"He was me."
For everything written and said about Dale Earnhardt during his career and since his death, all it really takes to describe what made him who he was, quite fittingly, are those three words.
Fans of the man who drove the black No. 3 Chevrolet to seven Cup championships and 76 victories in NASCAR's top series looked at Earnhardt and saw themselves. People who worked with their hands and made their livings by the sweat of their brow might not have been able to live out their dreams, but Dale was doing it for them.
And they still love him for it.
That line - "He was me" - is uttered by a fan in "Dale," the biographical documentary that will premiere this week in the Tampa, Fla., area to begin a national tour in markets following the Nextel Cup schedule.
CMT cable network, which paired with NASCAR Images for the first biographical project authorized by Earnhardt's family since his death in the 2001 Daytona 500, will air the film in September. A DVD is to be available late this year.
Fans will make a point to see the film. They will not be disappointed.
Even if you never have been a stock-car racing fan, or if you're so new to the sport you don't have a handle on why this guy they call "EARN-HARRRRDT!" was such a big deal, this movie is worth your time.
Let's be honest. Teresa Earnhardt would never put her stamp of approval on anything that makes her late husband look bad - and there's no reason she should be expected to. That said, "Dale" is not a whitewash. The controversies and the criticisms he endured in his often-tumultuous career are a part of his story, and they're also a part of the film.
There are enough of Earnhardt's career highlights to make his fans remember just how danged much fun he was to watch in a race car. There are also scenes that will make The Intimidator's fans fight back tears.
Most difficult to watch is a shot from a camera inside Earnhardt's car as it heads toward that Turn 4 wall at Daytona. It's footage not seen since the fatal crash Feb. 18, 2001, and even though the screen washes to white before the impact, knowing what you're watching gives it tremendous impact.
Like the driver whose life it chronicles, "Dale" is not perfect. One scene, in which a female "journalist" slobbers about Earnhardt's sex appeal, is wholly inappropriate. Actual audio from race broadcasts is used in most scenes, but on at least two occasions voice-over recreations are distractingly employed.
What ultimately makes "Dale" so compelling, though, is how the film weaves the story of his life in, around and through the story of his career. As great as Earnhardt was on the track, there were things about his life off it that make for good storytelling, and that job is exceptionally well done.
Earnhardt's victory in the 1998 Daytona 500 is one of the film's main narrative threads. So, too, is footage from an interview with Earnhardt as he spends an early morning fishing. Most fans know the story of the Daytona win, how it came after 19 years of often bitter disappointment. It's the Earnhardt on the banks of his fishing pond that provides insight into what kept this champion's motor humming.
Several of the most poignant scenes in "Dale" feature Dale Earnhardt Jr. - the time his dad tries to teach him to water ski, an "interview" following an Earnhardt win at Talladega, Ala., and a Victory Lane celebration where the distance of just a few feet between a young Dale Jr. and his famous father feels like a deep, wide canyon.
But the thing "Dale" gets the most right is its exploration of Earnhardt's burning desire to "be somebody," and the confirmation that he managed to do that as some fans talk emotionally about how much he meant to them.
"Are there any real heroes?" Earnhardt wonders aloud as he makes another cast into his pond.
If there are, when Earnhardt died there was one less than there used to be.