Dale Earnhardt was a larger-than-life figure who became even bigger in death. ESPN dramatizes the story of the fabled auto racer, who died in a crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, in 3 (tonight at 9), a cable original movie that is a lap ahead of previous films produced by the all-sports network.
Credit belongs to a stellar performance by Barry Pepper, who is building a legend of his own with dead-on, moving portrayals of sports heroes, coincidentally in films with numerals as their titles. Pepper hit a home run as Roger Maris in HBO's 61; he's even better as Earnhardt, who rose from working the mills of his small Southern hometown to become a superstar as NASCAR evolved into the nation's fastest growing sport.
Prosthetics, makeup and wigs give Pepper the Earnhardt look. The actor did the rest, visiting with fans in Earnhardt's native North Carolina, where 3 was shot, sitting down for beers with current NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. and going through a driving course to get a feel for what it's like to push an 800-horsepower machine up to 170 mph.
Auto racing buffs will probably be able to nitpick small miscues in the film. NASCAR fans also might not be pleased that the emphasis is on human drama over super speedway heroics. "Really, the film is not about the seven Winston Cups or the famous death scene," Pepper said. "It's about the life and legend."
These are the very factors that make the film an enjoyable experience even for those whose knowledge of the sport doesn't extend beyond the number of tires on a car. If nothing else, it will explain those big "3" decals that seem to be on the back windows or bumpers of every pickup truck on the road.
As is true of many NASCAR stars, Earnhardt grew up in a racing family. The film opens with 10-year-old Dale idolizing his dad, Ralph, a champion on the rural dirt-track circuits when stock car racing was primarily a regional sport conducted for peanut purses. Ralph (J.K. Simmons) is a tough but loving father, given to homespun aphorisms ("The winner ain't the one with the fastest car, it's the one who refuses to lose.") that shape the win-at-all-costs persona of the driver who came to be known as "The Intimidator."
The scenes between Ralph and Dale are the film's most insightful and revealing. Unfortunately, other formative events are accounted for with pedal-to-the-metal speed. Dale's first two marriages, one of which produced Dale Jr., don't get much more time than a pit stop. Even his enduring marriage to Teresa is given superficial treatment. But Pepper's bravura performance more than compensates.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
When: Tonight at 9
In brief: Worthy of a legend.