He raced hard, reaped the rewards and divided opinion. Even 10 years after his death Dale Earnhardt’s influence is still being felt in NASCAR
It happened 10 years ago on the last lap of NASCAR’s traditional season-opening Daytona 500. Everyone was jammed together in a massive pack, feet flat on the throttle in typical restrictor-plate racing style. Running third with no real hope of winning, seven-times champion Dale Earnhardt appeared to lay back to protect the two leaders, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr, from the juggernaut of cars immediately behind. Waltrip and Junior were driving Dale Sr’s cars and it was as if the old man had decided that if he couldn’t win, he was going to make damn sure his cars and drivers finished 1-2. Suddenly, as the lead pack of cars thundered through the last turn, Dale Sr was clipped in the rear by Sterling Marlin. The black Chevrolet with the familiar white number three on its roof turned sharp right, shot up the track and hit the wall hard. As the wrecked car slithered down the banking the rest of the field tore down to the finish line less than half a mile away. Waltrip was a momentarily delighted winner from team-mate Earnhardt Jr, but the tone soon turned sombre as the news slowly filtered out that Dale Sr, NASCAR’s greatest star, had died from a basal skull fracture.
Throughout his career, Earnhardt’s bad luck in the Daytona 500 was legendary. Twice in the years before his death he lost the race on the last lap, once because of a tyre failure, the other because of a crash. Over 25 years of racing at Daytona he won 33 other events, but only once, in 1998, was he able to win the 500. Earnhardt hated restrictor-plate racing and was its most vocal opponent amid a sea of disdain the drivers had for the dreaded method of restricting power. For years they said that one day there would be an almighty multi-car accident because of the crowding caused by running with severely restricted power and terrible throttle response. In the end, Earnhardt was the first man to die in such an accident. Earnhardt won 76 Winston Cup races from 676 starts over 26 seasons and is ranked seventh on NASCAR’s all-time winners list behind Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Jeff Gordon. Incredibly, he’s the only one of NASCAR’s greatest stars to have died behind the wheel. More importantly, Earnhardt has gone down in American history as the quintessential Southern stock car driver.
Plain spoken with a strong Carolina twang, he made no apologies and gave no quarter to anyone. A high school dropout who survived a hardscrabble youth to become a working class hero, Dale Sr’s persona was perfectly matched to NASCAR’s legendary history of outlaws and whiskey-runners. Earnhardt played the game to the max on and off the track. He got the most out of the black and silver colours of team owner Richard Childress’s primary sponsor GM Goodwrench, becoming just as much ‘The Man in Black’, as ‘The Intimidator’. The sobriquets were interchangeable. He was the menacing dark force, the guy who was going to push to the maximum at every turn, in every situation. It was an image Earnhardt cultivated superbly with his smirking grin and trim moustache. And of course he could back it up implacably on the race track. He was the man so many NASCAR fans loved because he was fast, tough, supremely confident and a brilliant racer. When he first started winning races and championships he was known as `Ironhead’, a nickname that evolved into ‘The Intimidator’, and 10 years after his death pick-up trucks in every corner of the United States proudly still carry their man’s No3 emblem as a badge of honour.
Earnhardt was the son of Ralph Earnhardt, a renowned short-track driver from North Carolina who won a NASCAR Late Model Sportsman championship but never made it to the sport’s first division. Ralph Earnhardt was one of eight children of a cotton mill worker from Kannapolis, North Carolina. He started his working life in the mills before becoming a mechanic and race driver, earning the nickname `Ironheart’. But it was a tough life, and Ralph died of a heart attack in 1973 when he was only 45. Many years later after winning his fourth NASCAR Winston Cup in 1990 Earnhardt eulogised his father. “My dad has always had a place in my heart through all my racing years,” he told the audience at NASCAR’s awards banquet. “I grew up idolising him. I stood up on the back of a truck and every turn he took, I took. And it burned right into me what I wanted to do. I never dreamed I would be a four-time champion of NASCAR. I’ve had help from people who were friends of my daddy and people he raced against. He is still in my heart. I miss him dearly.”
Like his father, Dale started racing with very little money on Carolina short tracks after dropping out of ninth grade. He married his first wife and had a son, Kerry, but divorce soon followed and Earnhardt left his baby boy with his ex-wife and her new husband. A few years later he married his second wife, Brenda, and fathered two more children, a daughter, Kelly, and son Dale Jr. But his second marriage also ended in divorce because his entire focus was on racing rather than raising a family. Long-time NASCAR writer Ed Hinton knew Earnhardt well and writes about those days in his excellent book, Daytona, From the Birth of Speed to the Death of the Man in Black.
“I was borrowing $500 at a time on 90-day notes from the bank just to race,” Earnhardt told Hinton. “Maybe I should’ve gotten a regular job. It might have saved a family. Racing cost me my second marriage, because of the things I took away from my family. For our family cars, we drove old junk Chevelles — whatever you could buy for $200. We didn’t have money to buy groceries. We probably should have been on welfare.”
Still, Earnhardt was able to make his Winston Cup debut driving a backfield car in 1975 when he was 24 years old. He ran four Cup races over the next few years and got his first ride in a good car for the World 600 at Charlotte in ’78, only to crash with four laps to go. His big break came at the end of that year when he was hired to drive one of Rod Osterlund’s Chevrolets in the season-closer at Atlanta beside regular team driver, the veteran Dave Marcis. In the race Marcis and Earnhardt banged fenders at least once and at the end of the day Marcis quit the team in disgust. By implacably ‘using the fender’, Earnhardt had driven Marcis out and earned himself his first full time ride for 1979. With Osterlund’s car he scored his first victory that year at Bristol, Tennessee — a classic half-mile bullring — finished seventh in the championship and was named NASCAR’s rookie of the year.
The next year Earnhardt well and truly arrived, winning five races and taking the first of his seven titles. Then in the middle of 1981 Osterlund sold his team to JD Stacey. But Stacey and Earnhardt did not get along and Dale was soon looking to drive elsewhere. By this stage he had personal sponsorship from Wrangler Jeans and a deal was soon made for Dale to join Richard Childress’s little team for the second half of the year. Childress was a struggling owner/driver who was delighted to stumble on a quick driver with a sponsor. Childress quit driving to put Earnhardt in his Chevrolet, but Dale was so hard on equipment that Childress discovered at the end of the season that he was $75,000 short of balancing his books. So Childress sat down with Earnhardt and told him he needed a couple of years to build up his team to be able to effectively run a driver like Dale. Childress decided to run Ricky Rudd in 1982 and ’83, while Earnhardt took his Wrangler backing to veteran Bud Moore’s Ford team. In two seasons with Moore’s cars he won three races but there were plenty of blown engines and crashes, and at the end of ’83 Moore was happy to send Earnhardt packing.
Dale rejoined Childress for 1984 and the pair remained together for the next 17 years, creating the most successful combination in modern NASCAR history prior to the emergence of Rick Hendrick’s four-car superteam led by Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. With Kirk Shelmerdine working as crew chief, the Earnhardt-Childress combination won back-to-back titles in 1986 and ’87, and at the end of that year GM Goodwrench replaced Wrangler as the team’s sponsor. GM Goodwrench is General Motors’ parts and service division and employs a huge number of auto mechanics across the United States — a core audience for NASCAR, of course. And it happened that GM Goodwrench’s colours are black trimmed with silver and white, thus creating the image of Earnhardt as ‘The Man in Black’ — NASCAR’s own Johnny Cash. As his career took off Earnhardt got married for a third time to Teresa Houston, the niece of NASCAR racer Tommy Houston. Teresa, a college graduate, took over as his negotiator and manager.
Dale and Teresa were business partners as well as husband and wife, and in 1998 they launched Dale Earnhardt Inc, a race team that would field winning cars for Dale Jr and Michael Waltrip among others. Meanwhile the black No 3 Chevrolet dominated through the early ’90s as Earnhardt won 29 races between 1990-95, and took the championship in 1990-91 and ’93-94. The last title was Earnhardt’s seventh, equalling the record number won by Richard Petty and placing him at the pinnacle of stock car racing’s pantheon. By this time he’d acquired a fleet of aircraft including three King Airs, a helicopter and a Lear jet. He had also bought a 70ft powerboat called ‘Sunday Money’ But times were changing in NASCAR. In 1995 Earnhardt was beaten to the championship by a young upstart named Jeff Gordon, a Californian who’d come up through midget and sprint car racing. Fresh-faced with a wispy moustache, Gordon in many ways was Earnhardt’s antithesis and represented the start of a new wave of more urbane NASCAR stars from outside America’s Southern states.
Earnhardt had a tough year in 1996, breaking his sternum and collarbone in a wild, tumbling crash at Talladega in July. It was the worst accident of his career so far, but at 44 years of age the fire still burned fiercely. He was on the grid for the following weekend’s race at Indianapolis but had to pull in after six laps to hand over to relief driver Mike Skinner. The Man in Black then showed true grit at Watkins Glen the weekend after that where he qualified on pole and led more than half the race before falling back to finish sixth. But Earnhardt was far from fit and the rest of the season was a struggle. “We beat ourselves up, lost a lot of confidence because we ran so bad after the Talladega wreck,” said Earnhardt at the time. “I was hurt, recuperating, and we got down on ourselves. We didn’t fall apart but we questioned ourselves in a lot of ways. Some guys left because they didn’t think we could put the team back together.”
For 1997 Childress expanded his team to run a second car for Skinner, but for the first time in 16 years Earnhardt failed to win a race, although he was able to scrape home fifth in the championship. The next year couldn’t have started better as he finally won the Daytona 500, but the rest of the season was dominated by Gordon, who won 13 races and took his second championship in a row. Earnhardt trailed home a distant eighth in the title race, more than 1000 points behind Gordon. But Earnhardt showed signs of resurgence in 1999 and 2000. He won three races in ’99 and scored two more wins in 2000 as well as finishing second to Bobby Labonte in the championship. By then he was 49 and beginning to think about retirement. His son Dale Jr had won NASCAR’s second-division Busch series in 1998 and ’99 driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc, and then made a successful move into the top-level Cup series with DEI in 2000, winning two races and taking a couple of poles. At the time Earnhardt talked about retirement with the Washington Post’s motor sports writer Liz Clarke.
“I worry that when I do say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna retire in 2005’, or whatever it is, whether I really can retire?” he told her. “Can you comfortably retire and walk away from it? Maybe the race team ownership and being involved that way. This is what I’m thinking: Dale Jr’s coming along, and say five or six years down the road Dale Jr is starting to make it. If I’m involved with him, or if he’s involved with our programme, then it may be easier to retire.
“I surely don’t want to race too long. I think AJ Foyt raced too long. And I think Richard Petty would have really liked to retire a little earlier. But I bet Richard has the fire inside him that he would still enjoy the driving part of it. I don’t know. That’s the part I worry about: when I do think it’s time — or when time says it’s time — whether inside I can accept it and retire. “Everybody has their time,” Earnhardt went on. “And I’m still having mine and I’m enjoying it. Maybe I’m not right at the peak of it as much as I was. But I’m still there. I’m still a factor and a contender, and by no means ready to throw in the towel and give up and hand over the flag. Some son-of-a-bitch is going to have to take it from me.”
Until the day he died, Earnhardt was the acknowledged master of drafting on the superspeedways. He seemed to understand how to use the air better than any other driver and his results at Daytona and Talladega proved it. At Talladega Earnhardt won no fewer than 10 500-miles races, and despite winning the Daytona 500 just once those 33 other victories at the track over the years, including a string of 10 consecutive 125-mile qualifying races between 1990-99, tell the real story. He was also a grand master of ‘laying a fender’ on another car. Unlike most forms of motor racing, stock car racing is a contact sport. Using your car’s fenders to best effect is one of the arts of the game, and nobody could do it better than The Intimidator. Over the years Earnhardt crashed many people, always with a deft touch. He played the odds and won many times. He raised the ire of plenty of drivers and even more fans, emerging as the man people loved to hate.
In a US Scene column last spring I described a day at Daytona 20 years ago when Earnhardt crashed into Al Unser Jr’s tail on the last lap of an IROC race, knocking Unser ‘out of the ballpark’. Earnhardt went on to win the race, while Unser walked away shaken but unhurt. It was a salubrious lesson for Unser and I’ll always remember Earnhardt’s great rival and sometimes pal Rusty Wallace scowling about the incident. “Now you know why we all hate him,” Wallace barked. As stated, Earnhardt was despised as much as he was loved. Today, the myth is that everyone admired and respected him, but that’s hardly the truth of the matter. Sure, he loved to hunt and fish and joke with his fellow drivers, but he was as tough and hard-edged as they come. In many ways it is ironic that Earnhardt’s death had such an effect on NASCAR’s lax ways with safety, because he loved his antique seat, which had zero energy-absorbing capabilities, and was contemptuous of the HANS device when it first appeared.
But in the wake of his death NASCAR reacted, creating the ‘Car of Tomorrow’ which features some crushable structures, a more central driving position and redesigned rollcage. Massive changes were also mandated to drivers’ seats, with Formula 1 and Indy-style carbon seats superseding the ancient devices used by Earnhardt and his peers through the turn of the century. And slowly but surely NASCAR and its drivers grew to appreciate and adopt the HANS device. Another part of Earnhardt’s legacy is NASCAR’s huge market in souvenir sales. Back in 1985 Earnhardt was the first driver to bring a souvenir trailer to the track to sell Wrangler Jeans-branded Dale Earnhardt baseball caps, T-shirt and jackets. As his career boomed so did sales, and other drivers and teams followed suit. In 1995 Earnhardt hired Don Hawk to run his business affairs and Earnhardt-licensed souvenir and merchandise sales shot up to $40 million per year. In ’97 Forbes magazine estimated his income at US$19m, including $15m from endorsements and souvenir sales, the third-highest in the world of sport behind only basketball superstar Michael Jordan and golf sensation Tiger Woods. By the time he died, Earnhardt had purchased his own seat on the New York Stock Exchange and Dale Earnhardt Inc was reckoned to generate more than $100m per year in revenue.
Today Dale Earnhardt Jr is by far NASCAR’s most popular driver, even though he’s never won a championship or come close to equalling his father’s record of accomplishments. But Dale Jr is loved by NASCAR fans because he’s an unadorned Southern boy who talks and lives in the spirit of his father. Like his father, Dale Jr sells more souvenirs than any other driver, controlling more than a quarter of NASCAR’s merchandising sales. Ten years after his death the long shadow Dale Earnhardt cast across NASCAR looks set to linger for many years. Richard Petty won as many titles and many more races than Earnhardt, making him NASCAR’s unofficial king. But Earnhardt will rule forever as the heart and soul of American stock car racing.