When I sat down to write this column, I planned on writing something very different.

Initially, I was going for something a little more light-hearted, since it’s my first one and all. But as I was closing some tabs on my laptop, I noticed a headline that made me drop my jaw.

I’m pretty sure it said something like “Dale Earnhardt Jr. Survived Deadly Plane Crash.” Of course, when I read it, I was only skimming, so what I read was more like “Dale Earnhardt Jr. DEAD.” I quickly clicked on the article and soon realized he did in fact survive, along with the rest of his family who was with him. Obviously, I was very relieved because I went into it thinking someone important to me was dead. Only, I hadn’t realized he was that important to me until after the fact. My initial reaction to the headline was a lot stronger than I ever would have thought. My heart rate had raised and like I mentioned earlier, my jaw had actually dropped. I began wondering exactly why I responded the way I had because I’ve never been affected too much by a celebrity’s death before. Plus, I hadn’t thought about Dale Earnhardt Jr. in years. Sure, once in a while I saw him in a Mountain Dew commercial, but even that was rare. I don’t know much about him, other than the fact that he’s a NASCAR racecar driver.

I did watch a lot of NASCAR when I was little though. It was always on after church on Sundays. Because I was little and had nothing better to do, I would just sit on the couch and watch the cars go around and around, never fully understanding why. A lot of the times, I got bored and wanted to change the channel, but I learned that I wasn’t supposed to because “the big race was on,” as my dad called it. Looking back, I should have questioned why there was a “big race” every week, but regardless, it was a Sunday tradition for a lot of years. My dad even gave my two sisters and me our own race car drivers to root for and bought us little Hot Wheel versions of their cars. I was assigned, of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. I never really called him Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a little kid, though. Instead, my dad and I referred to him as “Red 8,” because back when I was a “fan” of him, he drove a red car with an eight on it. I’m sure it was just a way for my siblings and me to not complain as much about NASCAR always being on, but it was fun to cheer someone on, especially for me since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a lot.

Honestly, I can’t remember a time before I watched Dale Earnhardt Jr. race every Sunday. Although I didn’t know anything about race cars or NASCAR (I still don’t), those memories were some of my first, and they stuck around.

I understand now why I reacted the way I did when I read that headline. It was the first time that the death of a celebrity caused an emotional reaction out of me, and it’s probably not the last time. I’ve seen adults in my life be affected by celebrities’ death before, but I had never fully understood. To me, they were complete strangers, so why stress about it? I understand now how strangers can be a part of someone’s childhood or life and losing them is almost like losing a friend. I’m grateful that I didn’t lose Dale Earnhardt Jr. as my friend and I’m sure I’ll be more careful with reading headlines in the future.

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