Feature Story

Dale Earnhardt: The Legend

(February 19, 2001)- - I was nine years old the first time I took notice of Dale Earnhardt on the racetrack. At the time, my affinity for stock car racing was just beginning. Bobby Allison and Tim Richmond were my favorite drivers and all seemed right with the world.

In July 1984, CBS broadcasted the Talladega 500. For the first 160 laps I watched Bobby, Tim, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, and Dale Earnhardt battle for the lead. Earnhardt moved up to third with twenty laps remaining. With ten laps to go, Earnhardt passed Labonte on the backstretch to take over the runner-up position. Five laps later Labonte went by and took the lead. As the crowd rose to its feet for the final lap, Labonte led Earnhardt with a pack of cars battling for third. Labonte protected the bottom groove so Earnhardt couldn't get around him. Dale had other ideas though. He took a higher line in turn two to get a head of steam for the run down the backstretch. Labonte weaved back and forth trying desperately to fend off any challenge from behind. Earnhardt moved to the high side and swept past into the lead as the cars thundered into turn three. Earnhardt moved further ahead of Labonte who was battling side by side with Buddy Baker. Right behind them, Bobby and Cale were battling for fourth. It turned out to be a photo finish for second, third, fourth, and fifth place. Buddy edged Terry by inches for the second position and Bobby edged Cale by inches for fourth place. Dale Earnhardt beat the legends that day.

I got a glimpse of his skill during that race. The following year, I would get a glimpse of his toughness. His sponsor at the time was Wrangler Jeans and their marketing slogan "One Tough Customer" fit Earnhardt perfectly. Just past the halfway point of the 1985 Talladega 500, a piece of a drive shaft came off a car ahead of Earnhardt. In those days, the windshields were glass and they cracked easily. The debris came flying into Earnhardt's car as he circled the track at more than 200 miles per hour. It bent the rollbars on the windshield and pushed the roof about six inches higher. The windshield shattered and the glass came into the car. Earnhardt brought the #3 Wrangler Chevrolet onto pit road without a windshield. He had several cuts on his face from the broken glass and his chin was dripping blood. As the crew tried to fix the rollbars to install a new windshield, The Intimidator sat in the car using a wet towel to wipe away the blood. CBS pit reporter Mike Joy stuck a microphone in the car to get Earnhardt's take on what had happened. "It was a piece of a drive shaft off another car. Damn near hit me," Earnhardt said. "Woulda cut my damn head off if it woulda hit me. Fragments got on me and cut me, but it bent the hell out of the rollbar." He lost a few laps in the pits while repairs were made. But he never went behind the wall and never got out of the car. That was "One Tough Customer"-- that was Dale Earnhardt.

As my interest in the sport grew, 'Grand National Illustrated' (which later became 'Winston Cup Illustrated') began arriving in our mailbox. The March 1986 issue was one that I saved. Longtime motorsports writer Tom Higgins had spent a day out hunting with Dale Earnhardt and wrote an engaging piece. The color picture of Earnhardt's den only heightened the image of an outlaw. He was holding a hunting rifle sitting next to his fireplace. On the wall were five deer heads. He was dressed in boots, blue jeans, and a flannel shirt. The other pictures that accompanied the article show Earnhardt in his element-- the outdoors. Walking alone in the woods with the rifle, climbing a tree stand which he built himself, and standing tall atop the stand with a bow and arrow ready and aimed. In the article, Dale talked about his routine when he goes hunting. He talked about scouting, pawing marks, and venturing into rough terrain. In a way, it resembled his strategy on the racetrack. The article embodied Earnhardt's love of the outdoors with his "outlaw" image. "When it's done right, I can't imagine any greater recreational pleasure than deer and turkey hunting and fishing," he said. "And the pleasure of all this doubles when you can start taking a son out to the woods and lakes with you, as I'm beginning to do with Dale Jr."

They seemed like complete opposites, yet they were so much alike. Dale Earnhardt Jr. listens to alternative music, plays the drums for kicks, relaxes at Club E (a well stocked bar and dance floor in the basement of his house), and stays up most nights playing NASCAR computer games. His father listened to country music (including an appearance in a 'Brooks and Dunn' video), maintained a working farm, and was an avid outdoorsman who was up at the crack of dawn most mornings. But that's just the surface stuff. He would pass his love for the outdoors to his son. He would also pass his love for motorsports to his son. But above all else, he would pass a sense of honesty, integrity, and humility to his son.

There are so many indelible memories of Dale Earnhardt on the racetrack. The time at Bristol Motor Speedway in the early 90's when he saw Brett Bodine and Kyle Petty running side by side down the frontstretch heading into turn one. Bristol is a difficult track to run side by side on. Three wide is almost impossible. Heading into the turn, Earnhardt put his GM Goodwrench Chevrolet in the middle of the two cars and found the seam. He left them in the dust.

A few years later he came to Bristol with one thing in mind-- victory. An upstart driver named Jeff Gordon was leading the Winston Cup points standings in August 1995 and the defending Winston Cup champion was determined to gain some ground. Early in the race he spun out Rusty Wallace. On a mid-race restart he hit Derrike Cope. The front of Earnhardt's car was smashed in but aerodynamics were not a major factor at Bristol. As the laps wound down he closed in on race leader Terry Labonte. Coming off the fourth turn of the final lap, Labonte was held up for an instant by the lapped car of Ward Burton. Earnhardt dove low on the track. When Labonte moved lower, Earnhardt clipped the left rear of Labonte's Chevrolet. Labonte jerked the steering wheel to the right and smashed the accelerator. He crossed the finish line sideways and slammed into the frontstretch wall. The Intimidator had come up short only in the final standings that night.

Bristol was again the scene for a memorable moment in 1999. Labonte had the lead of the race in the final laps and was spun out by Darrell Waltrip. Under the caution flag Earnhardt moved into the lead as Labonte pitted for fresh tires. On the restart, Labonte charged through race traffic. He pulled alongside Earnhardt on the backstretch of the 498th of 500 laps. Labonte nudged him in turn three to take the lead and drove onto the frontstretch to take the white flag. Heading into turn one of the final lap, Earnhardt pulled up and hit Labonte's back bumper. Labonte lost control and spun out. Earnhardt drove on to win the race. It was The Intimidator at his finest.

Another classic moment came at The Winston in 1987 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Dale Earnhardt was in his element-- a short sprint race with a ton of money to the winner. In the closing stages he was fighting to hold off Bill Elliott in a spirited battle for the lead. On the frontstretch he dove low to block an attempted pass. Elliott's Ford clipped the rear of Earnhardt's car sending the Wrangler Chevrolet sideways into the grass. Earnhardt swung the car back to the right, stayed in the throttle, and held the top spot. He would go on to win the race-- and thoroughly enrage his competitors.

His charge from 18th to the top spot in the final five laps at Talladega in 2000 was the stuff of legend. Nobody had a better sense of air movement on a racetrack than Dale Earnhardt. And I doubt anybody ever will again. The open face helmet he wore allowed him to have maximum peripheral vision. He could feel the air in the car. The draft was an art form and Dale Earnhardt was Picasso.

The 1991 Diehard 500 at Talladega was another triumphant performance. He led most of the day but a late race caution flag bunched the field. The final restart came with six laps remaining. Heading into turn one with three laps remaining, Davey Allison got drafting help and pulled to the low side of the track. He exited turn two about a car length ahead of Earnhardt who had climbed the hill in the corner. While the broadcasters screamed that Davey was heading into the lead, Earnhardt was simply reloading his gun. Just as I had watched him do in 1984, he took the high line in turn two to get a run down the backstretch. Davey never had a chance to block him. Earnhardt roared past the Texaco Ford and held off Bill Elliott for the victory.

Another dramatic finish at Talladega came in 1993. Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan raced side by side to the checkered flag. On the outside, Earnhardt brought his car lower on the track-- almost into Irvan's Chevrolet. The cars never touched, but Earnhardt inched ahead and won by about a foot. When asked after the race how he did it, Earnhardt gave away one secret of the draft. By pulling in close he upset the air between the cars. The air got into the wheelwell of Irvan's car, thereby slowing him and propelling Earnhardt ahead. It was often said that Dale Earnhardt could see the air. What he saw was a checkered flag. And nobody was going to beat him to that flag.

The memories will last forever. The scene at the end of the 1998 Daytona 500-- a race he won after 20 tries. His short track battles with Tim Richmond. The sheer joy in his eyes after Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into victory lane at Texas Motor Speedway in 2000. His antics in the garage area with the other drivers showed his lighter side. One of his most difficult moments on the racetrack came at Pocono Raceway in July 1993. Rising star Davey Allison had been killed the week before in a helicopter crash. The NASCAR world was in a state of shock after losing its second driver in less than four months. The 1992 champion Alan Kulwicki had been killed in a plane crash in April. Earnhardt would win that afternoon in Pocono. He stopped his car at the start-finish line and his raceteam came across the wall and knelt next to his car for a short prayer. With tears in his eyes, he made a polish victory lap around the track carrying the "7" and "28" flags.

His spirit was battered that afternoon, but in the summer of 1996 it would be physical pain he would have to fight through. A savage crash at Talladega in July 1996 resulted in a broken sternum and collarbone. He started the car at Indianapolis but gave way to relief driver Mike Skinner during the first caution period. After getting out of the car, with his voice quivering, he told broadcaster Jerry Punch, "This was tough. Racing's my life." The following week the series went to the Watkins Glen road course. A demanding right and left turn course which tested a driver's ability more so than the car. Turning the car was painful with his injuries. So how did he do? He went out and set a track record in qualifying. A t-shirt with the slogan "Hurts So Good" was quickly printed by his Sports Image company in North Carolina and shipped to Watkins Glen. He led most of the race but faded toward the end and finished sixth. Nobody remembers who won that race. It was Dale Earnhardt's determination and desire that fans remember from that race. That's what everyone will always remember.

I stopped by Dale Earnhardt's souvenir trailer at Pocono in 1999. My dad's birthday was coming up and he was an Earnhardt fan -- though my dad's interest in the sport does not rival mine. He became interested in racing simply because I was interested in it. After Bobby Allison retired in 1988 and Tim Richmond passed away shortly thereafter, he followed Earnhardt. On that July afternoon at Pocono, I emerged from the garage area after a brief chat with my favorite driver. Wearing a DuPont Racing shirt and hat I headed over to the GM Goodwrench merchandise hauler. I picked out the black logo shirt with a small "3" and Dale's signature on the upper left corner. When the woman in the trailer saw my attire, she commented, "You're changing you're allegiance?" I smiled and replied, "It's for my dad." I didn't have the heart to tell her that I was a fan of The Intimidator as well.

He had not lost any of his driving skill as the years progressed. Just two days before his tragic crash, he participated in the International Race of Champions race at Daytona. In the closing stages, he made a move to take the lead from Eddie Cheever heading into turn one. Cheever forced Earnhardt's car onto the grass. He slid sideways. Any other driver would have either spun out or slammed the wall. Earnhardt regained control, brought the car back onto the track, and finished the race. In typical Intimidator fashion, he spun Cheever out on the backstretch on the cool down lap after the race. When he exited the car on pit road, he went over to Cheever and put an arm around him. Cheever apologized profusely, but Earnhardt laughed the incident off and said he enjoyed racing against him. A day earlier he was leading the 125-mile qualifying race with Jeff Gordon in second. On the restart with one lap to go Sterling Marlin blew past both of them. In the garage area after the race, Gordon put an arm around Earnhardt and they talked about the final lap. It was the first time I can remember seeing Gordon put an arm around Earnhardt- it was always the other way around.

His relationship with Gordon was an interesting one. They shared a mutual respect for each other and were partners in a number of business ventures. Earnhardt came up with the "Wonderboy" moniker that would become Gordon's nickname in his first few seasons on the circuit. And then Jeff beat Dale for the 1995 Winston Cup title. At the banquet, Gordon toasted Earnhardt with a champagne glass filled with milk. Earnhardt smiled broadly, stood up, and toasted the new champion. It was Jeff Gordon's way of telling Dale Earnhardt that he was still 'The Man.' Always was, always will be.

Earnhardt's demeanor on the racetrack was almost the antithesis of his demeanor off the racetrack. After Dale Jarrett won the 1999 Winston Cup title, he wanted to rent Earnhardt's private plane to fly a group of about 130 family and friends to the banquet in New York City. He told Earnhardt to send him the bill afterwards. A few weeks later Dale and Kelley Jarrett received their bill for the use of the plane. The paper in the envelope said "No charge. Congratulations from Dale and Teresa Earnhardt."

He once struck up a conversation with the pastor of a local church. The pastor had said that he was looking to organize some fund raising efforts to pave the parking lot at the church. Earnhardt asked how much needed to be raised. The pastor told him it was about $10,000. Without hesitation Earnhardt took out his checkbook and wrote a $10,000 check.

Earnhardt wasn't particularly educated-- he dropped out of school in the eighth grade. But he was a genius. He was a brilliant businessman who copyrighted and trademarked his name and likeness at a time when corporate sponsors weren't even in the equation. His vision and foresight is unparalleled. Along with his wife Teresa, they built Dale Earnhardt Inc. from the ground up. Their success is a racing empire which encompasses merchandising, licensing, sponsorships, and race teams. Earnhardt brought corporate sponsors into the sport which brought more fans into the sport. Merchandising took on a life of its own thanks to Dale Earnhardt. When he changed his paint scheme for an exhibition race in 1995, the demand for the diecast version of the car was overwhelming. Diecast collectibles and special paint schemes became a multi-billion dollar industry. At the time Earnhardt owned his own collectibles company called Sports Image. He arranged a merger between Sports Image and Action Performance Co., the largest diecast manufacturer, which resulted in a windfall profit.

He was a millionaire many times over but he also appealed to the average race fan better than any other driver. Especially the ones that often couldn't afford to attend a race. After all, he was a country boy from a small town in North Carolina with an uncanny talent to drive a race car. He wasn't a product of marketing hype- he brought marketing into the sport.

The critics laughed when he signed Michael Waltrip to drive for him before the 2001 season. Waltrip had gone nearly 500 Winston Cup starts without posting a points paying victory. But Earnhardt knew talent. And he knew Waltrip was hungry for a win. As Dale Earnhardt entered the final turn of the last lap he would ever race, he saw Michael Waltrip headed to his first victory in the circuit's biggest race- the Daytona 500. And he saw his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr, in second place. Could things have been more perfect for Dale Earnhardt at that exact moment?

If you've ever attended a NASCAR race, you know who the most popular driver is. Sure, someone else tends to win the award every year, but you know who the most popular driver is. Earnhardt's fan base is far and away the largest in motorsports. "The show" continues at racetracks across the country... but the show lost its greatest competitor it has ever known. Few of us will ever experience the amount of love that Dale Earnhardt experienced. He left this world knowing he was loved the world over. It was a privilege to watch the greatest of all time at the height of his power.

What is left for NASCAR without Dale Earnhardt? There's still a group of stars such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. who can run up front. But the sport's biggest personality is gone. The greatest icon the sport has ever known is no longer there.

Losing the most endearing personality in stock car racing has caused an overwhelming feeling of sadness and emptiness. Racing has lost its leader and mentor. And a family has lost its son, husband, father, and grandfather. The void is immeasurable.

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