Monday, April 29, 2013

Dale Earnhardt Day... April 29, 2013: Being Dale Earnhardt

Credit: Darryl Moran Photography 
Each year, Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the Dale Earnhardt Foundation celebrate the Intimidator's birthday at "the House That Dale Built." DEI's impressive corporate headquarters, that impressive structure of steel and glass affectionately called the "Garage Mahal," now houses a museum dedicated to the career of the company founder.

As usual on this year's "Dale Earnhardt Day," they served cupcakes - an Earnhardt birthday tradition. They also opened the doors on a new exhibit called "Being Dale Earnhardt." The press release says the exhibit "highlights the many facets of the life of the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Champion" and asserts that the "new displays will allow fans to step inside the world of Dale Earnhardt."

Think about that for a minute. "Inside the world of Dale Earnhardt."

What was it like to be Dale Earnhardt? A man who, through the strength of his formidable will, undeniable talent and inimitable charisma stamped an entire sport with his indelible image, amassing a fortune along the way. A man who commanded such loyalty that after his death, many of his fans simply walked away from the sport, unable or unwilling to watch races in which their hero didn't line up on the grid. Some of those fans have yet to return.

Those who stayed with the sport or found their way back, often transferred that loyalty to his son, the already popular Dale Jr., holding on to the heir apparent with all the passion and ferocity they had for his father. The weight of that adoration would have shaped the young man's life even had his father lived, but Junior was, to many, all they had left of their hero. They clung to him with a fervor normally reserved for the surviving children of departed family members. Much like Princes William and Harry held the hearts of those who mourned the passing of Princess Diana, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will probably always hold the hearts of those who mourn the passing of his father.

Those fans who loved Earnhardt did so with intensity unrivaled in all of NASCAR, perhaps even all of sports. Richard Petty will always be The King, but Dale Earnhardt will always be The Man.

But how did he reach that point? How did the young man from Kannapolis, North Carolina become the face of the sport for so many years?

Even newcomers to NASCAR probably know that Ralph Dale Earnhardt's father was the 1956 NASCAR Sportsman Champion, Ralph Earnhardt, a textile worker turned racecar driver. Ralph was one of the few drivers who supported his family with his earnings. The Earnhardt patriarch also put his own stamp on the sport. He was the first to understand and use tire stagger and he put reinforcing bars in the driver door for protection, two innovations that are commonplace today.

Ralph didn't want Dale to race, but Dale quit school in ninth grade to do just that. As did many men of that generation, he had a complicated relationship with his father, and ended up with complicated relationships of his own. Ralph died suddenly from a heart attack in 1973, but his death didn't free Dale from his desire to prove to his father that he could make it as a racer.

Married at 17, a father at 18, young Dale Earnhardt wasn't well-suited for family life. Because he couldn't afford the child support payments, Dale allowed his ex-wife's husband to adopt son Kerry. That couldn't have been easy for anyone involved, especially a man with as much pride as Dale.

Yet Dale remarried in 1971, this time to the daughter of engine builder Robert Gee. Daughter Kelley came along. Racing didn't pay the bills like it had for his father, so times were rough. Son Dale Jr. was born in 1974  Earnhardt did a stint as a boilermaker for grocery money but went back to racing as soon as he could. It cost him his marriage. It wasn't until he met and married Teresa Houston in 1982 that Earnhardt managed to successfully combine racing and family.

According to Ed Hinton in his book Daytona, when in later years Earnhardt was criticized for rough driving, he said "They ain't ever seen the kind of rough racing I've had to do in my life, just to survive."

Determined to succeed, Earnhardt began Cup racing in 1975 in the World 600 and started a handful of races over the next few years, but it wasn't until 1979 that he ran a full season. Owner Rod Osterlund had the choice of David Pearson, Cale Yarborough or the brash young Earnhardt. He chose Earnhardt and the rest, as they say, is history. 


"I really liked the kid. Dale was a smart-ass, aggressive, cocky. He didn't give a shit, he was going to the front. A hundred miles into a race he'd take a chance, pass on the outside when he didn't have to. One time at Martinsville he tried to pass twelve cars the first lap, and he took out the whole field. It was immaturity, a lack of experience." 

Lou LaRosa, engine builder for Rod Osterlund 1976-1980   The Last LapPeter Golenbock, Macmillan, 1998   


Earnhardt earned his first Cup win at Bristol in the seventh race of the season driving the No. 2 Chevy (at other times that season it was the No. 2 Buick or Oldsmobile.) In his rookie season he scored 11 top fives, 17 top 10s...and four DNFs. One of those DNFs came in a horrific crash at Pocono in which he broke his collarbone and sternum, taking him out of the car for four races. David Pearson filled in for him and ended up winning the Southern 500 at Darlington. 

Imagine ... you're a rookie and not only is three-time Grand National champion David Pearson your replacement driver, but he wins one of the most prestigious races of the year in your car. 

The next week Earnhardt, far from healed, got back in his car and sat on the pole at Richmond. Earnhardt went on to finish seventh in points and won Rookie of the Year in a class that included Terry Labonte and Harry Gant. And despite being in a number of other injury-causing wrecks, he started every single race from that point forward. 

But that wasn't enough for Earnhardt. In his sophomore season he started out winning the Busch Clash, now known as the Sprint Unlimited. He took the points lead in week two and never let go. He racked up five wins, 19 top fives and 24 top 10s in 31 races, becoming the first driver to win Rookie of the Year one year and the championship the next. 

That was the beginning. The road wasn't always smooth, even for as stellar a talent as Earnhardt. He drove the two seasons for Osterlund, who sold the team mid-season. Twenty races into the 1982 season, Earnhardt moved to Richard Childress' fledgling organization and had four DNFs in 11 races. Childress told Earnhardt to find another ride, that the young team couldn't give him the cars he needed, so in 1983 the Wrangler colors adorned the No. 15 Ford Thunderbird of Bud Moore - the only time in his career that Earnhardt drove a Ford.

After only two wins and 13 DNFs in the '83 season, Earnhardt returned to Childress in 1984, swapping seats with rival Ricky Rudd, one of the few drivers who had no qualms about driving Earnhardt the way Earnhardt drove him. Rudd drove the No. 15 and Earnhardt took the wheel of the No. 3 Wrangler Chevy.

From '84-'86 he won 11 races - but still had 15 DNFs. His take-no-prisoners driving style was rough on equipment and when that equipment wasn't the most durable to begin with, that meant lots of failures. Meanwhile, archrival Darrell Waltrip won his third championship in '85.

But Richard Childress kept making improvements and Earnhardt kept maturing, honing his skills. In 1986 he won five races and his second championship. He and crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine followed that success with the most dominant year of Earnhardt's career. 1987 saw the Earnhardt-Shelmerdine team in victory lane 11 times, in the top five for 21 of the 29 races. He finished out of the top 10 only five times en route to his third Winston Cup.

"He mellowed from being a smart-ass to being a   mature person who used his head driving. He had learned from his mistakes of rushing to the front early and crashing, of getting into trouble, to knowing when to lay back. People look at him now and say, 'He isn't the driver he used to be.' But that's maturity. He knows when not to take a chance...When he was driving for Osterlund, Dale won on aggressiveness. Now he was winning on intelligence, maturity, and thinking."
Lou LaRosa, engine builder for Richard Childress, 1984-1988 The Last Lap, Peter Golenbock, Macmillan, 1998 

His legacy as one of the best of all time was secure, his three titles tying him with Lee Petty, Pearson, Yarborough and Waltrip on the all-time list, but Earnhardt wasn't done. Not by a long shot. From 1988-1991, he took the the GM Goodwrench Chevy to victory lane 21 times and swaggered to yet another pair of back-to-back championships in 1990 and 1991.

With five championships, 53 victories and dozens of disgruntled opponents, Earnhardt's Man in Black persona was well established. Fans either loved Earnhardt or hated him. In his 1993 book American Zoom, Peter Golenbock describes the scene at the 1992 Daytona 500.
"The Earnhardt haters, meanwhile, were eager to see Ironhead, as they derisively called the dour Earnhardt, fail once again at Daytona. Earnhardt is a villain to many, and he is disliked with the same passion pro wrestling fans exhibited to the Iron Sheik, who during the hostage crisis used to stand in the ring and sing the Iranian national anthem. On several cars driving to the speedway, signs could be seen that read, 'Anybody but Earnhardt.' Wherever on the track Earnhardt might be, first or in the middle, everyone would be keeping a close eye on the 3 car."  
Not only did Earnhardt fail again at Daytona, but that 1992 season was the worst since Earnhardt rejoined Childress. With only a single win, the team finished 12th in points. For the first time, a Cup champion finished out of the top ten the season after winning a title. Crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine left the organization to become a driver and Andy Petree came on board for 1993. The two combined to give Earnhardt the third set of back-to-back championships of his career and tied him with Richard Petty on the all-time Cup title list.

In 1995, the unofficial passing of the torch began. The young kid from California via Indiana, Jeff Gordon, beat Earnhardt for the title by just 34 points. Earnhardt's fans hated the kid their hero called "Wonder Boy." He was too young, too clean-cut, not one of them. Over the next five seasons, the Intimidator won just eight races with three different crew chiefs. Gordon earned 43 wins - including two Daytona 500s - and two championships with crew chief Ray Evernham.

Earnhardt finally captured that elusive Daytona 500 in 1998. The scene on pit road will always be a special part of NASCAR lore. But that was his only win of the year while Gordon won 13 races and the Winston Cup for the 50th anniversary of NASCAR.

Some spectators questioned whether Earnhardt still had the fire to compete. After having watched Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip stay behind the wheel too long, NASCAR Nation winced at the idea of letting go of their hero, but they also didn't want Earnhardt to continue driving if he wasn't going to be competitive.

One race in particular in 1999 showed he still had the will to win at all costs. The famous Bristol night race in which Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte to take the victory resulted in him being roundly booed. Earnhardt shrugged it off with a wry grin, claiming the spin was unintentional, he just meant to "rattle his (Labonte's) cage."

What many people didn't realize was that Earnhardt's 1996 crash caused him lingering discomfort, and he couldn't convey to his crew chief what to do to the car to make it comfortable for him. He had neck surgery in December, 1999, and came back rejuvenated for the 2000 season.

The 2000 season was also Dale Jr.'s rookie year, and Dale, who bristled at being called Senior, demonstrated that he still had that fire in his belly by finishing second in points. The elder Earnhardt came into Daytona in 2001 seemingly poised for a run at a record-breaking eighth championship.

The events of that fateful day in February 2001, have been recounted often enough that there's no reason to recount them here. The tragedy of Dale Earnhardt's death touched the lives of many in ways that go beyond the loss of a champion, a legend, a folk hero.

His passing put the focus on driver safety in a way it probably would never have been otherwise. Advances in driver safety such as the HANS device, the SAFER Barrier and structural reinforcements in the car would have made their way to NASCAR, but not nearly as quickly as they did after the death of Earnhardt. Drivers and fans alike look back and wonder how drivers ever raced without them, to the point when Denny Hamlin hit the wall at Fontana in March, everyone questioned why that wall didn't have the SAFER Barrier.

Of all the legacies left by Dale Earnhardt, that's the most important and lasting.

Janine, aka Lisa or LJ, Cloud, a fifth-generation Texan, lives in Houston and considers Texas Motor Speedway her home track.

She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, going from contributor to media rep, photographer, and associate editor covering both NASCAR and IZOD IndyCar. Janine considers it a privilege to represent the site at the track and to share with readers the excitement of the world of motorsports.

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