Car Numbers Should Live On

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Prior to yesterday’s marathon coverage of the rain-delayed Daytona 500, there was –what I thought – an unusual amount of hand-wringing over the fact that there would be a car carrying the No.3 for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was fatally injured in the 2001 Daytona 500. Some seemed to think it was too soon, while others seemed to think it should be permanently retired.

For those that follow NASCAR even less than I do, Dale Earnhardt’s car owner, Richard Childress, has not run the No.3 on any of his Cup cars since the day Earnhardt lost his life. The following week after his fatal crash, Kevin Harvick showed up in the Goodwrench-sponsored car made famous by Earnhardt. But instead of carrying the familiar black paint scheme, the car was mostly white and was carrying the No.29. Harvick stayed with Richard Childress up until this season. While the paint scheme changed through the years and Goodwrench eventually left, Harvick continued to carry No.29, while the No.3 had been unused since the day Earnhardt died.

That all changed yesterday when the grandson of Richard Childress, Austin Dillon, started yesterday’s Daytona 500 from the pole (curiously enough) in the No. 3. Dillon led the first lap, but dropped like a stone after that. When the rains came on Lap 38, Dillon had climbed his way back to tenth. After a lengthy rain-delay, things finally got going again at around 8:30 Daytona time. Dillon was caught up in the pileup on Lap 145, initiated the crash on Lap 162 and another one on Lap 194. The No.3 car somehow managed to bang its way to an ugly ninth place finish. Coincidentally, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the race that saw the return of the No.3.

I’m not sure I understand those that thought it was too soon. After all – it’s been thirteen years. Bill Clinton was less than a month removed from the White House and the Twin Towers were still standing when Earnhardt lost his life. I’d like to know what these people thought would be an appropriate mourning period for Earnhardt.

As I noted when Dan Wheldon lost his life, death affects different people in different ways. Some try to move on quickly and get back to normalcy as soon as possible. Others do their best to have perpetual tributes in order to keep memories alive forever. I grew up in a time when racing deaths were not that uncommon. You mourned a driver’s passing, but you didn’t dwell on it. You moved on.

For the remainder of that 2001 season, and a couple of subsequent seasons, I always felt a little awkward to see all fans holding up three fingers on Lap Three of every NASCAR race, while the announcers fell silent. Once I was in a sports bar in Charlotte, NC a few months after Earnhardt’s crash when a NASCAR race started. Almost on cue, when the race hit Lap Three – the place went silent while most patrons held up their three fingers. I abstained – not out of any dislike for Earnhardt, it just felt too weird.

Most know I’m not a huge fan of NASCAR. I will always watch the Daytona 500. It’s their signature event. Although I’m not an NBA fan, I’ll generally watch some of the NBA Finals – just because. But I’ll never consider myself more than a casual NASCAR fan. That’s why I never realized what a different breed an Earnhardt fan was until after Earnhardt’s death. How else can you explain the death threats against Sterling Marlin, just a few days after Earnhardt’s death – simply because he was involved in the accident?

Their devotion to the No.3 defies logic. I’m all about tradition and superstition. If a driver wants to keep his or her lucky number, like Tony Kanaan and the No.11 – I’m all for it. But after a driver has retired, been forced to retire due to injury or even died while driving – I think the number should continue to be used. Adam Petty lost his life driving car No.45. His father, Kyle, changed his own number to No.45 as a tribute. Kenny Irwin was carrying No.42 when he was fatally injured. His car was renumbered No.01 for the remainder of the season, but the No.42 returned the following year.

I’ve never been a fan of retiring numbers, whether it’s in racing or other sports. There are only two numbers between one and ten that are not retired by the New York Yankees; No.2 and No.6. I’m fairly certain that Derek Jeter’s No.2 will be retired after his playing days are over at the end of the season. That would leave just No.6 as the lowest number available until you get to No.11. Altogether, there are seventeen numbers not available for use by the New York Yankees. That’s a little much.

Organizations may “unofficially” retire a number. Running back Eddie George has not played for the Titans in over a decade. His number was never retired but there has never been a player for the Titans wearing No.27 since. How official are retired numbers anyway? When Peyton Manning went from the Colts to Denver, he was prepared to wear No.16 – his number as a Tennessee Vol. No.18 had been retired for years by the Broncos, honoring their first QB Frank Tripucka. Whether it was the idea of Tripucka, who recently passed away, or the Broncos – Manning was told he could and should wear No.18, although it had been retired for decades.

As far as I know, there are no retired numbers in the IndyCar Series. CART retired two numbers – No.14 when AJ Foyt retired from driving and No.99 after Greg Moore was fatally injured in the 1999 season finale at Fontana. Since the merger, those retirements have not been recognized. Sam Schmidt has been associated with the No.99 since that was his number when he sustained his injuries in a practice crash in Orlando. Since then, it has been carried on cars owned by Schmidt. AJ Foyt is still an active car owner, but if the day comes when he or his team is no longer involved – I’m not sure that number is protected. Being the huge fan of Foyt that I am, some may be surprised to learn that I don’t think it should be.

The No.14 was made famous to my generation by Foyt. But several other famous drivers carried that number prior to Foyt, who first carried it in 1967. Foyt won the Indianapolis 500 twice while carrying the No.14. Bill Vukovich and Louis Meyer combined for three more victories while carrying the number. Other famous names that carried No.14 at some point in their Indy car careers include Lloyd Ruby, Johnny Boyd, Troy Ruttman, Roger McCluskey, Don Branson Fred Agabashian, Tony Bettenhausen, Wilbur Shaw and Lou Moore. Should Foyt lay claim to any more success with that number, than Bill Vukovich?

To see the impressive list of drivers that have carried the No. 3 in NASCAR reads like a racing who’s who. Newer NASCAR fans tend to think that Dale Earnhardt invented the No.3, but many, many more had success with it prior to The Intimidator. Names like Hershel McGriff, Dick Rathmann (brother of the 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner Jim Rathmann), Paul Goldsmith, Tim Flock, Cotton Owens, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Lee Roy Yarbrough, Buddy Baker, Fred Lorenzen, Richard Childress and Ricky Rudd all had stints driving the No.3. Even our own Al Unser drove car No.3 in NASCAR at Riverside in 1968.

Earnhardt will forever be linked to car No.3, but others will find success in it – just as Foyt found success in the number so closely linked to Bill Vukovich. Dan Wheldon drove No.26 to his first Indianapolis 500 win. Car No.98 carried him to his second. Later that season, he was driving car No.77 when he lost his life. All three of those car numbers have run since his untimely death, as well they should.

I’ll never forget Dan Wheldon, Greg Moore or Dale Earnhardt. But are the deaths of Paul Dana, Jeff Krosnoff or Jovy Marcelo considered less tragic? I doubt if their families think so. If you retire one number when someone perishes on the track, you should do it for all. Unfortunately, over time – you may run out of numbers. Retiring a number does not preserve memories I have of drivers or athletes. I think seeing the number continue in competition is a far more lasting tribute.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “Car Numbers Should Live On”

  1. Yes George, Foyt first used 14 in 1967 but he didn’t use it again until 1973, and as we know he used it continually from that year through 1993. He won three of his record seven National Championships with it in 1967, ’75 and ’79. Foyt chose that number following his disastrous 1966 campaign where he finished 13th in the points and didn’t want to carry that number the next year, and 14 was the next available.

    Now I’m no NASCAR fan (and NOT EVEN an Earnhardt fan at ALL), but to equate a record-tying seven-time National Champion like Dale Earnhardt to Jovy, Greg, or whomever is comparing apples and oranges. Yes, every life is precious, but after years of wins and National Championships one tends to build up an army of die-hard fans, just like you and I are with Foyt. It is really not a fair comparison, in my humble opinion. I do understand why folks would want to retire a number (think Babe Ruth), but on the other hand I think it is incredibly cool that Tony Stewart called his long-time idol Foyt to ask for his blessing to wear the number 14 in NASCAR. I love seeing it out there, but I am not sure what I will think about it in IndyCar when Foyt no longer owns that number.

  2. I sent out four simple words in a tweet yesterday that sent sparks flying. “It’s just a number…”

    Now, I realize the enormous talent and following that Dale Sr had, but lets be honest, no one driver is bigger than the sport. You want to retire a number because it’s associated with a great driver? No, that is what the Hall of Fame is for. The driver, not the number.

    As you mentioned George, it’s been 13 years since the accident. In today’s society of here and now, instantaneous, go-go-go, it would hardly seem “too soon” to run the number, as some fans suggest.

    This notion that “numbers are everything” in racing is simply stupid. Was there an uproar the first time someone used the number 2 on a car in Formula 1 after Ayrton Senna died? Of course not…

    I understand (in NASCAR) that fans associate numbers with drivers, but I have some advice for them. Look around. Things are changing constantly, including your beloved numbers. What number do you associate Kurt Busch with? 97, 2, 51, 78, 41 ?

    How about Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, or even Dale Jr? These numbers, along with most everything else in life, change. It’s about time the fans that are angry about this issue do too.

  3. In racing there are only two numbers that should ever be retired, both used by the premier “legends of the sport.” Those are the number 14 of A. J. Foyt in IndyCar and the number 43 of Richard Petty in NASCAR. All other bets are off, although if he wins another NASCAR championship or two, I MIGHT have to add the number 48 of Jimmie Johnson.

    • I usually think of Vukovich first when I see the number 14.

      • Why is that? He only used it twice in the five years he raced IndyCars, in 1953 & ’54. In 1955 he was running the number 4. In 1951 in was 81 and in 1952 it was 26. AJ Foyt, on the other hand, used it 21 years in a row, from 1973 to 1993 (he had it once in 1967 as well), and has used it on his cars he has entered ever since, over 40 years! I don’t see how anyone could possibly think of Bill Vukovich when one sees that number 14 on an IndyCar track, I really don’t, but, whatever….

  4. Why retire numbers? Seems crazy to me. To many NASCAR fans Dale was a God! However, lose belts and a wall at 190 MPH ends it all. Time marches on. I hope people remember Earnhardt, Foyt, etc. 100 years from now but I doubt it. Life also goes on.

    Good Blog!

  5. I am all for putting a name and a number in the rafters to honor a great player, but no one should be bigger than the team or the sport. Retiring a number gives that impression. Gretzky’s 99 is retired in Columbus? I can’t recall any of his dazzling play in Nationwide Arena for the Jackets.

  6. I don’t think Austin Dillon in that #3 car endeared himself to the other drivers last night. He seemed to overdrive the car and caused a number of wrecks.

  7. I don’t really think that numbers should be retired but I am not upset that some people think it should be. My big issue was that Fox kept making a big deal about it. It was a story and deserved coverage, but Fox just wouldn’t stop. Further the fact Dillon would drive the three has been known since the time he first won in Nationwide. Anyone paying attention knew he’d be in Cup, and everyone knew he’d be in the 3. So it’s not a new story, and to treat it like it is is kind of dumb.

  8. TimNothhelfer Says:

    If you invested some hard currency in a black #3 flag with Dale’s signature, would you want it confused with any other driver when you display it?

    • So drivers never change teams or move on? Makes no sense… I had a #14 sticker on my bike in 1993, so I guess I should be salty about that revealing my interest in Sato now? lol

  9. Truthfully, numbers 00-99 are simply numbers. None should be permanently retired. Perhaps a one-year moratorium, but not forever. But people tend to be nostalgic (especially race fans, and particularly we IndyCar fans). Someone like Austin Dillon in the 3 is a good choice to carry on the reputation associated with that car. No disrespect to him, but would it be the same if Ryan Newman was chosen to replace the Stewart/Haas-bound Kevin Harvick, and the 29 became the 3?

    Don’t mistake the death threats made against Sterling Marlin as consensus from Earnhardt’s fan base. That was a small percentage of grieving fans who took their feelings to an extreme. I hated Sterling for a while after the crash, but I was only 11 at the time (doesn’t every 11 year old behave rationally?), and in time I realised it was simply a racing accident and by no means deliberate. I actually came to like Marlin; you never had to see your TV screen to know he was being interviewed. Fun driver, and good behind the wheel, too.

  10. I can’t wait for REAL racing to come on. I wasted a day watching that farce of a race and then watched Dale Jr jump 2 restarts to a blind eye when a guy did it in 2011 got black flagged. I just can’t take it anymore. So I told the VP of NASCAR on Twitter that and he said “so long”. Yes, so long it is….. Nothing last forever though and someday, The folks in Charlotte might be facing the challenges Indycar has recently…

    Now on to car numbers. No way, never retire them, sorry. Let others have that legacy. And speaking of that, NASCAR holding that 3 for just RCR is wrong, anyone who wanted that number should have been allowed to run it since 2001 if no one else was. Childress skirted the 4 car limit many years when NASCAR let him buy the number to use and not use it….

  11. The best tribute was when Keck presented Vuky’s “Fuel Injection Special” to the IMS Museum without the drive shaft. Nobody was going to get behind the wheel of the car of the Great Bill Vukovich.

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