Dale Earnhardt (1951-2001) was a race car driver who drove on the NASCAR circuit for 22 seasons, won 7 Winston Cups, had 76 career wins, and made more money driving than any other driver in NASCAR history. His life was ended with an automobile crash that occurred during the 2001 Daytona 500.
Racing in the Family
Earnhardt was born in the Kannapolis, North Carolina, a textile mill town. His father, Ralph Earnhardt, was known as "Ironheart" on the short-track racing circuit, and he taught his son how to drive stock cars and work with engines. He had converted a barn behind the family home into a garage, and was well-known for his skill with engines. Earnhardt's earliest memory is of watching his father race.
Earnhardt dropped out of high school after eighth grade; according to Bill Hewitt in People Weekly he later said, "I tried the ninth grade twice and quit. Couldn't hang, man. Couldn't hang." He worked odd jobs, argued with his father, who wanted him to complete high school, and drove on dirt tracks.
Although Earnhardt became famous for driving a black car emblazoned with the number 3, his first dirt-track car was a 1956 hot-pink Ford Sedan, which he got from his neighbors, David and Ray Oliver. His father had built the engine, and some other friends, Frank and Wayne Dayvault and their cousin Gregg, tuned it. They intended to paint the car avocado green, but a paint mishap resulted in the car being pink. They could not afford to repaint it, and he raced the pink car on dirt tracks around Charlotte, North Carolina.
Earnhardt married for the first time at 17, and at age 18 had a son, Kerry. Earnhardt divorced his first wife at 19 and married a second time. This marriage would last five years before he divorced again. Earnhardt had two children with his second wife, a daughter, Kelley, and a son, Dale Jr., who would both follow him into racing.
When he was 22, his father died of a heart attack. According to Hewitt, Earnhardt said, "He was against me dropping out of school to go racing. But he was the biggest influence on my life."
Earnhardt's mother gave his father's race cars to Earnhardt. Along with the cars, he inherited the business side of racing that came with them. Mark Bechtel wrote in Sports Illustrated that Earnhardt once said, "Daddy had begun to help me with engine work and give me used tires, and he'd talked to Mama about putting me in his car. Then he died. It left me in a situation where I had to make it on my own. I'd give up everything I got if he were still alive, but I don't think I'd be where I am if he hadn't died."
Earnhardt's Big Break into Racing
Racing was not an easy way to make a living, and Earnhardt considered getting some other job. However, in 1975 he drove in his first Winston Cup race, coming in at 22nd. For him, unlike some other drivers, driving was not a hobby—it was almost his only means of support. If he was short of money, he borrowed from other drivers, hoping that he would win the next Sunday's race so he could pay them back on Monday.
Earnhardt was fearless, but he was also astonishingly precise. According to Bechtel, NASCAR historian Greg Fielden once watched Earnhardt taking practice laps around the Myrtle Beach Speedway, where ivy covered the wall along the frontstretch. On each pass, Earnhardt went close enough to the wall to clip off some of the ivy without actually touching the wall with the car. Fielden later commented, "I said to myself, This kid's good, and it didn't take long for the rest of the world to find that out."
Earnhardt's big break into racing came in 1978, when he replaced another driver for the World 600 Cup in Charlotte, North Carolina. He finished seventh in one race, the Firecracker 400, and caught the eye of Rod Osterlund, who owned a Winston Cup car and was not satisfied with his current driver. He replaced him with Earnhardt for the next-to-last race of that season, and Earnhardt drove with his characteristic fearlessness, refusing to be intimidated by the experienced drivers he was competing against. This won him a full-time position driving for Osterlund, and in only his 16th start, he had his first win.
By 1979, Earnhardt was named NASCAR Rookie of the Year, and in 1980 he won the first of seven Winston Cup titles. He became known for his aggressive driving style, earning the nicknames "The Intimidator" and "Ironhead."
The Most Famous Driver in NASCAR
He invested his winnings in a business, Dale Earnhardt Inc., He later acknowledged that his second marriage broke up because of his racing; all his money and attention went to his racing cars. According to Bechtel, he said that his family "probably should have been on welfare" because he was not providing properly for them. The family cars were "old junk Chevelles—anything we could get for $200." In 1982, after the breakup of his second marriage, he married a third time and had a daughter, Taylor Nicole.
Earnhardt won six more Winston Cup titles and eventually became the most famous driver in the sport. As Ken Willis observed in Auto Racing Digest, "For two decades … Earnhardt was part of the national Sunday fabric in a way known only by the likes of Ed Sullivan and Billy Graham. The entire industry benefited." NASCAR gained increasing attention and legions of fans, many of whom were drawn by Earnhardt's charisma and legend. By 2000, 25 percent of NASCAR's $1.1 billion merchandising sales went to Earnhardt-related items, according to Willis.
Earnhardt's auto-racing business, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., expanded exponentially, eventually making $41.6 million, with 200 employees and three cars on the NASCAR circuit. The company had a corporate jet, a helicopter, and a 76-foot yacht, and as Hewitt noted, the work area there was so big that his mechanics called it the "garage-mahal."
Aggressive and bold on the track, Earnhardt could be generous off it. According to Hewitt, when North Carolina farmers were facing financial ruin in the wake of a flood that had destroyed crops, Earnhardt told them to get their tractors ready to roll. At his own expense, he bought and sent them tons of seed to replant their devastated acreage. Earnhardt was also generous with fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
Before the 2001 Daytona 500 race, NASCAR officials instituted some changes in the cars in order to make the races more exciting for viewers. More excitement meant more viewers, and more viewers meant more revenue for the officials and sponsors. In previous races, drivers often took the lead early and stayed there, and there were few changes in the lead, and less exciting jockeying for position on the track. In order to make races more exciting to watch, the officials decided to install restrictor plates on the carburetors, in order to reduce horsepower, and to add aerodynamic spoilers to the cars' surfaces, in order to increase drag. These changes made the cars slower, allowing drivers to catch up to each other, pass, and change position.
Earnhardt was not in favor of these measures, saying that people who were afraid of cars going too fast should stay home, that they were "chicken," according to an article in Time. He also refused to wear a new head and neck support system, which helped protect a driver from getting whiplash in a crash.
In the Daytona 500, the changes NASCAR had instituted had a notable effect: over the course of the race, there were 40 more lead changes than in the previous year. With 27 laps to go, 19 cars piled up in a crash. The crash looked horrendous, with one car flipping, flying through the air, and tearing the hood off another, and many others badly damaged, but no one was seriously hurt. Earnhardt's car received some minor damage that he knew would put him out of the running for first place, but on the whole, the race was going well, and it was likely that either Dale Jr. or Michael Waltrip, who drove an Earnhardt car, would win. Over the last ten laps, Earnhardt talked with his pit crew and teammates on his car radio. According to Time, his friend and crew chief Larry McReynolds said, "Those last ten laps, I saw such a different Dale Earnhardt. I can't imagine how proud he was to look out his windshield to see his son and good friend up there."
Waltrip did win, with Dale Jr. in second place. Earnhardt was not far behind, and was jockeying for position with Sterlin Marlin, battling for third place. On the final turn of the last lap, Earnhardt's car collided with Marlin's car. The contact was minimal, but Earnhardt's black Chevy Monte Carlo veered right, smashed into the wall, and bounced back right into the path of Ken Schrader's car, which broadsided it, slamming Earnhardt's car head-on into the concrete wall. A writer in Time commented, "The crash was undramatic. Ironhead had survived much worse." However, when members of his pit crew called him, saying, "Talk to us, Dale!" there was no answer. Even though firemen and medical personnel were on the scene in seconds, it was too late. Earnhardt was dead. According to Bechtel, the emergency medical director at the scene said that he had died instantly from a severe injury at the based of his skull.
Later investigations revealed that Earnhardt's left lap seat belt had failed, tearing apart and allowing him to be thrown into the steering column of the car. However, because this had never happened before, officials did not immediately institute new safety rules, and the next week's race would be held as scheduled, in Rockingham, North Carolina. Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced that he would drive his own car, in honor of his father. Alex Tresniowski wrote in People Weekly that Dale Jr. said, "I miss my father, and I've cried for him. I just try to … remember that he's in a better place." Earnhardt's legions of fans mourned his loss deeply, creating shrines and memorials all over the country, particularly in his hometown of Mooresville.
According to Hewitt, Earnhardt once summed up his driving style by saying, "I want to give more than 100 percent every race, and if that's aggressive, then I reckon I am." He also said of driving, "It's not a sport for the faint of heart." Fellow driver Bobby Hamilton, who sometimes came head-to-head with Earnhardt over Earnhardt's aggressive style, said, "There is never, ever gonna be anybody as good as Earnhardt."
Bechtel quoted long-time friend H.A. Wheeler, who said, "Here's a kid who came from the bottom, worked hard for everything he got and didn't have any airs about him…. Truck drivers, dockworkers, welders and shrimp-boat captains loved that. He was everything they dreamed about being."
Auto Racing Digest, July 2001.
Hot Rod, June 2001.
People Weekly, March 5, 2001; March 12, 2001.
Sporting News, February 12, 2001.
Sports Illustrated, February 28, 2001.
Time, March 5, 2001. □