Who can ever forget Dale Earnhardt? He was to racing what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He transcended the sport like no man before him. Like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson he pulled and pushed his sport into the television era. That made him the biggest star NASCAR has ever seen.
His cold as steel nerve and his unwillingness to lose made him unforgettable to not only his fans but to racing fans everywhere. Fans either love or hate The Intimidator, there is no neutral ground when it comes to Earnhardt Sr. His famous quote said it all “If you’re not a race driver, stay the hell home,” Earnhardt said. “Don’t come out here and grumble about going too fast.” That statement told people what he thought and revealed how he felt.
We think Dale Earnhardt Sr was the toughest of them all and anyone who ever saw him knows he was the Man.The third of five children, Dale was born on April 29, 1951 in Kannapolis, N.C. His mother, Martha, tended to the family, while his father, Ralph, split time between working in the local mill and racing cars. Ralph, who was a well-known engine builder, became a local legend as a short-track driver and won the NASCAR Sportsman Division Championship in 1956. In 1961 he posted seven top 10 finishes in eight starts in the Winston Cup Series division.
His son, Ralph Dale Earnhardt’s passion for the sport began at an early age. By his teenage years he was racing Hobby-class cars. To the disappointment of his parents, Dale quit school in the ninth grade and began working jobs while racing on the side.
When he was seventeen he wed Latane Brown — his first of three marriages — and for the first time a year later when she gave birth to Kerry the first of his four children. His marriage to Brenda Gee produced Kelley and Dale Junior. His marriage to Theresa produced his youngest daughter, Taylor.
His life changed in 1973, when Ralph suffered a fatal heart attack while working in the garage. Soon after, Dale Earnhardt dedicated his life to racing. “Following in his footsteps is all I’ve wanted to do,” he said.
Quitting his job at a wheel alignment shop the following year to chase a dream, he started competing more on the dirt-tracks of North Carolina. His stock-car racing debut came in 1975. He placed 22nd in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Unable to get many rides, he started only eight races during the next three years and earned less than $25,000. But things turned brighter in 1979 when he gained his first NASCAR victory, at Bristol, Tenn. Earnhardt finished the season seventh in points and was voted Rookie of the Year.
He followed that with five victories and the Winston Cup title in 1980 to become the first driver to win top rookie honors and the championship in successive years.
Then came a bump in the track. Rod Osterlund disbanded his team midway through the 1981 season, leading Earnhardt to run for Richard Childress’ team for the last 11 races. But Childress wouldn’t commit for the following season, and Earnhardt was forced to join Bud Moore’s team.
In 1984, Earnhardt and Childress came together again, starting one of the most amazing relationships in auto-racing history. Earnhardt placed fourth in the standings that year, his best finish since 1980. He claimed the championship in 1986, surpassing the million dollar mark in earnings for the first time in a season and followed that with an even bigger things.
Of the 29 races he started in 1987, Earnhardt won 11 and placed in the top five 21 times to earn more than $2 million and a second straight Winston Cup title. He was named American Driver of the Year and National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year.
In 1990, he won his fourth Winston Cup title, beating Mark Martin by 26 points. He followed with another Winston Cup title the next year.
After slipping to 12th place in the point standings in 1992, he reeled off another two straight championships to tie Petty’s record of seven Winston Cups.
Dale Earnhardt’s No. 3 car became the most recognizable car in all of racing. He was at the top. But he lacked one trophy. Through all his success, Earnhardt had never won the Daytona 500. Not that he hadn’t come close: three times between 1993-96 he lost on the final lap.
Finally, in 1998, the jinx was broken. Breaking a 59-race winless streak, Earnhardt averaged 172.712 miles per hour, the fastest time by a Daytona 500 winner since the 80′s.
“I’m here and I’ve got that goddamn monkey off my back,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane.
In 2000 Forbes magazine ranked his financial empire fifth largest among world athletes. His Dale Earnhardt Inc., which was formed in 1980, was valued at an estimated $100 million.
Career victory No. 76 — his last — came in the Winston 500 at Talladega, Ala., in October 2000. Earnhardt moved from 18th to first in the last five laps.
Four months later he attempted to become the fourth man to win the Daytona 500 as an owner as well as a driver. Entering Turn 4 on the final lap, his car made contact with Sterling Marlin’s before it was hit by Ken Schrader’s vehicle on the passenger side. Although Earnhardt’s car struck the wall head-on at a reported 160 miles per hour, few immediately recognized the accident’s severity. “You figure he’ll bounce right back,” driver Jeremy Mayfield said. “Your first thought is, ‘Hey, he’ll probably come back next week at Rockingham and beat us all.’ ”
There would be no comeback. Earnhardt was pronounced dead less than a half-hour later at nearby Halifax Hospital. Cause of death was listed as a basilar skull fracture.
In the months leading up to his final race, Earnhardt insisted his career was nowhere near the end. “Some people hang on too long just trying to get one last victory,” he said. “It will be tough getting out of the car for the last time, but I’ll know when to do it.”
We all know now that he never got out that last time. He died on the track at Daytona International Speedway. His final lap he watched the future of the sport he loved. He watched his own son up ahead of him and we’d like to think that made him smile. If you wrote it in a book it wouldn’t be believable. The man who was known for his ruthless driving and his unstoppable will to win conceded victory that day, then died. Instead of making one more run to the checkered, like so many races before, he blocked so that his cars and his son would be assured their place that day.
Dale, there is not a day goes by that the sport does not miss you. Without the Earnhardts NASCAR would simply be an expensive merry go round.
We thank you for the thrills. We thank you for the memories.We thank you for the greatest gift a man can give, your sons.
The Intimidator is dead, may long live his sons.