With Earnhardt gone, Burton could become leader of the pack

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

March 04, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Inside the Winston Cup garage area, one pressing question after the Feb. 18 death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt is this: Who will step into his leadership role?

Earnhardt always led. He always said what he believed, never seeming to care whose feathers he ruffled. He loved NASCAR and Winston Cup racing, but that didn't mean he'd just roll over and accept whatever the rulemakers for the sport did.

When he didn't like something, he squawked -- loud and long.

Last year, he ranted so much -- going so far as to say NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. "would roll over in his grave" if he knew how NASCAR had taken racing out of racing -- he got the rule changes he wanted. He called those who complained about driving too fast and too close "candy" you-know-whats. And when NASCAR changed the rules in time for the fall race at Talladega, which would turn out to be the last race Earnhardt would win -- he was the biggest cheerleader.

He was still cheerleading at Daytona two weeks ago. Cars were bumper to bumper lap after lap, but he felt under the current rules, cars were capable of making passes if drivers knew what they were doing.

"I'm so glad that they've put the driver back into the equation," he said the Friday before the 500. "That's all I've ever wanted."

But the equation, as we now all know, proved fatal.

And now the Winston Cup drivers are looking for a new voice.

Whose will it be? Who will lead?

Rusty Wallace said he wouldn't mind taking issues to NASCAR. But Wallace has never really been a voice of reason.

Jeff Gordon could do it. He has the stature. At this point, he is the only active driver with three Winston Cup championships. And he always has been insightful and reflective.

But it doesn't appear to be a role he seeks. "I'm not looking to fill Dale Earnhardt's shoes," Gordon said last weekend.

The voice that is being heard clearly is that of Jeff Burton. He hasn't won a championship, but the Ford driver always has shown a willingness to hold his ground on the track and off.

The message he offers is different from Earnhardt's. Earnhardt was all about driving and racing hard. Burton drives hard, but the message he carries is one of caution and safety.

In January, he was talking about the work he was doing on his seat, trying to remodel it so that he could use the HANS (Head And Neck Support) device.

And he was angry.

"We should be wearing it," he said. "We should be more progressive. To hell with all this macho stuff. If we can improve safety and have great races, why not? But drivers reject it. They act like they want it to be dangerous, and it baffles me.

"I'm not afraid of getting hurt. But I don't want to die."

He was already being listened to then. And now, more and more, it is his voice that is being raised above the rumble.

NASCAR has never wanted its drivers to be an organized group. It is NASCAR that drives the bus. But though drivers shy away when the word union is mentioned, they are talking about organizing a safety committee.

NASCAR says drivers don't need a committee. NASCAR says it listens to its drivers' ideas. It says its doors are open to all to come and give their ideas freely.

But at Rockingham, driver Todd Bodine said it would be better if there were a "committee that would gather in the ideas. Then, instead of having a lot of people running to NASCAR, have one or two well-thought-out suggestions presented."

Certainly drivers should have a voice in their sport. A loud voice.

If they get one, if they become a force off the racetrack as well as on, Burton may well be the man who leads them.

"The key is to not let it die down," Burton said. "The safety issue is being put right in drivers' faces now, whether they want it or not. And we need to be willing to spend time, energy and effort, even money if we have to, to make ourselves available to help with the problem. And I think NASCAR needs to be a little more open to listening to us in a formal setting."

Giving comfort

Richard Snider, manager of the Hubbard Funeral Home on Wilkens Avenue, thought people in the area needed a place to share their sorrow and pay their respects after Earnhardt's death.

So, Snider made a memorial book available for fans to sign.

More than 3,000 folks came.

"It was amazing," said Snider, who put the book in an upstairs room, so fans could gather, sign their names and share stories without bothering other mourners at the home. "They dressed for the occasion. They came in Dale Earnhardt hats, jackets, T-shirts and sweat shirts. There were grown men here who were crying and not ashamed of it.

"And nearly all the people who attended other funerals here made the trip upstairs to sign the book."

A few people sent flowers. Others brought letters and cards. Two people each brought life-size cutouts of Earnhardt and left them in the room during the four-day signing period. Some stayed for hours sharing stories and showing pictures of themselves taken with the driver or his car.

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