Mark Cole Pays Tribute

22 February 2001

Mark Cole has forwarded these words, which compliment Andrew Hartwell’s remarks earlier in the week. It seems that if you were lucky enough to have met the man, you were touched by his brilliance. Mark did meet Dale earnhardt, at the Rolex 24, and like so many others, is still coming to terms with what happened two weeks later. Ed.

Like anyone with the remotest interest in motorsport, I was hit hard by the news of Dale Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the Daytona 500. The Intimidator, like Ayrton Senna seven years earlier, was surely also The Invincible?

The crash reminded us all that underneath the bravado and hype there was a human being as vulnerable as the rest of us.

In my case, after years of reading and watching Dale's exploits as the 'Elvis of Sport' - as "The Times" cleverly termed him - there was added poignancy as I had met and enjoyed the company of the great man just two weeks earlier at the Rolex 24.

Away from the Winston Cup glitz and glory, Dale Earnhardt was a man who loved to race, and was almost endearingly naive about his first sportscar outing, along with his equally forthcoming son Dale Jr.

Get the stars on common ground - sportscar racing is a great leveller – and they will open up and talk for hours, as I have found with Paul Newman over the years at Daytona.

I am well aware there were heavy-handed problems with GM's police escort at the Rolex 24, but once you got behind that, the Earnhardts were just longing to be normal people.

I talked to Dale Sr over coffee about the Corvette programme, about Le Mans - which he said he was longing to do, schedules allowing - and about his other passions: his new boat and his new house at Charlotte. "Maybe GM is telling you all I have a plane to catch; well I don't, I have a boat to catch..."

Out on track, he was a racer and raced hard, loving every moment of it.

On camera he told me "I've had 34 wins here at Daytona, and it would be cool if we could win this one as a team, that would be a win I've never had, the Rolex race. I've won nine Rolex watches in qualifying races at Daytona, so we need to get one with these guys."

"The programme's been great, I think we've all mixed well. There's been great support from Andy (Pilgrim) and Kelly (Collins) both to work on the car, to understand the race and to understand our goal here. I think we're going to do well. I'd like to try Le Mans one day too."

That day, tragically, will never come.

I was at Mosport in 1985 when Manfred Winkelhock died, and at Spa three weeks later when Stefan Bellof was killed, both in sportscar races. I was at Imola in 1994 when both Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna died at the wheels of their Formula 1 cars. I didn't stay on for the Daytona 500 this year, and have to be thankful for that. Dale Earnhardt died at the peak of a brilliant career; the lights have gone out on the final lap of his great race.


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