly captures the man who drove the black No. 3 car, a man whose determination and inner strength left behind a legacy of greatness that has redefined his sport. Illustrated with a section of full-color photographs, At the Altar of Speed is a tribute to both the man and his unbeatable spirit.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
NASCAR brand stock car racing in the last ten years has rocketed past all other forms of American automobile racing (paved and dirt oval, road course, dragstrip) in terms of spectator popularity at the track and on television. Well read by Grover Gardner, this story of the racing career of Earnhardt combines a fascinating portrait of the late stock car driver and legend with an equally interesting account of NASCAR's transition from a regional, good ol' boy sport to today's phenomenon. Montville builds his portrait of the enigmatic Earnhardt from interviews ranging from his son, Dale Jr., and other NASCAR stars to old-timers hanging around the store in Kannapolis, NC. The author seems to paint a fair picture of Earnhardt that, love him or hate him, describes the extraordinary effect he had on everyone who knew him or followed his career. The "Intimidator": tough, talented country boy makes good and dies doing what he loves best. Essential for sports and biographical collections.-Cliff Glaviano, Bowling Green State Univ. Libs., OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sports Illustrated senior writer Montville (Manute, 1993) puts a lot of twangy energy into this biography of stock-car great Dale Earnhardt, who died this year after hitting the wall on the final turn of the final lap at Daytona. Stock-car racing has come a long way from its moonshiner and revenue-agent roots, and Earnhardt is a kind of poster boy for the transformation: a man who drove as if his hair were on fire, a fearless southern boy who loved to draft along on another's bumper at 200 mph, who could come out of nowhere to win at the wire, all the while flipping the finger at any driver daring to impede his progress, who nonetheless learned to wear neckties, attend board meetings, and submit to public-relations handlers. Still, "he brought the dirt track with him into the big time," says Montville in what approaches an idolatrous voice: Earnhardt was dangerous and fun, pretty much the embodiment of stock-car racing, and his fans were legion. Montville traces Earnhardt's racing life, through all the junkers and crashes and tiny dirt tracks, the long wait for a good car and asphalt, his friendship with Neil Bonnett (drivers don't often become friends: "Do you want to get close to someone who might not be around in the near future?"), right up to the Learjets and yachts. Then his death at Daytona, a race he had finally won a couple years before after 19 tries. Montville works a little too hard at being thunderstruck by Earnhardt's death, with stunted sentences to convey his distraction and disbelief-"Seven titles. Six in a nine-year span. Who could argue with this kind of success? He was the best. Maybe the best who ever lived"-that compromise the embrace of his narrative.A private man uncomfortable with words, Earnhardt was no biographer's dream, but Montville draws a forceful portrait, letting the evolving atmosphere of NASCAR and Earnhardt's achievements speak for themselves. (Color photographs, not seen)

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

AT THE ALTAR - A man in Cocoa Beach, Fl. plowed a giant, 353-foot No. 3 in his pasture. He said he just wanted to do it. To honor Dale…

A thirty-five-year-old tow truck operator in Kenosha, Wisconsin. finished work, picked up his son and his father and started driving. Twenty hours later, they were in Mooresville in front of the offices of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Just wanted to be there. He said he had left money with friends back in Kenosha to rent a billboard to say goodbye to Dale…

A traveler from Los Angeles reported on the internet that he was near Daytona Beach, taking pictures of a Titan rocket launch from the Space Center a week after the accident. The contrails from the rocket, moved by the wind, formed a giant No. 3 in the sky. He posted a picture…

The proprietor of Tropical Tattoos in Daytona Beach, Fl. said he did a number of Dale Earnhardt tattoos on a number of bodies. He said he did two on the Monday after the accident…

Crowds gathered. People cried.

Everywhere you looked, if you looked hard enough, there seemed to be a tribute. Something….


The intelligent head argued with the intelligent eyes. That was the thing. The eyes saw the severity of the crash. The eyes had seen other crashes in other places, the same speed, the same angle, the same unmerciful thud against a concrete wall. The eyes knew something terrible had happened. The intelligent head knew Dale Earnhardt was involved. He would be all right.

Eyes vs. head. What was a television color commentator supposed to say?

"How about Dale?" Darrell Waltrip asked into his Fox Sports microphone late on that Sunday afternoon of February 18, 2001. "I hope he's OK."

"Of course he's OK," the head screamed in response. "That's Dale. He walks away. Dale Earnhardt. He always walks away."

"I just hope Dale's OK," Waltrip said again into his microphone. "I guess he's all right, isn't he?"

The emotions that crowded inside the broadcast booth at the Daytona International Speedway were too much, too much, way too much to handle. Jesus, Good Lord, they were. Look out the window at one spot on the track and there was the surprise winner of the Daytona 500, Michael Waltrip, Darrell Waltrip's thirty-seven-year-old baby brother, off on a victory lap in his yellow NAPA No. 15 car, happier than happy after capturing the biggest stock car race in all Creation, first win in his life in his 463rd race…look at another spot on the track and there was Dale.

Was he all right?

The monitors in the control truck blinked out all the color-camera choices. Happy winner. Happy. Live. Crash on tape. The black No. 3 car is going all right, going all right, wait a minute, nudged, going left, going right - slow it down - that's the No. 36 car, the yellow car, Kenny Schrader, coming in from the side, the M&M's car, hits the No. 3 car and they go into the wall together and, wow, everything flies everywhere. Crash live. The car is back on the grass, rolled down the embankment from the wall. What are they doing? Why isn't Dale crawling out of there? The rescue workers have arrived. Maybe he broke a leg. Maybe the side was caved in. Boy, is he going to be pissed at somebody. Won't he? Where is Dale?

Way too much.

The voices from the truck came through Darrell Waltrip's ear piece and joined the voice in his head. Dale will be fine. Dale has been in about a billion of these crashes, much worse than this one. If he comes out of that car soon enough, we may even get a word with him. Won't that be a hoot? The eyes of Waltrip, a fifty-four-year-old man who had driven for thirty years, won 84 races and three Winston Cup championships, knew better. They had seen just about all of the good things and all of the bad that can happen on a race track. This was bad.

"This is bad," he told the voices in the truck.

The other color man in the booth, Larry McReynolds, was pretty much speechless. He didn't know what to say. This was his debut as a color commentator after a lifetime of work as a race car mechanic. For two years in his career, he had been Dale Earnhardt's crew chief. He trained his binoculars on the activity around the mangled No. 3 car down the track, the car he once had treated with the same love and care he gave his children, and found himself paralyzed by the inner debate.

"Schrader is looking in the car…backing off in a hurry…that's not good…oh, could be anything…maybe Dale's unconscious…

"The emergency crew is reaching inside, working on him…that could be something bad. No, that could be anything…

"The emergency crew is cutting off the roof…that's not good…then, again, it's standard procedure. If Dale broke something…

"They're putting him on a stretcher, taking him to the ambulance…OK, that's standard procedure…

"They're covering up the car…

"The ambulance is not going very fast…


The idea that the greatest driver in NASCAR history could crash and die on the final turn of the final lap of the biggest race on the NASCAR schedule simply did not compute. Especially if that driver was Dale Earnhardt.

From the Hardcover edition.

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