There have been 20 drivers killed in the past 20 years in auto racing. Half of those are NASCAR drivers, but none have drawn the type of reaction of Dale Earnhardt's passing.
Auto racing has grown to one of America's most popular sports due in a large part to "The Intimidator's" larger than life success and image. Now, as the sport prepares for one of its darkest hours, people from all walks of life have been affected by the crash that took Earnhardt, on national television, in the final lap of the Daytona 500 Sunday.
What effect the crash will have on the popularity of the sport and the safety innovations of the future remains to be seen. But while drivers know the risks they are taking every day, there is a drive to compete that fuels them from NASCAR superstars like Rusty Wallace to the drivers who frequent the local dirt tracks of West Virginia such as Paul Wilmoth and Denny Chamberlain.
"It is something that I love to do," Wilmoth, who drives for Mark Richards Racing, said. "You know that you are taking a chance every time you strap into a race car, but the danger is always there. I don't care if you are just driving down the road. I think you are a lot safer in a race car than driving down the road because you are strapped into all the safety devices."
Wilmoth is a 12-year veteran of dirt track racing. Last season, he won the West Virginia State Championship, the Max race at Tyler County Speedway, 15 feature races and the Late Model Driver of the Year Award. Chamberlain has been driving dirt tracks since 1973 and has been a fixture at I-79 speedway and other local tracks for years.
While Earnhardt wasn't Wilmoth's favorite driver, he looked up to the former champion because he worked hard for everything he got.
"It hurt because a guy like that, everyone looks up to," he said. "Just running dirt tracks -- it is a loss because it is someone to look up to."
Wilmoth has some 25 years involved in the sport between driving and working for his father, who also drove. He said his family and friends, especially his mother, worry about him more when a high-profile accident like this occurs, but he doesn't think about it much because he loves what he is doing.
"If you strap into a race car and that is what you want to do it can't bother you," the 30-year-old said. "If it bothers you or you are scared to get hurt, you don"t need to be out there doing it in the first place."
"Once you start racing you just forget about everything you are thinking about," Chamberlain, who drives for R.H. Armstrong, said.
However, he also believes each Friday when he lines up at the race track, his loved ones are concerned.
"Some of them probably don't want to say anything about it," he said. "Like my wife. It concerns her, but most of them know that it is something that I like to do."
Both Chamberlain and Wilmoth believe the choice to use safety equipment that is not required, such as the HANS device, is not a macho issue but a comfort issue. Traveling at speeds of 180-200 miles an hour, drivers want comfort and familiarity.
"It is just like Dave Marcis and his old wing tip shoes," Chamberlain said. "You'll never see him wear fire proof shoes because that is what he is used to. I get into the same stuff. You don't want to change, even though you have something new and better."
While both drivers agree Earnhardt's death is a huge blow to the sport, Chamberlain, who was an Earnhardt fan, said he may not watch today's NASCAR race on TV. In addition, he said he knew people who had tickets that weren't going to attend.
"He probably brought NASCAR to where it is right now," Chamberlain said. "It is going to be tough for someone to pick it up and take it where is needs to go. It'll take a while to start watching it again, I think. It'll take maybe half the summer."
Race fans are true fans and they'll stay fans, he said, but it will take a while to get over Earnhardt's tragic death.
Sports writer Shawn Yonker can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.