Hmmm… this one seems to be generating a significant amount of traffic.
The black #3 of Dale Earnhardt – The Intimidator – remains the most recognisable livery in NASCAR. Alongside Richard Petty’s powder blue #43 it’s one of the enduring icons of top-flight stock car racing and, to millions of people, it has been frozen in time since Earnhardt Sr. met his end at the 2001 Daytona 500.
Now the Richard Childress Racing outfit, with whom Earnhardt and the #3 are inextricably bound, plans to bring that iconic number back to NASCAR’s top level with its young charger, Austin Dillon. This is sparking a LOT of debate among fans. Although many people would be happy to see it back, there’s a vocal lobby – presumably those who have been standing up with three fingers aloft on Lap 3 at the Daytona 500 each and every year.
Outside the USA we don’t tend to sentimentalise numbers. There’s never been any fuss about who carries the #2 in Formula One, despite the virtual canonisation of Ayrton Senna since his death. Or the #19 in sports car racing, carried to his doom by the most electrifying driver of his kind, Stefan Bellof.
Outside NASCAR only the #27 in Formula One has really held – or rather grown – in resonance, since the death of its most famous driver, Gilles Villeneuve. And these days that’s a redundant number in a field of 24 cars, so it’s no longer an issue. In NASCAR, however, the numbers are franchises in themselves. The champion driver doesn’t win the honour of carrying #1. He wins a lot of money and his number becomes better known – and more valuable.
There’s been a widespread misunderstanding that the #3 belongs to Richard Childress Racing and that the team has held the number in some sort of shrine to The Intimidator at the back of the workshop. It doesn’t and it hasn’t.
Teams lease their numbers from NASCAR for a set fee each year. Following the death of Dale Earnhardt, RCR chose not to retain the #3 – putting #29 on the Goodwrench Chevy when it returned in 2001, the number which its driver, Kevin Harvick, has retained ever since (often with a small ‘tribute 3’ next to the large race number).
Yet the #3 has not been silent since February 2001. Far from it. Dale Earnhardt Jr ran the number on his Nationwide cars until 2002. Items carrying #3 outsell virtually all the currently active numbers in terms of NASCAR merchandise and, in 2010, RCR and NASCAR gave the fans exactly what they wanted when Dale Earnhardt Jr climbed aboard an Impala carrying blue and yellow Wrangler sponsorship (as his father’s often did, alongside the black Goodwrench car) and the #3. And won. At Daytona.
Part of me thinks that this was a toe-in-the-water. A chance to test the public, give the #3 some good vibrations and open the path for a full-time return. Which has now come. Richard Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillon, has shown a hefty amount of talent, winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series and running at the front of the Nationwide Series – at the wheel of the RCR #3.
Dillon has now taken his first win in the Nationwide series and looks set to become a regular in the top league before long – and it’s pretty much a given that he will bring the #3 back up with him. And so the debate goes on: should #3 be brought back or finally retired out of respect for The Intimidator?
Personally, I’d say that RCR is a business and that Earnhardt’s chosen legacy would be the ongoing success of the team that supported him. In what remain hard times for racing, NASCAR teams only thrive if they can grow. RCR has the #27, #29 and #31 but has lost the #33 through the shortage of funds available these days.
A bright young talent at the wheel of the iconic #3 might well do good things for RCR – and in turn for the popularity – and profitability – of NASCAR. Sometimes, race fans, sentiment needs to be saved for when we can afford it.