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The Man in Black

 

 

He was six feet tall, but he seemed taller. He was an imposing figure. As he swaggered through the garage area, Dale Earnhardt commanded respect. It seemed like you either loved him or you hated him; you either dreaded the sight of him or welcomed it.

He was born in a small town in North C’lina (that’s the way he pronounced it). His father, Ralph, worked in the textile mill and in his spare time scraped, scratched, patched and wired together race cars. He loved to race on the local dirt tracks and soon became well known for his style of racing.  He raced for position most of the race, but according to Humpy Wheeler; “…Then, as it got to the end, there he was.  He was like some apparition out of the clouds.  You’d wonder where he came from.” (1) Dale went to the races with his daddy, watching, learning, absorbing.

Soon he was racing too. Just like his father, he scratched out an existence any way he could, just as long as he could race. Racing was all he ever wanted to do. He didn’t just race, he was a racer. As he terrorized the local dirt tracks, people began noticing the brash kid who wrecked more cars than he won with. He moved through their ranks like a bulldozer, charging to the front in almost every race.

Inevitably, the powers that be on the big racing circuits took notice of him. He was hired by a NASCAR Winston Cup car owner. He raced. He wrecked. He won. Soon everyone on the NASCAR circuits knew his name.

He got married and got divorced twice. Racing was his love, his life, his all. He had three children, but was unable to support them.

One historical day, he was hired to drive a Richard Childress car. Dale was now in a good car and he showed his talent. In his first full season on the Winston Cup Circuit, known as the rookie year, he won a race. Only a few other drivers had done that. Very few. The very next season he won the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship. No one else had ever done that. No one. The brash kid from North Carolina had come a long way. A high school dropout who didn’t like to talk to the media because he thought people would make fun of the way he talked, was now a champion.

Goodwrench sponsored a car for the team. They painted it black. The Goodwrench logo was in white and a big white number “3” outlined in red dominated the sides and top of the car. History had been written.

Dale always had women around. They were attracted to his dashing style, his good looks, his aura.  A young lady named Teresa figured out a way to get close to him. Rod Osterlund said, “She was always around, but she was part of a group.  Dale had at lot of women…..at every track during that 1980 season.  Tereasa did a smart thing.  She became involved with his kids.  Whever they were around, she was taking care of them…..She got her man.”(1a)  By this time he was earning enough money that he was able to get custody of his kids. His ex-wife’s house burned down and the two older kids came to live with Dale. Soon his third son joined them. Teresa took care of the kids while Dale was racing. And history was written again.

Teresa and Dale got married. They had a daughter named Taylor Nicole. The little girl was the light of Dale’s life. Teresa taught him that there was more to life than running over people on the racetrack. He eased up a little, his driving was not as rough. He still drove through spaces that weren’t there, but somehow he managed to get through. Teresa had a lot of business savvy, and she became the manager of the fast growing empire of this young man who lived to race. That took a big load off his shoulders and let him spend more time with his racing.

That black car with the white number 3 on it roared and rampaged through the field of cars. It became a driver’s worst nightmare to look into his rearview mirror and see that black number 3 behind him. People joked that the school kids in his hometown were taught how to count, “1, 2, Dale Earnhardt, 4….”

Dale went on to win seven Winston Cup Championships, tying an all time record set by Richard Petty, who was known as the King of stock car racing. The stands at every race were sold out. Even if people had another favorite driver, they always looked to see where that black number 3 was. He was the one they came to watch. He stirred up controversy. He won too much. He wrecked too many people. He was their favorite driver. More stands were added at all the race tracks. NASCAR was the fastest growing sport in the country. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that Dale Earnhardt was probably the biggest reason that happened. His souvenir sales earned more than all other drivers’ combined. The internet had more websites on Dale Earnhardt than on any other driver.

I have two sleep disorders and fibromyalgia. Also, unknown to me, a kidney stone was embedded in my ureter. One of the medications I was on caused me to gain 60 pounds. The doctor said, “Lose the weight.”

So I exercised. I walked on trails out in the forest with my black lab, named Earnhardt, by my side.. The pain was awful. Using a ski pole I literally dragged myself, step by step. Every time I wanted to quit, I’d think to myself, “What would Dale do?” And I kept going. The pounds began to come off, ever so slowly. The agonizing pain remained. “What would Dale do?” I kept exercising. He was my inspiration and my “driving” force. I knew he would never quit in a hundred years, so I didn’t either.

On the track he was rough, tough and terrible. Off the track he was a loving father, husband and son. He anonymously created the Earnhardt Fund.  The Foundation for the Carolinas would collect the gifts and distribute them to the charities selected by the Earnhardts. (2) He didn’t want anyone to know about all the charity work he did. He called a 15-year-old kid who was dying of cancer at the hospital and talked to him for about 14 minutes.  Chip Williams, who was in NASCAR public relations at that time thought it was a pretty cool thing for Earnhardt to do.  He told some reporters about it, and they wanted to interview Dale.  It made him mad.  He told Chip “I don’t want to talk about it. I didn’t do it for the publicity.  And I don’t want that kid to think that was the reason I called.”  (3)

His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had also joined the Winston Cup circuit full time by now. Dale was so proud of him. They were as different as day and night. Dale was country, he lived on a farm, tended to livestock, listened to country music,   Jr. was rock and roll, baggy pants and baseball caps on backwards. Dale had few close friends, Jr. had a ton of ‘em. Dale went to bed early, Jr. went to bed late. But they shared one thing. Those racing genes! Jr. had won races too. He was good. Very good.

Dale had a quiet wisdom, what they call horse sense in the country. My favorite quote is; “In life sometimes there are hurdles you get over and some you don’t. On the ones you don’t, well, you just keep trying until you do.” (4)He was a happy man, he felt he had it all. All but one thing.

He roared through the racing community, winning at everything. Except one. The crown jewel of racing, the season opener, the Daytona 500, had eluded him. Several times he fell out of the race completely with engine trouble. Several times, too many times, he came in second. In 1995 he came in second again. “I don’t reckon I’m supposed to win the damn thing,” (5)he said, with his trademark wry grin.

Then, in 1998, excitement was high. Dale had a new crew chief. They had high hopes for the season. The race went well. Towards the end, Dale was leading again. The laps wound down, and he was still leading. He refused to get excited, and so did his fans. We’d seen this movie before. Ten to go. Six to go. Three to go. The fans began to come to their feet. Even fans that didn’t like him were cheering him on. Two to go. The roar of the crowd drowned out the roar of the engines and overcame the soundproofing of the announcers’ booth. He approached the one to go signal. Still, we’d seen this movie before. Then, behind him, cars spinning, a big cloud of smoke. The caution flag came out along with the white flag. DALE EARNHARDT HAD FINALLY WON THE DAYTONA 500!!!!!! The announcers were almost hysterical. “On his 20 try Dale Earnhardt wins the Daytona 500! Finally!”

A quiet voice came over the radio. “Way to go, guys,”(6) he said to his crew. They were almost hysterical too. The fans were definitely hysterical! Another quiet voice, “Way to go, Dad!”(7) He took his victory lap to the sound of 100,000 people roaring approval. Then he started down pit lane towards the approach to Victory Lane, and an unprecedented thing happened. Virtually every man of every crew lined pit road, high-fiving him as he drove by. Nothing like that had ever been seen before in the history of stock car racing. Later he said, “Man, I had to slow way down! They damn near broke my arm off!”(8)

Finally he could stand it no longer. The jubilation broke through. He turned that car down into the grass of the infield and began spinning it around and around. When he was done, amazingly, a number 3 was inscribed in the sod. It didn’t last long, fans were there in droves grabbing a piece of it. “I’m pretty good at writin’, huh?” (9) he bragged. The celebration wore on and on and on. Nobody wanted to leave.

Finally, the media packed up their lights and cameras and left. The fans trickled out, the broadcaster’s booth shut down. It got dark and the track was deserted. Almost. One lone person was driving around the track in a golf cart, of all things! Dale was still there, quietly savoring his greatest victory.

The racing community expected great things from him now. But, the man in black didn’t win another race that year. The year after that, he didn’t win any at all. People began to say, “Ol’ Dale, he’s done. He’s getting old.” Others expected an announcement that he would be retiring at the end of the season. He’d lost his edge, they said. He wasn’t winning, he wasn’t really that competitive. Uh huh.

During the brief off season between 1999 and 2000 he underwent surgery on his back, neck and head. He healed quickly. Intensive therapy and the care of the best doctors he could find helped speed the process.

When the 2000 season opened, Dale was there. He swaggered through the garage area with a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye that had been missing for a long time. He said he felt great! The Man in Black was back! And he began winning races. He finished in the top ten consistently. It looked like that eighth championship was within his grasp. Lost his edge? Hah! Too old? I don’t think so!

He stirred up his share of controversy, as usual. At the Bristol night race he bumped Terry Labonte out of his way, sending Terry spinning into the wall. He won, but when he climbed out of his car there was no joy in his eyes and his trademark grin was absent. He looked worried, and asked if Terry was okay. “I didn’t mean to turn him around, I just wanted to rattle his cage a little.”(10)

Then came Talladega. Four laps to go, and Dale was seventeenth. Ahead of him was a snarling, snapping pack of cars, all seeking that checkered flag. “Well, he ain’t gonna get this one,” said the fans. But wait!! What’s that? Somehow, he scratched, clawed, banged, bumped, scraped and scrabbled his way to the front. The fans were on their feet. Ol’ Dale took the checkered flag. Once again the roar from the stands drowned out the roar of the engines. This time the announcers were almost speechless. “How’d he DO that?”

He raced his way to the end of the season, but finished second in the points. His eighth championship had eluded him by just a few points.

The 2001 season began. We knew the Man in Black was back, this was gonna be a great season. This was the Daytona 500. Would he win again? Dale was lounging around on pit road when a reporter stopped for an interview. He grinned, and told the reporter that he was gonna see something today that had never been seen before.

It was time for the drivers to get into their cars. With one arm around his son and the other around his wife, Dale approached his car. He turned and whispered something into Jr.’s ear. With a big grin, Jr. nodded and went off towards his car. Dale climbed into his car, and then stuck his head out to get a kiss from Teresa. That kiss was one of the most loving, tender kisses I have ever seen. It was a totally uncharacteristic display of emotion from the Man in Black when he had his race face on. Then Dale went about the business of buckling himself in, and as Teresa turned away she appeared to be crying. Maybe she had a presentiment. Maybe she was just proud of him.

Forty-two engines roared into life and the Daytona 500 was on! And guess who was leading when there were only a few laps to go? Nope. Not Dale. Michael Waltrip, a very close friend of Dale’s, and also an employee, driving a car owned by Dale, was in the lead. Right behind him was Dale Jr. In third, driving like a madman, weaving back and forth across the track at almost 200 miles an hour, that black number 3 car held back the pack of cars behind him long enough for his friend and his son to get far ahead.

In the broadcast booth, Michael’s brother Darrell cheered him on to victory. Michael had never won a Winston Cup race, and now, with Dale’s help, he’d won the Daytona 500!

As Michael and Jr. crossed the finish line the 40 car of Sterling Marlin tapped the back end of Dale’s car, ever so lightly. The black number 3 bounced down into the grass and then headed straight up the track for the outside wall. Milliseconds before he hit, the 36 car of Ken Shrader t-boned his car. The double impact caused Dale’s seat belts to fail. His car hit the wall. Hard. And Dale Earnhardt was gone. Dale Earnhardt was gone.

Dale Earnhardt was gone.

In the broadcast booth Darrell was talking to his brother, excited and happy. Then Darrell turned and looked at the monitor. The joy drained from his face, and his expression chilled my blood. He managed to say a few more words to Michael, then he took the headphones off and just stared at the monitor with that terrible expression on his face.

But, Dale would be okay. Wouldn’t he? He’d been in much worse wrecks than that. He always pulled through. He might be a little stiff and sore, but he’d be okay. He was tough. He was invincible. He was Dale Earnhardt!!

As word spread, the fans gathered outside the race track. They gathered outside Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in Mooresville, North Carolina. They grieved. They stood in silence, a deafening silence, filled with the roar of the black number 3. The internet sprang to life. Our little site got more than 100,000 hits in the first 24 hours after his death. People from seven different countries, not counting the United States, left messages of condolence. Poems, songs, anecdotes and words of sympathy poured in. A country mourned the passing of a great man, arguably, the greatest race car driver that ever lived. NASCAR would never be the same again. The thrill was gone. The man whom thousands gathered to watch was no longer there. The heart went out of the sport.

I wrote a song too. It was to the tune of “Go Rest High On That Mountain”, performed by Vince Gill. Three weeks after his death I summoned up the courage to sing it at a karaoke bar. I dedicated the song to Dale, and as I began to sing, another unprecedented thing happened. The bar went totally silent. The pool players stopped playing and stood silently watching. No one talked, no ice rattled, no glasses clinked. Silence reigned as I sang:

You gave your fans a living legend,

We thrilled to hear that engine roar.

You weren’t afraid to face a challenge,

And now you knock on heaven’s door.

 

Go rest high on that mountain.

Son, your work on earth is done.

Go to heaven shouting

Love for the Father and the Son.

Oh, how we cried the day you left us.

We lost a hero and a friend.

You’ll always be my inspiration.

Your legacy will never end.

Go rest high on that mountain.

Son, your work on earth is done.

Go to heaven shouting

Love for the Father and the Son.

 

(1)  Quoted from At The Altar Of Speed by Leigh Montville, p.26

(1a) At The Altar Of Speed, p. 89

(2)  From At The Altar Of Speed, beginning of Chapter 10, p 169

(3)  Anchorage Daily News, Wednesday February 21, 2001, article by Chip   Williams.

(4)  interview on tv..don’t remember with who, but he was wearing a blue shirt, it’s on one of the memorial tapes too.    I believe it is accurate within a word or two.

(5) The Pass In The Grass, book by the Charlotte Observer, article by Tom Higgins, p. 85

(6) CD burned by Top Gun aka Bobby Heal (I don’t know where he got the recording)

(7) same as above

(8) same as above

(9) At The Altar Of Speed, p. 144

(10) Article in Bristol Herald Courier, Allen Gregory, reprinted in Bristol tribute pamphlet March 2001

Other sources are numerous articles in Winston Cup Scene

 

In life there are some hurdles you get over and some you don’t.  For the ones you don’t get over….well you keep trying until you do. —-Dale Earnhardt

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