Respect for the Intimidator

The internet has elevated Dale Earnhardt Sr. to sainthood, and I can’t look away.

A GIF of a smiling Dale Earnhardt Sr. flanked by No. 15 and No. 3 cars with the Rabbit Holes treatment
Dale Earnhardt Sr Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by us44mt/Wikipedia, Darryl Moran/Wikipedia, and James Phelps/Wikipedia.

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No person, living or dead, makes you want to get up and burn your day right down to the ground quite like the one true saint of blessed acceleration: Dale Earnhardt Sr. Whenever I feel stuck on a project, mired in procrastination to such an extent that life feels impossible, I turn to car-centric meme groups for inspiration or laughs, mainly in the form of Dale content. The internet’s deep appreciation for the racing driver known as “the Intimidator” is so pure and wholesome that it’s hard not to feel like everything’s going to be OK whenever he shows up. You see, in this weird corner of the internet, Dale is unquestionably the king if not a force of nature all his own. You don’t dare question it: Taking Dale’s name in vain is practically a bannable offense in several of the racing fan groups I’m in.

Earnhardt is one of NASCAR’s great heroes, and he was as tough on track as his “Intimidator” nickname implies. His record number of top-tier NASCAR championships—seven, tied with Richard Petty—wasn’t equaled again until Jimmie Johnson got his seventh championship some 22 years later. Even Johnson had the good sense to throw up three fingers—for Dale’s famous No. 3 car—when he tied Earnhardt’s record in 2016. He knew better than to offend the Earnhardt faithful.

Earnhardt was only 49 when he died in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500, but he went out a legend. You can still find many heartfelt Geocities-era tributes to the man and glittery collage graphics celebrating any number of feats from Dale’s life. The internet, as with any object of super-fan admiration, has taken the legend of Dale and run with it.

While many of the memes exude unbridled fan reverence, one notable genre celebrates Dale as the one true people’s hero with explicitly left-leaning content. The source of this is likely The Ghost of Ol Dale Earnhardt, a lefty Facebook page that has gained the adoration of racing fans across the political spectrum through memes that include such gems as “no shirt, no shoes, no masters” overlaid on a photo of Earnhardt fishing without a shirt on or a smiling Dale reminding us that “prejudice is the moral commitment to ignorance.” Perhaps the page’s most famous meme is the addition of the Earnhardt’s No. 3 race car to a World War II–era Allied beach landing with the text: “All You Fascists Born to Lose.” Who wouldn’t run away immediately at the sight of the Intimidator?

The inspiration for these memes was simple: Nazis don’t deserve Saint Dale.

“The idea for the page came about back in early 2017 when the alt-right were trying to make anything they could into a racist meme, including cow’s milk,” said the person behind The Ghost of Ol Dale Earnhardt, who asked to remain anonymous. “I was pretty heavily involved in the Weird Appalachia Facebook group, where Sid Hatfield and Dolly Parton are patron saints of Cornbread Communism, and a huge fan of the Old Stone Cold page. Everything sorta clicked so I decided to combine all these influences and claim Dale as a meme for the rural southern Left, which at the time was mostly either ignored or laughed at.”

While Earnhardt’s son (and NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver accordingly) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has at times expressed support for immigrants and stood up for the right to protest, and both generations of Dale Earnhardts were no fans of the Confederate battle flag, Earnhardt Sr.’s political views weren’t a major part of his public persona. But there’s no questioning where The Ghost of Ol Dale Earnhardt’s memes lie on the political spectrum.

“An anarchist society, far from being a remote ideal, has become a precondition for the practice of ecological principles. Burn that Applebee’s to the fucking ground.” is a quote ascribed to “The Intimidator” on one of Ghost’s memes. Another one featuring Dale’s image reads, “Capitalism is a moloch that requires human sacrifice, and its alienation is killing us.”

The Ghost of Ol’ Dale Earnhardt’s memes even occasionally make their way outside of the usual left-leaning Facebook groups. The page averaged around 1,000 new likes per day right after a few screenshots went viral on Twitter in 2017, according to the page’s founder. As of this writing, around 23,000 other people are just as amused as I am at the thought of Dale Earnhardt preaching mutual aid and solidarity.

Not every Dale meme or Dale-ism was made to throw ill-intentioned fascists off of Earnhardt’s scent, though. Proclaiming that you’re “doin’ it for Dale” has blown up in popularity recently, thanks in no small part to Cleetus McFarland, a ’Murica-loving, Chevy-driving YouTube car personality who’s made that phrase into his raison d’être. If you’re doing a solid burnout or throwing down your fastest run of the day, you better be doin’ it for Dale.

The internet’s appreciation for Dale has even made being a present-day racing fan more fun. As a remote writer who works alone, I burnt out pretty hard on the subject of pro motorsports after covering it for Jalopnik for several years. Yet it’s the weirder, more sarcastic fan groups and forums that are pulling me back into watching races more regularly for fun again, as we’re all toasting a breakfast beer in the infield for Dale, or answering life’s great questions with, “What would Dale do?”

Here, Dale memes aren’t just something to chuckle over—they’re a shared language. “Raise hell, praise Dale” is a common battle cry, or to call back to several of The Ghost of Ol Dale Earnhardt’s memes, you may claim that you’re going to “burn down this Applebee’s.” The internet has had many heroes before, from Chuck Norris to that little girl who asks, “Why not both?” But to a certain set of car nuts who don’t take life too seriously, Dale is our hero. Dale is our motivation to live life to the fullest because you never know when it will be cut short. (Rest in peace, Intimidator.) I will finish this research project, or finally get out of the house and take those photos of whatever this week’s test car is, because I’m doin’ it for Dale, y’all. Number 3 forever.