Car Numbers Should Live On
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.