Local fans mourn their ‘Intimidator’

By Matt Stacionis

Sycamore Speedway owner Joe Fabrizius remembers the Alabama Gang, a group of NASCAR racers who came to the Rockford Speedway in their 20s, with a combination of talent and love for the sport of auto racing.

He remembers watching the group of southern drivers and thinking they would some day leave their mark on a sport he has been involved with since 1946. He also remembers watching the charter member of the Alabama Gang — Dale Earnhardt — as he suffered his fatal collision during the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

“When he came to Rockford, him and Bobby Ellis, they came as the Alabama Gang,” Fabrizius said. “A couple of times a year, and they were really popular there. They were always up-and-coming and good. They were always superior a little bit.”

Earnhardt was entering a turn on the final lap of the race Sunday when he collided with with another car and hit the wall. He was pronounced dead a couple hours after the crash. His son, Dale Jr., and another car owned by Earnhardt finished the race first and second. Mechanic Kim Harmon feels the placings may have been symbolic, and an ending Earnhardt would have wanted.

“Like his kid said, ‘It’s the way Dale was and the way he races,'” Harmon recalled. “Life goes on — just keep going. The world doesn’t stop. But when you think about it, what’s the rest of the year going to be like? He could have won his eighth championship.”

Harmon, a die-hard Earnhardt fan, also reflected on the crash.

“It didn’t look like a big hit to me,” he said. “But as fast as they’re going nowadays, any little thing [can happen.] I’ve seen worse hits, but sometimes your time is up.”

Harmon has watched Earnhardt since the 1970s. He is grateful to Earnhardt for bringing NASCAR the much-needed publicity it deserves, making it the No. 2 overall sport and the No. 1 fastest growing sport in America. In the South, the sport has a strong following, comparable to baseball in the North.

Southern states tend to produce better racers, like Earnhardt and Ellis, and when they toured places like Rockford and the Illinois/Wisconsin state line, they always drew a big crowd. That crowd was something that followed Earnhardt throughout his career.

“A lot of people would watch one or two races to see him do something that made him earn his name The Intimidator. And they would watch next week just to see what he was going to do,” Harmon said. “He brought a lot of fans in. A lot of people watch it.”

But Harmon feels that the sport’s following may decline, as Earnhardt was one of the last big-name racers left. He said that people like Kyle Petty and Earnhardt were recognizable, and now, a strong leader lacks the circuit. He also said that even though the death was a result of the crash, NASCAR should not be left to blame. He said that the cars used on NASCAR are safer than those used in leagues like the Indy Car Series.

“I’ve seen him up, and I’ve seen him down,” Harmon said. “I’ve seen the good years, and I’ve seen the bad years. I was really getting excited now because he has his son going. He was excited about that. Everybody else was backing his son just as much as they were him.”

Earnhardt’s death, whether he is succeeded or not, will have a lasting effect on racing fans. He may have even been the last in a different era of drivers.

“He was the last of the ‘Good Ol’ Boys,” Fabrizius said. “They have built a reputation the last 40 years. It’s going to be hard for someone to fill his