Earnhardt, Dale, Sr.

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

1951-2001

American race car driver

Seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. collected a huge following of fans during his 28-year career on the circuit of the National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR). Driving a black #3 Chevrolet sedan and dressed in black, he was nicknamed the Intimidator for his bullish driving behavior on the track. He died when his car crashed and hit the side wall on the final turn of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

What Makes a Champ?

Born in Kannapolis in south central North Carolina, on April 29, 1951, Earnhardt was the oldest son of Ralph and Martha Earnhardt. With two older sisters and two younger brothers, he fell in the middle of his four siblings. The Earnhardts were known as lint heads in their regional slanga lint head being anyone from Kannapolis, which is the mill town headquarters of Cannon Mills. With a population of 36,000, Kannapolis is a suburb to the northeast of Charlotte and is the largest unincorporated population center in the area. The name Kannapolis is Greek for the "City of Looms," and it is an unwritten tradition among the residents that everyone in the town works at the mill at one time or another.

The mills and looms notwithstanding, Earnhardt's heritage was much larger than lint town. The red dirt countryside where he was raised falls on a terrain called the Piedmont that stretches northward from Birmingham, Alabama, and into Virginia. The landscape of the Piedmont encompasses a vast bed of fine red clay where dirt-road racers are nurtured.

Dale Earnhardt held a great admiration for his father, a sixth-grade dropout who quit the mills at a young age and went on to become a hall-of-fame NASCAR driver. In the early days, with a wife and a family to support, Ralph Earnhardt worked in an auto garage to supplement his income, and Dale Earnhardt and his brothers

spent a good deal of time in the shop. They learned to maintain and care for the cars, and in 1956 they cheered their father's victory in the NASCAR Sportsman series championship. Earnhardt, who was much like his father, quit school at age sixteen, married young, and fathered a son named Kerry.

Unlike his father, Earnhardt was soon divorced and living alone. He began his career as a dirt-road racer, driving a 1956 Ford Club Sedan as his first bona fide race car. The six-cylinder Ford was nothing remarkable. Earnhardt had ordered it painted purple, although it ended up an un-macho pink. He drove it regardless. His first race was on the Concord Speedway, a local track owned by a man named Henry Furr.

By 1973 Earnhardt was working in Concord, at Punch Whitaker's wheel alignment shop on Route 9. He had married againthis time to Brenda Gee. Their daughter, Kelley, was born in 1972. After a while Earnhardt found a cache of old Ford Falcons and selected one to be his new race car. He made a project out of fixing it up in his spare time and supported his family by working as a welder for the Great Dane Trucking Company.

The family lived poorly in assorted apartments and trailers, and Earnhardt was sometimes slow in paying his bills. They all rode around in old fixer-upper cars, and all the while he kept a steady stream of race cars moving through the garage at the old Earnhardt family home on Sedan Avenue in Kannapolis. Earnhardt and Gee soon had a son, Dale Jr., born in 1974. That same year Earnhardt Sr. switched from dirt racing to asphalt. He picked up a used race car and drove in local races as part of the old Sportsman division which later became the Busch circuit.

He made his debut on the Winston Cup circuit at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, driving in the Charlotte 600 on Memorial Day 1975. He drove car number 8, a Dodge belonging to Ed Negré and his mechanic son, Norman. Earnhardt finished at twenty-second place in the race and pocketed $2,425.

Guts Make a Champ

From 1976-79 Earnhardt drove in eight Winston Cup races altogether. Sponsors agreed that he was an excellent driver. He possessed the natural grit and calm demeanor to be a champion driver. Earnhardt was fearless, in fact, to a fault. He crashed and flipped cars as if they were old soda pop cans. As a result his potential went largely untapped because he could not find sponsors willing to subsidize the cost of repairing his cars.

With the failure of his second marriage in 1977 he returned home briefly and lived with his mother. He stopped racing on the asphalt circuit and drove the dirtroad tracks again. He worked for Chrysler Motors, testing so-called kit cars.

In 1978 Earnhardt crossed paths with an investor named Rod Osterlund who was putting together a Winston Cup team in an old garage in Derita, near Charlotte. Earnhardt drove two races for Osterlund and finished second and fourth respectively. The following year, at age twenty-nine, Earnhardt joined Osterlund's team as one of two drivers. With Osterlund's help Earnhardt purchased a home on Lake Norman near the Frog Creek Campground, where Osterlund's crew housed and maintained their cars at the Car-o-Winds trailer park.

On April 1 of his rookie year, Earnhardt won his first Winston Cup race. The race, at Bristol, was the Southeastern 500, the seventh on the circuit. Earnhardt led for 160 laps and beat Bobby Allison to the finish. Earnhardt was only the fourth rookie in the history of NASCAR to win a race. With winnings of $264,086 that year, he was named NASCAR's Rookie of the Year and signed to drive for five more years with Osterlund.

For a no-holds-barred driver like Earnhardt, of course, winning came at a price. He lost four weeks to recuperation that season after a severe crash at Pocono. Earnhardt, who blew a tire and hit the wall, suffered two broken collarbones, a concussion, and severe bruises. This extreme style paid off in 1980, however, when he won his first Winston Cup at age twenty-nine. He took the trophy by a nineteen-point margin, his winnings for the season totaling more than one-half million dollars.

In 1981 Osterlund sold the Winston Cup operation to J. D. Stacy and moved to the West Coast. Unhappy with the change of operations, Earnhardt drove only four races for Stacy then quit. He completed the 1981 season by driving ten races for Bud Moore Engineering, but altogether that year finished only twelve of thirty races.

Chronology

1951 Born April 29 in Kannapolis, North Carolina
1956 Cheers his father, Ralph, who wins the NASCAR Sportsman championship
Early 1970s Marries, becomes the father of a son, Kerry, and is divorced
1972 Marries Brenda Gee; becomes a father of a baby girl, Kelley
1973 Works at Punch Whitaker's wheel alignment shop; loses his father to a heart attack
1974 Fathers a second son, Dale Jr.
1975 Makes a Winston Cup start in the Charlotte 600
1980 Divorces Gee and takes custody of their children
1982 Marries Teresa Houston in November and takes custody of Kerry
1985 Fathers a second daughter, Taylor Nicole
1987 Wins 11 Winston Cup races (his personal best); wins a third Winston Cup championship
1994 Loses his friend, Neil Bonnett, in a car crash
2001 Dies in a crash on February 18 on the last turn at Daytona

Awards and Accomplishments

1979 Named National Society for Stock Car Racing Rookie of the Year
1980, 1986-87, 1990-91, 1993-94 Winston Cup winner
1986 Shatters the track speed record at the Atlanta Journal 500
1994 Ties Richard Petty for most Winston Cup championships
1995 Wins the International Race of Champions series
1998 Wins the Daytona 500

Earnhardt signed with Richard Childress in August of 1981. Childress was a would-be driver himself who, like Earnhardt, had dropped out of school at a young age. Then thirty-six years old, Childress was wheeling and dealing in earnest to build a racing car empire. At the time that he hooked up with Earnhardt he had a parts deal underway with General Motors (GM) at Talladega (in Anniston, Alabama). A tire deal with Goodyear was

already signed and sealed. Earnhardt in turn brought sizable funding with him in the form of a sponsorship contract from Wrangler Jeans.

Still driving Ford cars, Earnhardt finished in twelfth place in points in 1982; he finished eighth in 1983. He renewed his deal with Childress whothrough deals with GM, Goodyear, and otherswas crafting entire cars in the shop. Earnhardt began driving the sturdier Childress chasses and won two Winston circuit races in 1984, to finish in fourth place in points. Ricky Rudd joined the Childress team as a driver around that time.

In 1985, Earnhardt ranked eighth in points for the season. His family by that time had grown to include four children and a new wife. With a larger family to support, Earnhardt pulled out all of the stops, and his reckless competition style emerged with a vengeance. In three out of his four wins that year he bumped other drivers from his path.

At the second Winston Cup race of the 1986 season, at Richmond, Earnhardt knocked Darrell Waltrip's car so hard in the final lap that both drivers spun out. The officials slapped Earnhardt with a $5,000 fine and one year of probation. Although the probation was lifted, the incident sparked an intense rivalry that season between the two drivers. In the end it was Earnhardt, with five wins, who took home the Winston Cup.

Around that time an entrepreneur named Hank Jones had dubbed Earnhardt the Dominator and had printed t-shirts and souvenirs with the moniker. Although the Dominator merchandise never sold well, Jones followed a new hunch and reordered more Earnhardt souvenir merchandise with a different nickname, calling Earnhardt the Intimidator instead. The new name hit pay dirt, and Jones made $180,000 selling Intimidator souvenirs from a trackside trailer in 1985. Before long the name and the logos were registered with the copyright office, and sales outlets were expanded to include a cable television shopping network. Earnhardt created his own marketing company, Sports Image Incorporated, to handle the business, and the name of Dale Earnhardt Sr. became synonymous with the new alias, the Intimidator.

When his seven-year sponsorship arrangement with Wrangler came to a premature conclusion in 1987, Earnhardt turned to GM Goodwrench for funding and used the opportunity to purchase his car number. Thus the familiar black Chevrolet sedan with a big white "3" on the top became Earnhardt's trademark on the track. After winning six of the first eight races in 1987, he finished the season with eleven wins, clinching the Winston Cup with two races still in the offing.

Earnhardt earned a reputation for highly emotional displays and outbursts while driving. He was a moody, aggressive competitor who went after the competition by making physical contact between the cars. It was midway through the 1987 season when he accomplished what will be remembered as his remarkable Pass-in-the-Grass chase at the Charlotte speedway. A skirmish/collision (between Bill Elliott, Geoff Bodine, and Earnhardt) sent Earnhardt skidding onto the grassy bank of the race course. Without missing a lap, the Intimidator stayed the course and kept driving; he returned to the asphalt and continued the race. All three driversElliott, Bodine, and Earnhardtwere fined after the race.

Although tire problems plagued Earnhardt's car during the 1988 season, he bounced back to a second-place finish in 1989. He won his fourth Winston Cup in 1990 and a fifth in 1991. Faced with replacing his crew chief in 1992, Earnhardt slumped into a twelfth place finish. He brought Andy Petree into the organization in 1993, won six of his first eighteen races, and ended the season with a sixth Winston Cup in hand. A third consecutive championship in 1994 came as a result of a consistently winning season wherein he took first place in four races, second place in seven, and third place in six. It was Earnhardt's seventh Winston Cup overall, to tie Richard Petty 's record for most Winston Cup championships.

The death of Neil Bonnett in a crash in 1994 had a profound effect on Earnhardt as the two had been very close. They were hunting buddies and confidants, and had helped each other through difficult times. That year Earnhardt moved his family from Lake Norman to a two-story house in Mooresville, North Carolina. The estate, situated on 900 acres, included a 108,000-foot garage.

Showing no less mercy on the track than before, the Intimidator continued his rule of the asphalt track. A horrific crash at Talladega in 1996 left him with a broken collarbone and sternum, and with a bruised pelvis. Overall he was lucky, but he expressed some concern over a memory blackout during a race at Darlington the following season.

Earnhardt, with an annual income approaching $24.5 million in the late 1990s, sold the Sports Image venture for $30 million in 1996. By 2000 he ranked at number forty on the Forbes list of 100 wealthiest celebrities. In addition to his new home with its so-called Garage Mahal car maintenance facility, he owned a helicopter, a Leer Jet, numerous ATVs, and an oversized trailer, plus he kept a fully staffed yacht moored in Florida.

Death at Daytona

In nearly two decades of Winston Cup competition, including seven championship seasons, Earnhardt met his nemesis every year at Florida's Daytona Speed-way. With eighteen career losses on record at Daytona Beach, his determination to win the 500-mile classic approached fanaticism. In 1997 he flipped his car but managed to walk away from the crash. He headed for a waiting ambulance as his head cleared, suddenly realizing that all four wheels and tires on his car remained intact. He beat the wrecker crew back to his car, slid into the cab, and finished the racealbeit in thirty-first place.

Related Biography: Winston Cup Driver Neil Bonnett

Neil Bonnett of Hueyville, Alabama, was born in 1946. He worked as a pipe fitter in high-rise construction before entering the race car circuit. After driving for Butch Nelson in 1972, Bonnett joined the Winston Cup circuit in 1974, winning his first event in 1977 and taking a total of eighteen Winston Cup races during his career.

Despite shattering his leg in a crash in Charlotte in 1987, Bonnett returned to the circuit three months later with a plate in his hip. In 1988 he won three races, but he crashed again in 1989 and broke his sternum. A crash at Darlington in 1990 left Bonnett with severe amnesia and effectively ended his career.

Bonnett and Earnhardt were close friends, and it was the memory of bagging a prize buck with Earnhardt that snapped Bonnett from the amnesia. Recovered, he retired from auto racing to become a color commentator and host of his own show on The Nashville Network (TNN).

Like Earnhardt, Bonnett earned a reputation for no-holds-barred auto racing, and in 1993 he opted to return to the Winston Cup circuit. After testing some Monte Carlos for Childress, he was set to race at Talladega on July 25. He crashed that day, but walked away unhurt. After scheduling a fiverace farewell tour, Bonnett crashed and died on February 11, 1994, at the fourth turn at Daytona, while practicing for the first race of his farewell tour.

On July 12, 1993, just months before his own death, it was Bonnett who pulled Davey Allison from the wreckage of a helicopter crash that caused Allison's death. Bonnett was inducted into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.

One year later, in 1998, Earnhardt took the theretofore elusive first prize at Daytona. It was a hard-earned win. Three years passed again, until 2001 when Earnhardt lost the race and his life in one final instant. The drive that day had progressed with Earnhardt leading in laps number 27 through 31. He was back in front on the eighty-third and eighty-fourth laps. Some time later a 19-car pile up and crash on lap number 174 caused a ruckus but little injury. Flamboyantly, Earnhardt flipped an obscene gesture with his finger to Kurt Bursch when they pinged bumpers during the course.

The number 3 sedan with its cocksure driver regained the lead in lap number 183. In the final lap Earnhardt approached the finish on a wild drive. He was in third place and blocking for two members of his team who held the lead. The trio was poised for a memorable three-way win, but the victory stalled with only seconds left to the finish. Earnhardt's car, clipped from behind, went out of control and careened into a car driven by Kenny Schrader. Both cars left the track and nosed into the wall on the final turn of the race. Schrader emerged from his car without help while Earnhardt remained motionless in the wreck. Earnhardt was pronounced dead at 5:16 p.m. at the Halifax Medical Center, from a basal skull fracture.

Earnhardt over the years had matured into a devoted family man. After the 1980 Winston Cup season, having divorced Gee and assumed custody of their two children, he married Teresa Houston in November of 1982. Their daughter, Taylor Nicole, was born in 1985. He took custody of his older son Kerry as well. He loved the wilderness and was an avid hunter and fisherman.

At the time of his death Earnhardt remained tied with Richard Petty for the most Winston Cups in history. In At the Altar of Speed, Leigh Montville said of Earnhardt, "He was the bridge, the connector," between the old world of auto racing and modern high-stakes game at the turn of the twenty-first century.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Benson, Michael. Race Car Legends: Dale Earnhardt. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.

Montville, Leigh. At the Altar of Speed: The Fast Life and Tragic Death of Dale Earnhardt. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Periodicals

Independent (London, England) (February 20, 2001): 6.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (February 20, 2001): C1.

Other

"Neil Bonnett - International Motorsports Hall of Fame Member," International Motor Sports Hall of Fame. http://www.motorsportshalloffame.com/halloffame/2001/Neil_Bonnett_main.htm (January 27, 2003).

Sketch by G. Cooksey