A late Sunday afternoon, December 1996. The Great Room of London’s Grosvenor House looks like a bomb’s hit it as frantic, last-minute preparations take place for that evening’s Autosport Awards. A figure in black Wranglers and cowboy boots swaggers through the lobby, takes in the scene, then thrusts out a paw to a harassed journalist.
“Hi, I’m Dale Earnhardt, pleased to meet you. Looks like you’re gonna have quite a show here tonight. Y’all look awful busy, but if there’s anything I can do to help, I’d be pleased to oblige.”
I’d invited the seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion and full-time legend to London to receive a Gregor Grant Award for lifetime achievement — and to my surprise, he’d accepted. But only on the smiling proviso that we’d bring him over and give him another when he landed titles eight, nine and 10. “I could become a tradition,” he joked.
Eamhardi’s stamina was legendary, and so it seemed were his travel arrangements: private jet from Charlotte to JFK, Concorde to Heathrow late on Saturday, a few hours sleep, then a Sunday morning shopping with wife Teresa — ‘Man, she had me at Harrods before the darn thing had opened!’ After the awards, it was back on Concorde — a total of just 36 hours on UK soil. Earnhardt reckoned he and the trophy would be back on his Mooresville, North Carolina farm just after lunch. “Sure ifs pretty hectic,” he told me, “but to know that what I’d accomplished was being recognised outside my own country, that was pretty special.”
Earnhardt never did come over to pick up a second award, but perhaps 2001 would have been the year. After a couple of seasons in the doldrums, ’99 had seen him a genuine title-contender again. The desire, the effort and the aggression had never waned — and never would. But it wasn’t until he’d teamed up with new crew chief Kevin Hamlin in ’98 that the chemistry which had allowed him to dominate much of the ’80s and early ’90s finally returned. ‘The Intimidator’ — a perfect title — had finished runner-up in 2000, and was confident of going one better in his trademark black Chevrolet Monte Carlo this time around. As usual, the Daytona 500 cranked the season into life and, as usual, Earnhardt was the pre-race favourite for
an event he’d come to regard as something of a necessary evil, a tightly-packed lottery created by power-sapping carburettor restrictor plates to keep speeds below the taboo 200mph mark. Earnhardt, the 1998 ‘500’ winner, had a better record than anybody at Daytona. In the all-important draft, his rivals believed he could actually see the air. But Earnhardt preferred his thrills a little less subtle than the 40car games of chess the much-loathed plates supplied.
In the 2001 running of the ‘Great American Race’, Dale had been near the front all afternoon, leading when he pleased, holding back when he wanted, until a 19-car accident after three-quarter distance meant the race would boil down to a 20-lap sprint — the perfect stage for ‘The Intimidator’ to do his stuff.
With a couple of laps to go, he was third, but Chevys owned by him and driven by friend Michael Waltrip and son Dale Jr held first and second. Rather than attack, he chose to defend and, entering the final turn of the final lap, his car brushed Sterling Marlin’s Dodge. Earnhardt overcorrected, rode up the 31-degree banking and hit the wall, collecting Ken Schrader’s Pontiac on the way. No big deal, something we’d seen hundreds of times before.
The two cars rolled to the bottom of the apron and Schrader got out. Earnhardt didn’t. He had been thrown against his steering wheel, killing him instantly.
As well as those seven titles, equalling the record of ;King’ Richard Petty, Earnhardt notched up 76 Winston Cup victories and US$.41m in prize money, plus a staggering 25,000 laps in the lead. But for years the son of NASCAR great Ralph had lived in near-poverty as he attempted to break into the big time. He was a shy, ill-educated former textile worker from Kannapolis, NC, who had failed to set the world alight in his eight sporadic Winston Cup starts between 1975 and late ’78. But Charlotte Motor Speedway promoter ‘Humpy’ Wheeler thought he saw a lot of the late Ralph’s aggression in the kid and recommended him to Californian businessman Rod Osterlund.
In 1979, Earnhardt was Rookie of the Year, and followed that with the overall title in ’80. But after Osterlund lost interest in stock car racing, Earnhardt endured two relatively unsuccessful seasons before being rescued by the legendary Junior Johnson, who told journeyman driver Richard Childress to quit playing at racing and get serious as a team-owner. If he took Earnhardt on, he’d lend him engines and advice. Earnhardt and Childress took six titles together.
But at 49 years old, Earnhardt was beginning to look at a life away from driving. His cars were winning races, his businesses were thriving and there was a whole lot of huntin’ and fishin’ to be done. Two more years of racing? Well, maybe three, or four. Then sit back and watch the boy Dale pick up where dad left off.
Talented Jr will continue the family’s winning tradition but, tragically, his father won’t be there to see it. Laurence Foster