By Hunter S. Thompson
Page 2 columnist

The violent death of Dale Earnhardt hit the sport of professional auto racing harder than anything in memory since the assassination of John Kennedy. People who'd never even watched a NASCAR race were deeply disturbed by it, for reasons they couldn't quite explain. It seemed to send a message, an urgent warning signal that something with a meaning beyond the sum of its parts had gone Wrong & would go Wrong again if something big wasn't cured -- not just in racing, but in the machinery of the American nation.

On the surface it was just another bad crash on a racetrack down in Redneck country. What the hell? It happens all the time. But this one had a resonance that echoed all over the country. It was the death of a national hero for no good reason at all -- just an Occupational Hazard of the Speed business, shrug it off, forget it.

But it was more than that. People noticed it, like they would definitely notice if Michael Jordan had been instantly killed by a brutal & deliberate foul to keep him from scoring in the final seconds of a close game.

Or if John Elway had been killed during a routine play in the last two minutes of a scoreless Super Bowl by a 300-pound blitzing linebacker, who knew he would get a big Bonus for knocking a famous quarterback out of the game. Permanently. Dead from a broken neck.

Those ripples would have been noticed far beyond the city limits of Denver. And the killing of a hero like Elway could not have been shrugged off by somebody saying, "Sorry, but that's the way the game is played."

Well, no. That is Not the way the game is played -- at least not for long, as anybody who watched the NFL last season can tell you. At least half of the league's star quarterbacks were injured by violent collisions. The Oakland Raiders alone crippled nine (9) opposing quarterbacks by themselves -- so there was some kind of poetic justice in their being knocked out of the Super Bowl when the Ravens injured Rich Gannon.

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Tony Siragusa's hit might have pleased the stupid bastards from the Backyard Wrestling crowd, but it also cost CBS about 15 percent of its TV audience for the Big Game. Millions of fans all over the country lost interest when the Raiders went down.

Watching Ray Lewis play defense might have been interesting -- but it was nothing like watching the highest scoring Offense in the League going against a racehorse team like the Vikings. Savage Defense might be the way to win football games, but it is sure as hell not what puts Meat in the Seats -- no more than losing three of its star drivers in ten (10) months is going to make the NASCAR ratings skyrocket.

Or maybe, God help us, it Will. There is an ever-growing appetite for Violence as Entertainment in this country -- especially among those in the 18-35 demographic that TV is targeting -- that something Dark & Disastrous is going to come of it. There is a good commercial reason why Fox just paid for TV rights to NASCAR, and it is exactly the same reason why every recently built racetrack from California to Maine is designed about 20 feet Wider than tracks were built in the old days, when it was physically impossible for more than three (3) cars to run side by side at 180 mph in the straightaway -- the new & Wider tracks have created the blood-curdling spectacle of four cars running fender-to-fender at top speed.

"It makes the racing vastly more Exciting," say the auto-sport czars. "It dramatically raises the Potential-Disaster factor & whips the fans into a frenzy."

Right. Blood & guts, bread & Circuses, human brains all over the asphalt. The people of Rome demanded more & more Death & Cruelty on their Sunday afternoons at the Coliseum -- until Nobody was left to Sacrifice. They ran out of Victims.

And so will the NFL, the NBA and NASCAR. That is what makes people nervous about the meaning of Dale Earnhardt's death. It is the American Dream run amok. Watch it & weep.

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's books include Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, The Proud Highway, Better Than Sex and The Rum Diary. His new book, Fear and Loathing in America, has just been released. A regular contributor to various national and international publications, Thompson now lives in a fortified compound near Aspen, Colo. His column, "Hey, Rube," appears each Monday on Page 2.