From Darkness Into Light

February 18th, 2001. A day that NASCAR fans will remember forever. It was the start of a new season. The Daytona 500! It began with so much hope and ended in deep tragedy! It had the highest of highs and a low that no one would have thought possible. It was the first win of his career for Michael Waltrip, a veteran with much never realized potential and it was the day that NASCAR lost it’s biggest icon, Dale Earnhardt.

On the last lap of the Daytona 500, with his friend, the new driver of his new second team, leading the race, Dale Earnhardt crashed in turn 3 and died of severe head trauma. A fatal basilar skull fracture that killed him instantly. In what would have been one of his proudest moments, watching his friend win NASCAR biggest race, Dale did not live to see it. Triumph and tragedy in the distance from turn 3 to the finish line. A quarter of a lap.

As Michael Waltrip, joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr., celebrated Michael’s crowning career achievement and a 1-2 finish for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, safety crews were trying to extract Dale Sr. from his wrecked car. Waltrip, Junior and the rest of the NASCAR world had no idea that the world as they knew it had already changed. There would be no more Intimidator. No more Man in Black. The man they had all feared on the track yet respected in the garage would no longer be there. The sport and their lives would be changed forever.

In the days following Dale’s death, there was much darkness and uncertainty for the NASCAR community. Should they race the next week? Who would replace Dale in the black #3? How do the keep from losing more drivers! They had some very tough questions to answer and the person they all looked to wasn’t there to answer them.

They did race the next weekend. Kevin Harvick stepped into the now rebranded, renumbered 29 car at RCR. Tributes were made at each track that followed with fans holding up 3 fingers on the third lap to honor Dale. Steve Park, DEI’s third driver, won the next race at North Carolina Speedway and Kevin Harvick would win 2 races later at Atlanta. Slowly, things began to return to normal.

NASCAR began the process of evaluating and changing their rules and regulations to keep their drivers safer. They created a new division dedicated to looking at how to make safety changes. They mandated the use of the recently invented HANS device for all drivers, made safety changes to the cars and began adding the SAFER barrier system to all tracks to make contact with the walls safer. In a twist of fate, the man who had shunned safety for comfort, became the catalyst for improving driver safety not just in NASCAR but all of racing.

For Dale Jr., the weeks that followed were hard and racing seemed almost impossible. His heart and his head were not into racing. He crashed hard on the very first lap of the next race and did not do well over the course of the next few races. Finally, at the Harrah’s 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Dale Jr. won the pole and finished inside the top 10 for the first time since Daytona. He followed it up 2 weeks later with a top 10 at Talladega, a top 5 finish at California, top 10 at Richmond and another top 5 at Dover. Things were turning around!

Then it was time to return to Daytona. To return to the scene of devastation. It is hard to imagine the feelings and anxiety that Dale Jr. must have been feeling. When he first arrived to the track for that weekend, he drove over to turn 3 where his life and his legacy had changed forever and made peace with it. It was one of those moments where you decide if the moment will rule you for the rest of your life of are you going to rule the moment. Over the course of that weekend and his many returns to Daytona, the choice was clear!

Dale Jr. ran well in practice and qualified lucky 13th. He would not need any luck. He made his own! It wasn’t long before Jr. was running at the front of the field. He led 111 of the first 140 laps and was in 6th after a caution on lap 151. The green flag dropped again on lap 155 and it didn’t take him long to pass the other 5 cars. Having been in attendance that day, I can tell you that when he took the lead that final time, it was pandemonium! There was not a single seat in use, there was not a single silent voice and every hand was either clapping or raised in triumph! When finally crossed the finish line to seal the moment, there were few dry eyes.

In that moment, Dale Jr. became a new man. He had found joy again. He could celebrate again. To add to the moment, Michael Waltrip who had been able to celebrate the greatest win of his career and arguably the greatest moment in any drivers career, was finally able to celebrate too. Two men who had experienced the greatest losses of their lives 6 months earlier embraced and rejoiced in a moment that was like something written from a fairy tale or big budget Hollywood script. The rest of us were happy to be along for the ride and to play a bit part in one of the greatest stories in all of sports.

Moments of healing on such a grand scale are hard to find. Even if you were not a Dale Earnhardt Sr. fan, you relished in hating or rooting against him. He was the man in black. The Intimidator! When that person is gone, there is a void. All of NASCAR mourned his loss. Good or bad. Could it ever be the same again? Who were you going to root for! Who were you going to root against? That night in Daytona, all those questions were answered and everything felt right again in the world.

Virtual Racing Champion

What was the first racing game that made you feel like a racing pro? What was the first game where you truly felt like you were actually driving a race or sports car for real? Was it an arcade game? Maybe a PC game or was it a console game?

When I was a kid, we were lucky to have possibly one of the best arcades in the country. Fun & Games Arcade in Framingham, MA. It opened in 1974 and at it’s height it had hundreds of games. Anything from Qbert and PacMan to Pole Position and more pinball machines than you can imagine. It was nirvana to any kid with a paper route and a pocket full of quarters.

Even as a young boy, I was drawn to the racing games. At the arcade, the bulk of my quarters seemed to find their way into Pole Position, Outrun, Manx TT Super Bike, NASCAR Arcade and the more realistic F355 Challenge. It was a thrill to grab the wheel, push the pedal to the metal and put yourself up against your friends, the high score or fastest lap time!

I can still remember the first time me and my friends discovered Papyrus’ NASCAR Racing on PC. It was a game changer! It opened up a whole new world of online racing. It was the first time you could sit behind a wheel and pedals in your own home and race against other people online with no need for quarters. We would try to race a full Daytona 500 or Talladega 400. Switching off at each pit stop. It was a true team experience and you just hoped you weren’t the one to put the car in the wall.

The early PC games were great and certainly game changers but they still felt somewhat arcade like. The first game that I remember truly feeling that I was wheeling an actual car around a race track was Viper Racing. The graphics were still more PacMan than Forza but it was one of the first games to account for pitch and yaw in the handling of the cars. When you drifted through a corner, it felt like you were really spinning the tires and getting the car sideways rather than sliding on a sheet of ice hoping the car would catch before you would careen off the track. It definitely added a new level of realism.

The next leap in realism that I can remember was the Need for Speed series by EA Sports. These games had the realism of Viper Racing and took the graphics to a new level! They even had a special “render” version for people who had the top of the line graphics cards that really made the cars and environment look almost like the real thing. They were also the first games that gave me a sensation of speed. The icing on the cake was a line up of licensed cars that would have looked great on any young boys wall. From a Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s to Porsche’s and police cars.

The next big leap in PC games for me was the iRacing game from Red Sox owner John Henry and Roush Fenway Racing. This is considered one of the most hardcore racing simulations with tracks and cars rendered in the most realistic detail. Each track and car are laser scanned down to the littlest detail. They also brought a driver licensing and rating systems that fairly pairs drivers to others who are at the same level of driving skill. The one downside is that it is a subscription service where most tracks and cars must be purchased to be able to race them.

I was a late comer to the console racing scene but have become hooked to the Gran Turismo series for PS4. It is a great mix of all the games I have played in the past. It has the graphics, the realism, the cars and tracks and has regular free updates that offer new cars, tracks and events that keep it fresh. It also has a great community system to help you find and connect with fellow racers and some of the best paint customization I have seen in any game. One of the things it lacks is a car customization when it comes to mechanical and body upgrades but each car is very adjustable when it comes to shocks, transmission and other handling attributes. The other knock is that the online racing can sometimes devolve into a smash up derby like atmosphere and the penalty system leaves something to be desired.

What does the future hold for racing games and simulators? I am not sure but I very much look forward to the next leap in technology! What ever the next level brings us to, I can guarantee that we will likely not be disappointed!

Racers! Start your engines!

We all had to start somewhere! Somebody or something piqued your interest in cars, racing and racing games. Was it your dad? Big brother? Uncle? Was it a car that caught your eye? Was it the rumble of it’s exhaust? Maybe the smell or burnt rubber when it peeled out?

For me, it was my dad. He came of age in the late 50’s and early 60’s when the car culture really started to take off. Rock and Roll was all about hot rods and drag racing. The custom car hobby became more than just a fad. American car manufacturers started to get heavily involved in drag racing, Indy cars and NASCAR. It was the birth of the slogan, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday!” And he was knee deep in it.

Some of my earliest car memories are of my dad taking my brother and I to the now defunct Westborough Speedway in Westborough, MA and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire. I don’t really remember the cars or the races but I became hooked on the smells and sounds of racing. The smell or raw unburnt gasoline! The smell of hot, burnt rubber rising off tires pressed to their limit! The chest thumping roar of open headers and wail of pistons pushed to the point of wanting to launch out of their engines and through the hood of the cars! Udder chaos and I loved it!