Earnhardt, (Ralph) Dale

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EARNHARDT, (Ralph) Dale

(b. 29 April 1951 in Kannapolis, North Carolina; d. 18 February 2001 in Daytona, Florida), professional stock car racer who won a record-tying seven championships before his tragic death at the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt became familiar with the world of stock car racing at an early age. His father, the professional racing pioneer Ralph Lee Earnhardt, won more than 350 races during his twenty-three-year career and often took his son to the tracks. Earnhardt dreamed of following in his father's footsteps and began competing in area races at age fifteen. Two years later he got married (his first of three wives) and dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work full time. Although Earnhardt held a variety of jobs, he continued racing on weekends. He often borrowed money to maintain his vehicles and reimbursed creditors with his meager winnings. In 1973 his life changed forever when his father died while working on a race car. Earnhardt became even more committed to racing professionally and continued competing in local events while seeking greater opportunities. Two years later he made the most of his professional debut.

On 25 May 1975 Earnhardt drove in his first Winston Cup race, the Charlotte Motor Speedway's World 600. The Winston Cup series is National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's (NASCAR) most prestigious annual series. Throughout the year, drivers participate in several races that constitute the series and accumulate points in each race based on their finishes. The annual championship goes to the driver with the most points earned that year. Earnhardt finished twenty-second in his first Winston Cup race and made eight more starts in the series during his first three years on the circuit.

In 1978 the California racing sponsor Rod Osterlund gave Earnhardt his first full-time Winston Cup contract, which proved the biggest opportunity of his racing career. On 1 April 1979 Earnhardt won his first race in sixteen starts on the prestigious NASCAR circuit at the Southeastern 500 in Bristol, Tennessee. He later won the 1979 NASCAR Rookie of the Year award and became the first driver to win more than $200,000 in his first full season. In 1980 Earnhardt captured NASCAR's season points title and the Winston Cup Championship, which made him the only driver to win rookie and cup honors in consecutive years.

Earnhardt's winning stalled when Osterlund sold his racing team to Jim Stacy in 1981. The disgruntled driver left Stacy after four races to drive for Bud Moore in 1982 and 1983, but won only three races. In 1984 Earnhardt joined Richard Childress and formed one of the most successful partnerships in NASCAR history. Earnhardt claimed his second Winston Cup in 1986. The following season he earned a career-high eleven wins and won a third championship. Three of his victories came after he bumped drivers out of his way to take the lead in close races. His aggressive style justified his "Ironhead" and "Intimidator" nicknames and earned him a warning from NASCAR's president to modify his reckless on-track behavior.

Reprimanded but undaunted, Earnhardt continued to win in the 1990s. He claimed his fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh Winston Cup titles in 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1994, earning an average of more than $3 million each season. His seventh championship tied the NASCAR legend Richard Petty for most career titles. The only achievement that continued to elude Earnhardt was a victory in the Daytona 500, the NASCAR season's first and most prestigious race. In 1998 he won the event in his twentieth attempt. Following his victory, Earnhardt cut a memorable figure "3," his car number, in the raceway's grass infield as spectators and opponents alike celebrated with the self-proclaimed "Man in Black." Later the same year NASCAR honored Earnhardt and his father as two of the greatest fifty drivers in motorsports history.

The Earnhardt family's affair with racing grew in 2000, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., joined his father on the Winston Cup series. Later that year, Earnhardt raced against his sons Dale, Jr., and Kerry in the Pepsi 400. Earnhardt and Lee Petty remain the only drivers to have competed against two sons in the same event. Racing with his sons seemed to rejuvenate the veteran Earnhardt, who finished second in the 2000 Winston Cup point standings. This intensified the tragedy of 18 February 2001, when Earnhardt died after crashing into the wall as he entered the fourth and last turn of the Daytona 500's final lap. He is buried in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Despite his untimely death, Earnhardt was one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history. In 2001 he ranked first in top-ten Winston Cup annual point standing finishes (20), sixth in wins (76), seventh in races started (676), fourth in top-five performances (281), won a record $41 million, and finished in the top ten of 428 Winston Cup races. He was the only three-time winner of the Winston Select Series (1987, 1990, 1993); claimed four International Race of Champions wins (1990, 1995, 1999, 2000); earned National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year awards in 1980, 1986 (cohonoree), 1987, 1990, and 1994; and captured American Driver of the Year honors twice (1987 and 1994). Earnhardt's titles and accomplishments, however, were only one measure of his legacy. The response his death elicited from fans and fellow racers demonstrated an influence that extended far beyond Earn-hardt's role as a NASCAR driver.

Earnhardt became the rare professional athlete with whom many racing fans identified. His aggressive driving style, sullen disposition, and mysterious persona reflected a fierce individualism that increased his popularity and infused the sport with an unprecedented level of passion. Loyalties intensified as Earnhardt became NASCAR's most marketed and recognized driver when the sport grew in national exposure and popularity during the 1990s. Fans most appreciated Earnhardt's toughness and love of racing. Events following his death revealed why the racing official H. A. Wheeler called Earnhardt "the Michael Jordan of our sport." In national telecasts of NASCAR races after the tragedy, broadcasters maintained a symbolic silence during third laps while spectators stood and raised three fingers, rituals that honored Earnhardt's famous racing number. On 10 July 2001, two days after Dale, Jr., won the first race at Daytona since his father's fatal crash, the North Carolina legislature passed a resolution praising Earnhardt and the contributions he made to his home state.

No adequate biography on Earnhardt existed upon his death, but several magazine and newspaper articles paid tribute to his life and accomplishments following the Daytona accident. For more on Earnhardt's life and career, see Rick Bragg, "Racer's Death Leaves Hole in Heart of His Hometown," New York Times (21 Feb. 2001); Mark Bechtel, "Crushing," Sports Illustrated (26 Feb. 2001); and Robert Sullivan, "The Last Lap," Time (5 Mar. 2001). In addition, the informative websites <http://www.daleearnhardt.net> and <http://www.daleearnhardt.com> chronicle Earnhardt's triumphs. An obituary is in the Charlotte Observer (19 Feb. 2001).

J. Michael Butler