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As we ride our brakes, they live at full speed

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001

I occupy my own small universe without paying much heed to the sports pages.

If you told me Sunday was the day of the Daytona 500 I would have taken your word for it. The event was not at all on my radar.

At about the time Dale Earnhardt slammed into a wall in the last turn of the last lap, I was watching my daughter at a playmate's third birthday party under the trees at Tampa's Al Lopez Park.

A girl who might have been a college junior, dressed like Cinderella in a long pink dress, was painting the faces of the sweet, squirmy guests and sprinkling glitter in their hair.

All this was on the other side of the moon from the macho, smash-and-crash world of stock car racing.

Nevertheless, Earnhardt was always in the periphery of my media-conscious vision. His was a face not just in Sports Illustrated but People.

And when his death was declared in Monday's enormous front page headlines, my thought was a fan's thought: What a shock. What a shame.

Now, I barely know a tailpipe from a windpipe.

What should I care about the death of a race car driver who portrayed himself almost the way TV wrestlers do, as a costume character in a war between good and evil?

That's how his fans took him. They loved him or hated him. They called him The Intimidator. He was as celebrated for his shades and his take-no-prisoners attitude as he was for his wins on the racetrack.

But Earnhardt's death makes me understand his popularity. He was a risk taker. And at least he got to die doing what he loved.

The possibility of going out with your helmet on is a given in his sport. Three NASCAR drivers were killed last year.

But there have been other examples of athletes who died doing what they loved, like Jim Ward.

His risk was not in driving a car 200 miles an hour but in pushing his body beyond any reasonable expectations for a man his age.

Ward, of Seminole, was 83 when he dropped dead on the Pinellas Trail last September while biking with a group of other elderly triathletes. He was a 10-time world triathlon champion in his age group, even though he didn't finish his first one until he was 68. He had even done the toughest, most storied of them all, Hawaii's Ironman.

This is not how the rest of us live.

For us, it's a woulda-coulda-shoulda existence.

There's the cross-country trip we keep meaning to take, the true love we never should have let escape, the book we keep put off writing, some mountain -- in the metaphorical sense -- we always intended to climb.

But it's too hard. Too scary.

So we stay put, caught up in the crammed routines of work and family.

And living in the box of our own making.

This is why we don't mind standing at the sidelines, cheering for the likes of Dale Earnhardt. He lived our untaken risks by proxy.

He did have it easier than most of us. His father was also a race car driver. Most of us don't have the path we're going to take laid out so clearly. We do more stumbling than steaming ahead and find our way by accident.

Then midlife arrives and you ruminate the way I am: I wonder more about the life I want to live than the one I do live. And I find a metaphor in Dale Earnhardt's relentless speed, in Jim Ward's constant push against his limits.

They were always reaching, straining to see what they were capable of, doing their all -- and, yes, finally, too much -- to transform themselves into the men they would have otherwise been only in their dreams.

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