When they asked me what I remember of the 25 years NASCAR has visited Sonoma, among all the memories one stands out. One always has stood out. Always will.
I was sitting in Dale Earnhardt's hauler, way back in the dining area, cushy sofas, table, all the luxuries, insulated from track noise, when I decided to tug on Superman's cape.
It was 1995, two days before the NASCAR race at then-Sears Point Raceway, and I was granted an interview with Earnhardt. "Granted" is the right word for it because Earnhardt then was at the height of his fame, his powers, his aura. I got an interview with The Intimidator, so I was half-expecting Earnhardt to be sitting there with a baseball bat, casually whacking his palm with it, just to remind me who he was.
Twenty minutes into it, and there was no baseball bat, I paused to take a breath. Earnhardt had been polite, affable, open, warm — yes, warm. He was generous in describing his feelings: "If I get angry at someone, I'm going to get my hands on him .<TH>.<TH>. I am a moody person, an independent person by nature ... you learn money damn sure don't buy you happiness."
It was then I decided to tug on Superman's cape.
"I am surprised I am saying this," I said, "but, you know, I don't think you are an (expletive) like your reputation makes you out to be."
I sat back on my chair, uncomfortable. In my business, it's not a good idea to call someone an expletive deleted, especially someone who is supposed to be as mean as a viper. Earnhardt remained silent for five seconds. It was the longest five seconds of my life. I kept thinking my instincts failed me this time. What an idiot.
Earnhardt leaned forward, I leaned back, and then the man broke out into a huge grin. He gave a self-deprecating shrug, like what-are-you-gonna-do, as if he just let me in on a little secret. We talked for another 10 minutes. I shook his hand on the way out. Professional athletes are good at hiding themselves, but this time I was sure I saw the real Dale Earnhardt and not a promotional construct.
I also was sure on another Friday before another NASCAR race that I got to see the real Tony Stewart. Ol' Smoke was taking a few media types on a tour of the serpentine track. Six people were in the van. You brake here ... you downshift there ... you carry speed into this corner ... then Ol' Smoke decided to lift the left side of the van off the course. He took a left turn hard, the occupants collapsed to the right and the left side of the van rose up, the tires off the ground and, I thought, I'm gonna die in a vehicle that usually carries mattresses.
"Heh, heh, heh," I could hear Stewart say to no one in particular.