The last cowboys of their craft

Posted: Feb 26, 2001 12:00 AM
Where were you when Dale Earnhardt hit the wall at Daytona? His death has been compared to that of James Dean, Elvis and Princess Di. Those in the know, know where they were. Women shrieked. Children burst into tears. Grown men covered their eyes. Flowers now enshrine the "Garage Mahal" where he parked his race cars. He's compared in memory to Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Mohammed Ali. He's also been called "the last cowboy." He was the millionaire who never forgot his roots, a mean competitor who demanded the respect that comes with making it big time in an unglamorous and ruthless racing sport (if sport it is). He preferred to be called the "Intimidator." That was his winning style, his energy in action. He got in so close that he always looked like he was playing the game of "chicken" against the other racers. Critics called him the "Wrecker," noting how much he enjoyed seeing the cars he rammed spin out of control. He was better to watch than to read about, like most star athletes (if athlete is what he was), a tough guy always testing the limits. Dale's talent -guts matched with aerodynamics - was the real thing, nothing synthetic about him. He did what he did because he had to: There was no other point to living. Dale Earnhardt came to mind the other night while I was watching the new movie, "Pollock," about the life of Jackson Pollock, the action painter who broke through the boundaries of modern art. He wasn't warm and loveable like Earnhardt, but he was the real thing, too. If Ed Harris gets an Academy Award for playing Jackson Pollack, it will be for meshing character and actor/director in a mutual adventure of narcissism, but it's easy to see why the movie star Harris thought the artist would captivate contemporary audiences: Pollock did what Pollock had to do. He was as monomaniacal toward painting as Earnhardt was toward racing. Both Earnhardt and Pollock lived on different planes, literally and figuratively, but they shared a recklessness in their craft that fueled their talent and insured that they would both die younger than they should (coincidentally, both in car crashes.) Dale was 49; Jackson was 44. Both men became celebrities in a small world that grew no larger until the media expanded it. Jackson Pollock was relatively unknown outside an elite New York art world until Life magazine turned him into an overnight sensation. Dale gathered celebrity momentum with increased television coverage after he had been a star in the small towns in the South where most of his fans live. On the day he was killed, the Daytona 500 broke records on Fox, the first year of NASCAR's $2.8 billion contract with the network. Neither artist nor racer changed with success. All Pollock wanted to do was paint and all Dale wanted to do was race. They both depended on the loving and supporting casts of friends and family. Both men sometimes had strange ways of showing their love. Jackson Pollock was a nasty husband and Dale Earnhardt was a loving one, but why on earth would Dale Earnhardt want his son to follow him into such a deadly sport? Both Pollock and Earnhardt, in a funny way, reflect the specific nature of the romantic anti-hero. Nobody, but nobody, could keep them from their demons and drives. "Modern art to me is ... the expression of contemporary aims of the age that we're living in," Jackson Pollock once said. "It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique." The raw, turbulent and furious energy he poured into his paintings are complex metaphors for his insights. Earnhardt also used his high energy to make new connections, emerging from the old dirt-road, souped-up car races into the new, slicker media-focused tracks whose lax rules are increasingly death-threatening. (Four men have died in the last nine months.) It may be coincidental, but both Jackson and Dale, as different as they are, have been compared to cowboys. Jackson Pollock paints "as a cowboy might ride a wild horse, in a frenzy of psychophysical action," one critic writes. "He does not always stay in the saddle, yet the exhilaration of this contest, that strains every fiber of his being, is well worth the risk." That surely describes Dale Earnhardt, too. These men don't make pretty stories, but they're authentic and that's what fascinates us today. They were willing to pay the ultimate price for absolute defiance. Scary, but real.