It has been 12 years since that sad sad day in Daytona: when the most popular driver in the nation, Dale Earnhardt, met sudden death, when his car hit the wall.
There was a somber silence from coast to coast, as fans of all ages, awaited to see if “The Intimidator” climbed out of the wreckage as we had all seen him do so many times. I had a chill going down my spine, and a lump in my gut. I knew, I don’t know how, but I knew, it wasn’t going to happen. I was speechless and felt a tear roll down my cheek. My childhood hero was gone forever. I was 7 years old when I watched him race for the 1st time.Â That icon, who I always believed to be invincible, was gone forever, but his memory will last for all of eternity. Cas has been bugging meÂ to do an article, so I decided, if I was going to do one on anyone, it had to be Dale Earnhardt. It had to be a tribute to his memory. I hope you enjoy the words that follow.
Dale Earnhardt was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina, on April 29, 1951, to Martha Coleman and Ralph Lee Earnhardt, who was then one of the best short-track drivers in North Carolina. Even though his father, Ralph Earnhardt, did not want him to follow in his footsteps, Dale would not be persuaded to give up his dream of becoming a professional race car driver. He ended up dropping out of school to race. His father was a hard core teacher for him, and after he died of a heart attack at his home in 1973, it took many years before dale felt that he had finally “proven” himself to his father.
Dale Earnhardt had a rough go of it early in his career. He learned real fast that it took a lot of money to get in to the racing industry. He worked in a mill by day, tended the chores around the house and still had to make time to work on his car. Money was real tight for him back then and his desire to race was so strong, he was willing to go without heat in the winter in order to keep his car in good working order. He was a natural behind the wheel and he knew that with a lot of hard work and dedication, he would eventually make it. To be blunt, he was “HUNGRY”. Many of the drivers today, don’t understand that concept. Many have a rich father or start out at young age racing go carts and have sponsors before they ever get to the big show. They don’t know what it’s like to live on soup beans and corn bread in order afford parts for their car. Let alone pay the rent.
Dale Earnhardt, driven by his love of the sport, his stubbornness, and an I will not fail attitude, finally climbed the ranks and made it to the Winston Cup series. He began his professional career in 1975, making his debut at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. It was the longest race on the Winston Cup circuit, the World 600.
Dale drove an Ed Negre Dodge Charger sporting the number 8 and finished 22nd in the race, one place ahead of his future car owner, Richard Childress. Dale Earnhardt competed in 8 more races until 1979, when he finally caught a break and joined car owner Rod Osterlund Racing, in a season with a rookie class of future stars to include, Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant and Terry Labonte. At last he had a sponsor. He had to rely on his ability as a driver alone for all that time because he didn’t have the finances to build the same quality of a car as the guys who had sponsors behind them. His determination, sacrifice and hard work, had finally paid off.
The Birth Of The Intimidator.
With the odds now being even, having an equally equipped car, in his rookie season under the new car owner, Earnhardt won one race at Bristol, tallied four poles, had 11 Top 5 finishes, 17 Top 10 finishes, and finished 7th in the points standings. In spite of missing four races because of a broken collarbone, he won the rookie of the year award. Had he not missed those 4 races, many believe (myself included) that he would have won the Winston Cup as a rookie.
In his second season, Dale Earnhardt, now with Doug Richert as his crew chief, began the season winning the Busch Clash. He had wins at Atlanta, Bristol, Nashville, Martinsville, and Charlotte. Dale Earnhardt won his first Winston Cup championship that same year.
To this day, Dale Earnhardt is the only driver in NASCAR Winston Cup history to earn rookie of the year one season and the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship the very next year. He was the second driver in NASCAR history to win both the Rookie of the Year and the Winston Cup Series championship during his career.
He joined David Pearson and Richard Petty. Only 5 drivers have joined this elite group since: Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Matt Kenseth.
In 1981 Osterlund sold his team to J.D, Stacy, Dale Earnhardt wasn’t too keen on his new owner, so he teamed up with Richard Childress Racing. He finished the season 7th in the points standings, but didn’t win a single race. This was very difficult for him to handle, and at that point, considered leaving. On Childress advice, he signed with Bud Moore and drove the #15 Wrangler car. After a brief stint with Moore, he returned to Childress racing in 1984 replacing Ricky Rudd in the #3 car. Wrangler sponsored both drivers in spite of them being on opposing teams. During the 1984 and 1985 seasons, Earnhardt won six times, at Talladega, Atlanta, Richmond, Bristol (twice), and Martinsville, where he finished fourth and eighth in the season standings.
In 1986 Dale Earnhardt won his second career Winston Cup Championship and the first owner’s championship for RCR. He won five races and had ten Top 5 and sixteen Top 10 finishes. Dale Earnhardt successfully defended his championship the following year, winning eleven times and winning the championship by an amazing 489 points over Bill Elliott. In the process, Earnhardt set a NASCAR all time record of four consecutive wins and won five of the first seven races.
In the 1987 season, Dale Earnhardt earned his nickname “The Intimidator” after spinning out Bill Elliott in the final lap of “The Winston”, a non-points race known today as the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. During this race, Earnhardt was briefly forced into the grass, but kept control of his car and returned to the track without giving up his lead. This incredible feat is now referred to as the “Pass in the Grass” even though Earnhardt didn’t actually pass anyone and couldn’t have, because he was in the lead.
Memories from a somber fan
I could have gone on and on with the year by year breakdown of his illustrious career, but I am sure most NASCAR fans are well versed on it. AS a child growing up, racing was a way of life. Every Sunday it was a family affair to be crowded around the TV to watch the race. If the Dallas Cowboys were on TV at the same time, It was a long day for me, switchingÂ back and forth between channels during commercials to keep tabs on both events. (Thank God for the invention of the VCR, at last, I was able to watch both in their entirety.)Â My dad had been a die hard Richard Petty fan until “The Intimidator” came on the scene.
The first time I watched his aggressive style of driving, I was hooked, so was my dad, he was going to be our driver. Some of my fondest memories involved that Black Goodwrench Chevrolet with the #3 elegantly stenciled on it. There were so many amazing things I saw him do: like coming from 30 laps down to win at Taledega, to winning back to back championships. He was the warden out there. All of the drivers had the utmost respect for him, in spite of the fact that he was their enemy on the track. He kept order out there, he was their voice at the NASCAR meetings. I will never forget what happened at the drivers meeting when they wanted to start using restricter plates. He said,
What the hell do you wanna slow the cars down for? We are out there to race! Ya’all need to tie some kerosene rags around your ankles to keep the ants from crawling up to that candy ass!
I once watched an interview with several drivers. They were asked what their biggest fear was, all replied, seeing that black #3 in my rear view mirror. They knew to get out of the way, or get moved. There was no running block against Dale Earnhardt, he would find a way to get around you. At this time I just want to express my utmost respect to the man who made NASCAR what it is today. There isn’t an old school motor-head on God’s green earth who doesn’t immediately think of Dale Earnhardt when the subject of racing comes up. Even those who didn’t like him, can’t help but respect him. May God Rest His Soul. He has been missed. I actually quit watching racing for a long time. It just wasn’t the same without that black #3 car roaring around the track. I finally decided, that if Dale could speak out to me from the grave, he would want me to keep it in the family and support his boy, so I do. I don’t think there will ever be another person in any sport, that will draw a tear from these tired old eyes at their passing. Dale Earnhardt will always hold a special place in my heart and my memories. He truly is a legend.
(The list of Dale Earnhardts accolades is courtesy of Wikipedia)
As you can clearly see, by the accomplishments above, Dale ” The Intimidator” Earnhardt, was and always will be, the best driver in NASCAR history. None of these young drivers today, would have ever been able to accomplish these feats without the modern cars, and all of the NASCAR regulations to help them along!