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The Intimidator: Dale Earnhardt's Life In The Fast Lane

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 20, 2023 3:00 am

The Intimidator: Dale Earnhardt's Life In The Fast Lane

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 20, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, when one thinks of basketball, they might think of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, and when one thinks of football they might think of Tom Brady or Jerry Rice...when one thinks of NASCAR though, only one name stands above the rest. Dale Earnhardt. Here's Jay Busbee, author of Earnhardt Nation, with the story of "The Intimidator"

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This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. Very rarely can one man encapsulate the image of a particular sport to the average observer in basketball, perhaps Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Magic Johnson. Notice it's not a singular name, but in NASCAR only one name comes to mind for most people and that's Dale Earnhardt, who died on this day in February of 2001 and the millions of us who are watching. Well, we'll never forget that day. Here to tell the story of Dale is Jay Busby, a lead writer at Yahoo Sports and the author of Earnhardt Nation.

Take it away, Jay. Daytona International Speedway can house as many as 150,000 fans and on this day the entire track was sold out. It was a beautiful day of blue skies, warm weather. It's the kind of weather that everybody else in the country is looking at Daytona and saying, man, I wish I was there. Down below on the pits, you could see the cars lined up in a row one after the other and on pit row it's absolute chaos. There are drivers there, there are crew chiefs there, there's family there, there's media there, but right there by the number three, right there by Dale Earnhardt's black Goodrich number three is Teresa Earnhardt. Sharp and businesslike in a deep purple blazer, black slacks and sunglasses, she kisses him once, her right hand curled around the back of his head, then she kisses him again. They're not long kisses or deep meaningful ones.

There's a loving but routine kiss as a wife gives her husband as he heads off to his job. Broadly speaking, the Daytona 500 is called NASCAR Super Bowl, but that's not quite fair for a number of reasons. First of all, the Daytona 500 is older than the Super Bowl and second of all, the Daytona 500 can house more people in the track than the Super Bowl can, sometimes by as much as a factor of three. Also, most importantly, the Daytona 500 starts the season rather than ending it and on this particular Daytona 500 you had the start of a new century, at the start of a new millennium and you had to start a new era in NASCAR and you had both young drivers and old drivers in the field, drivers like Dale Earnhardt, drivers like Bobby and Terry Levani, drivers like Mark Martin who had been around for a long time and then you had new drivers who were coming along like Dale Earnhardt Jr., like Matt Kenseth and then like Jeff Gordon. I'm going with the man who has won more races here at Daytona than anybody in history, Dale Earnhardt, the Intimidator, will pull into victory lane when the checkered flag falls. The Daytona 500 had a very special meaning for Dale Earnhardt and he always loved this race more than any other.

He chased it for many, many years. On this day, he was preparing to run the race when NASCAR was experiencing a seismic change. The significance was Fox Sports had just begun broadcasting NASCAR. This was going to be their first race and the reason why this was significant was it marked NASCAR's elevation into a higher level of American sports. For many, many years beforehand, NASCAR had been spread out over as many as seven broadcast networks. You had to check every single weekend to figure out where the race was going to be, what channel it was going to be on.

Fox comes in and off of about 10 years worth of success broadcasting the NFL they said, you know what? We're going to broadcast NASCAR now. We're going to make NASCAR huge. And what they did was in their characteristic Fox way, made it into an event, made it into a spectacle. And at the center of that spectacle was Dale Earnhardt. Can you win your second 500 today? Well, we got a good shot at it, got a good race car.

A little windy today, a little exciting. I think it's going to be some exciting racing. Going to see something you probably had never seen on Fox. He was going to be the star for Fox going forward.

They were going to have him be, have the entire season centered on him. They were going to be bringing Dale Earnhardt into the Fox NFL studios later that year. They had an entire plan and this was legitimizing NASCAR in the eyes of the world. It had been thought of as a Southern hillbilly sport, bunch of rednecks running around in circles. And this was a sign that the entire country was going to be taking NASCAR more seriously.

So it had all of the trappings, all of the celebration, all of the buildup that you would expect with a major Fox event. The Daytona 500 is 200 laps of racing on a two and a half mile track, hence the 500 in the race's name. And for many of those 200 laps, you have drivers who are kind of jockeying for position. It's one of the two biggest tracks on the NASCAR circuit. It's a super speedway, which means drivers can go all out, hammer down, mash the pedal to the floor and never let up all the way around the track. What that also means is that the wrecks can be a lot more devastating.

It can be a lot more catastrophic. It's a high speed chess match, except that in this case, the chess pieces often fly into the air. And you had that on lap 175 when Robbie Gordon hit the back of Ward Burton's car. Ward Burton runs into Tony Stewart and Tony Stewart's car flips almost vertical with the car pointing straight up and down. Now the sad irony of this is that the car narrowly misses Dale Earnhardt's number three. If Stewart had come down on Earnhardt's car, if he clipped it, if he caused a little bit of damage, who knows how the rest of the day would have turned out.

But in the end, what happened was to, in order to clean up this wreck, they stopped the race. They prepare for the final few laps of the race. And at this point, what we have is Dale Earnhardt himself up at the front of the pack alongside Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. These are two drivers who are the drivers for Dale Earnhardt's own team. So Earnhardt had his own interests at heart, but he also had these two drivers to look out for as well. And so as the final laps of the race wound down, it became apparent that what Earnhardt was doing was setting up these two drivers to win.

They were at the front of the field. Michael Waltrip in first, Dale Jr. in second, Dale Sr. in third. And what Dale Sr. was doing was playing defense.

He was, as the old saying goes, driving three wide all by himself. He was trying to hold off the entire rest of the field to give his two drivers a chance to win. Now in the final turn of the 2001 Daytona 500, what happened was it got to be too much. Dale Sr. gets turned into the wall by a Sterling Marlin's car, drives straight into the wall, and what happens then is that the car, Dale Sr.'s car, hits the wall at an angle at a sharp impact and then rolls back down the hill. Now seeing a wreck at the end of the Daytona 500 is not all that uncommon. It happens an awful lot as as drivers are trying to jockey into position for that final run at the checkered flag.

What happened in this case was Dale Sr.'s car drifts back down into the infield and then nothing. When we come back, more of the remarkable story of Dale Earnhardt's life here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

Go to to learn more. And we return to Our American Stories and our story on Dale Earnhardt with Jay Busby, a lead writer at Yahoo Sports and author of Earnhardt Nation. When we last left off, Jay was talking about the end of Earnhardt's life. But to fully understand the man, we have to start from the beginning.

Let's get back to the story. Take Sunset Road off Interstate 77 just north of Charlotte. Cruise past the local McDonald's, Arby's, and other classic symbols of Americana. Turn on Statesville Road and drive past the exhibit halls of the Metrolina Trade Show Expo, home of dusty rows of discount DVDs and decades old Beanie Babies. Park in the open field near the rusty fence that encloses something large beyond.

From this distance, you can't quite tell what. There's a bouquet of plastic flowers jammed into the chain link fence, a jarring splash of brilliant purple amid rust and ruin. The flowers mark the entry to the long-defunct Metrolina Speedway, a place every bit as legendary here as old Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The chains that held the fence together lie on the ground, their locks beside them.

If you like, you can walk right in. A short, root-cracked paved road leads up to the top of the grandstands. The sign that used to arc over this walkway, welcome to Metrolina Speedway, the I as stylized number one, is long gone, as are the red and white painted ticket booth at the base of the hill and the press box atop the grandstand. All that's left now are those grandstands, giant steps of painted concrete looking out on emptiness. Graffiti-covered walls circumscribe the tracks half-mile oval. Weeds and time have claimed it all. Look a little closer, though.

Use a little imagination. Once, two dozen cars wheeled through these turns, spitting red Carolina clay into the exhaust and oil-scented air, the sound of their engines so loud it was just one unified, bone-rumbling hum. In these stands, families cheered on sons and brothers and fathers, and on rare occasions, daughters, who threw themselves hard into the turns, and often hard into the walls, where something they labored over for days, months, even years, could be reduced to scrap in moments.

Imagine the desperation of crews trying to coax life out of a dead engine. Imagine the exultation of drivers using wits, cunning, brains, and balls to triumph over a field of sons just every bit as crafty as they were. The races often ran on Saturday night, yes, but what happened here was as holy and sanctified as anything you'd experienced the next morning. This desolate track is the place where family bonds were forged, broken, and then forged even stronger.

This once-proud arena is the place where the most famous story in racing first hit red line speed. A few miles up the road stands Kannapolis, North Carolina, a small town about 30 miles away from Charlotte. This is a company town built to house the workers who worked at the Cannon Mills. People who lived there worked in the mill morning, noon, and night, and they were the workers who worked in the mill morning, noon, and night.

Every day except Sunday the mill would run, and every day except Sunday the workers would leave their houses, work at the mill for their shift, and return home. It was a very programmed and defined existence, and this is exactly where the legend of Dale Earnhardt was born. Kannapolis was the home of Ralph Earnhardt. He was born in 1928 and dropped out of school in sixth grade to work in the Cannon Mills. He was expected to live in a way that so many of his neighbors did.

Grow up, go to school for a time, work in the mills, raise a family, and keep on working until he retired. But Ralph Earnhardt was built as something different than most mill workers. Ralph Earnhardt had a need and a desire to race. He had a talent for it, and he nurtured it, and he raced as much as he possibly could while doing mill work at the time. He found the mill work to be unnecessarily confining, and he found the freedom of racing to be what brought him happiness. So in 1953, after having spent years working full-time and then racing in his off hours, he decided I'm going to give racing full-time a try. He told his wife Martha this.

She was horrified. They had a bunch of children there. They had five children, including young Dale who was born in 1951, and yet what Ralph did was managed to turn himself into a single-person enterprise responsible for every single part of the racing machine, from driving the car in races to getting the car to and from races to repairing it during the week when he wasn't racing.

And he managed to pull it off. He managed to run an entire racing operation for many, many years, and as he did, he built himself into one of the most significant figures in early NASCAR history. When Ralph Earnhardt was racing, it was a very different landscape than what we see today or even what Dale Earnhardt saw in his day. There was a lot of racing on dirt.

There was a lot of racing on concrete, but there wasn't a whole lot of organization to either of them. A lot of drivers learned their racing style through bootlegging. You learn to drive a car pretty quickly and pretty well when you're running from the law, and they learned how to handle a car. They learned how to set up a car.

They learned how to wheel a car in a way that even today's drivers would have trouble matching. When Ralph Earnhardt made the decision to go full-time into racing, he made the promise to his wife Martha that the children would not starve, that they wouldn't go hungry, that they wouldn't lose their house, and having that always burning behind him made him that much more responsible and that much more driven to do everything possible to win. The way that NASCAR works now, even the last place finisher gets a paycheck, but at the time when Ralph Earnhardt was racing in all these little unsanctioned events all over North Carolina and all over the South, if you finished much further below second, you didn't get anything, and worse, you could get your car wrecked and you could come out in the hole by several hundred or even thousand dollars if things didn't work out that way.

That was a way for you to, it certainly focused your interest and your desire and your willpower in terms of racing if you knew that you were racing for your family's groceries that week. One of the innovations that Ralph Earnhardt brought to racing was something called tire stagger, and what this is is a way for a driver to have his tires last longer and provide better grip. You've got to have strong tires, you've got to have tires that will hold you onto the track, and Ralph Earnhardt figured out a little bit of geometry in the sense that if you think of a car going in a straight line, then the tires are going to wear equally, but if you think of a car going around a turn, going around a left-hand turn, then the left side tires are going to be traveling a shorter distance than the right side tires.

This means the right side tires are going to blow out quicker because there's more mileage being put on them over the course of a race. Ralph Earnhardt figured this out and started putting larger tires on the outside, therefore there was more tread to be worn off as they were driving around. He was able, using this, to outlast his competitors, to stay tight on a track when many of them couldn't, and he was able to use this technique to prolong the life of his tires, to prolong the life of his cars, and basically keep himself off the wall. He figured this out with a sixth grade education.

Obviously, it's been refined to a much, much greater degree at this point, but Ralph was one of the first people to figure this out and use this in a race to start winning races and bringing home that money. Dale Earnhardt was born in 1951, and he grew up in kind of a perfect encapsulation of a certain kind of Americana. He played cowboys and Indians in the yard as a kid.

He played with cap guns. He would race go-carts, and he would play in the afternoons, and his mom would call him home for supper. So it was the sort of idyllic upbringing that really laid the foundation for him, but along with that, he had the kind of classic American silent, reserved father who would not often give a lot of praise, both because that was Ralph Earnhardt's personality and because he didn't see the need in it.

He focused more on what was right in front of him, and what was in front of him was trying to win a race. Dale Earnhardt grew up idolizing his father. Dale adored Ralph. Dale worshipped Ralph, and he spent hours and hours out in the garage paying attention to what his father was doing, trying to learn from his father, trying to understand what it was that his father was doing under the hoods of all these cars. Dale Earnhardt decided to race for the same reason that his father had. He was good at it, and it kept him out of the mill. And we've been listening to Jay Busby tell one heck of a story about Dale Earnhardt and his father, and we learn that his father had worked at the local mill in Kannapolis, North Carolina, where men, well, went to school for a time and then just went to the mill and worked till they retired.

And there's nothing wrong in that. There's honor and dignity in all work, but his father wanted something more and discovered a passion for racing, and the son would learn all about this passion and joy and freedom, watching his father do it every day in the garage and at the track. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, a father-son story, among many other things, here on Our American Stories. And we return to Our American Stories and our story on Dale Earnhardt with Jay Busby, a lead writer at Yahoo! Sports and author of Earnhardt Nation.

Go to Amazon or the Usual Suspects and pick this book up. You won't put it down. When we last left off, Jay was talking about Dale Earnhardt's dad, Ralph, who decided to quit his mill job in the 1950s to go full time into racing. And my goodness, his wife, well, she was not pleased and could not have been pleased with that decision. Young Dale would follow in his dad's footsteps.

Let's return to the story. Dale Earnhardt grew up idolizing his father and grew up wanting to be like Ralph, so much so that he too decided to quit school. He actually lasted three more grades longer than Ralph did. Dale quit in ninth, whereas Ralph had quit in sixth. It frustrated his parents to no end that Dale quit school, but they couldn't really say anything because Ralph had done the same thing and had been successful. Dale Earnhardt decided to race for the same reason that his father had. He was good at it and it kept him out of the mill. He understood that if he kept on going in the life that he was in, that he was going to be headed to a life of millwork.

And he didn't want that. He believed that he had the talent, he had the genetics, and he had the willpower to get into a car and to start winning races and bringing home money like his father did. His very first car was an old, beat up 1956 Ford Victoria that was owned by his neighbors. And the irony of this is that the first car that Dale Earnhardt drove was pink. The big bad Intimidator with his future black number three car drove a pink car for the first time largely because of a painting accident.

They thought that they were going to be painting it a sleek purple color and once the paint dried it turned into the pink of an uncooked steak. So his very first car was pink, but he drove it well enough to get some financial backing to keep driving forward and to convince himself that he did belong in a race car and not necessarily working at a mill for the rest of his life. The legend was that Ralph Earnhardt died in his garage working on his car, but the truth is a little more mundane, but just as sad he died at his kitchen table working on a carburetor in September 1973. He was just 45 years old, but he had lived a hard, hard life. He was a smoker.

He'd inhaled a whole lot of exhaust. He had lived with the stress of racing every single weekend to provide for his family and it caught up to him sadly and he died a young man and it devastated Dale. Dale didn't know what to do. He locked up his father's garage.

He didn't even touch anything within it. All the cars and the trophies. He sold his father's dogs. All of it was incredibly damaging and devastating to young Dale and it took him many, many years to get, not even to get over it, but to be able to reconcile himself to his father's memory and start building his own life. Dale was living basically the life of a high school dropout.

He was working at an auto parts store. He was racing, but he was also making choices that he probably wouldn't have made later in life if he were an older man. He got married very young. He had a child very young and he got divorced for the first time very young. He spent most of his 20s without even seeing his first child. He got married again a second time and then had two young kids when he was still in his 20s, two more kids I should say. And this is the point in Dale Earnhardt's life where life could have gone two very different ways.

He could have ended up back in the mills. He could have ended up being just basically a guy who raced a couple times on the weekends and then gave up that silliness and went on and got himself a real job. But he decided to stick with the racing and it cost him a lot. It cost him his second marriage and it cost him his two children who went to live with their mother because he was not able to care for them in the way that he needed to to be a proper father. He was racing all the time.

He was enjoying life all the time. He was partying all the time and it just was not a good fit. By the late 1970s Dale Earnhardt was a mess quite frankly. He was a single guy living in a small apartment with a friend of his. He would wake up every morning at 6 30 to the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Give Me Back My Bullets. That was his motivational song. He was a guy who had the hounds at his tail.

He was twice divorced. He had three kids and he had no real options other than racing his way out of poverty, racing his way out of a nine to five clock punching life. And it wasn't until his ex-father-in-law of all people, a gentleman named Robert G, helped him find his way and figure out how he could make the talent that he had as a driver pay off. The problem was that Earnhardt was so aggressive he tended to wreck everybody's equipment. He was really good but he figured that the fastest way to the finish line wasn't around his competitors, it was through them. And more often than not while he would win a lot of races he would also wreck a lot of cars along the way. He was a very very expensive driver to invest in and that made it difficult. Dale Earnhardt would drive at dirt tracks without a whole lot of regard for common sense or for anyone driving around him or for his own safety and won at a dirt track. It could have been any dirt track.

The exact name is lost to history. He was running in fourth place and the top three finishes paid. He knew that finishing third place would be enough to put food on his family's table and so he needed to get there. And so in order to get there he went drove right on through a driver who went by the nickname of Stick Elliott.

This was a guy who had a bit of notoriety. He had allegedly taken Elvis Presley for a drive around Charlotte Motor Speedway. It made the king throw up so he had a little bit of cachet and here's young Dale Earnhardt just knocking him out of the way to go and get third place in this race. So after the race a whole bunch of Stick Elliott's men were looking for Earnhardt. Earnhardt wheels out of the track in a hurry. The next week Stick Elliott himself comes up to Earnhardt. Earnhardt's thinking oh boy this is going to be this is going to end badly.

Elliott walks up sticks out his hand and says you know son you might just make a driver yet. The implication being of course that while Earnhardt didn't yet have the skill to be a driver he had the guts and he had the spine to be a driver and that was going to be enough to get him going a little bit faster and a little bit further down the road. And so it took a number of people. It was Robert Gee. It was a gentleman named Suitcase Jake Elder who was a crew chief.

It was an owner by the name of Rod Osterlund. All of these men and many others saw some promise in Dale and they said you've got this raw talent we just need to figure a way to get you to harness it and point it in the right direction. So what they did over the course of the late 70s was take this lump of angry and intimidating clay and mold it into a driver who was able to go and run at a reasonable pace until he needed to run wide open.

He was able to drive in a way that could get him to the front of the of the pack without wrecking the pack as he did so. And once Earnhardt figured out how to actually drive then he started to take off. Dale made an application to race in NASCAR in 1975 and looking at it now it's basically like a country music song. He had three children Carrie, Kelly and Dale Jr. and he misspelled two of his kids names and then beside what happened in first race he wrote finish 10th and beside ambition other than racing he wrote none. That was it that was Dale Earnhardt right there.

And what a story you're hearing the fact that the Intimidator's first car was pink well that's good enough for me as a takeaway in a water cooler moment but my goodness what he went through the struggles the divorces choosing in the end his career over anything anything ambition other than racing none none and so often there's a price to pay for these things and the price he paid was my goodness living as a single guy alienated angry until a few men parked into his life and helped mentor him and get his act together to become the talent he'd become. The story of Dale Earnhardt continued here on Our American Story. And we return to Our American Stories and the final portion of our story on Dale Earnhardt with Jay Busby. When we last left off Dale had finally gotten the right people behind him to become a star.

Let's continue with the story here again is Jay. The fact that NASCAR drivers have such long careers means that drivers from different eras often overlap at the end of one career in the beginning of the next and the 1979 Daytona 500 was just one of those sorts of crucial races. It was significant for the sport because it was the first one that was being broadcast beginning to end and it was significant and good timing that a huge snowstorm blanketed most of the east coast leading to a huge snowstorm.

Blanketed most of the east coast leaving America with nothing much to do but sit inside and watch these hillbillies run around a track at high speeds down in Florida and what they got was an amazing race. Richard Petty wins the race but the most important part of it was that a couple of other drivers Bobby and Donny Allison got involved in a last lap wreck with Cale Yarborough. All of these legends colliding and sliding into the infield and Cale Yarborough comes over to Bobby's car starts getting in his face starts punching him Bobby gets out of his car he starts swinging Donny pulls down he gets involved in the mess and so America is watching these three lunatic race drivers beat on each other. It's a remarkable remarkable moment in American sports and what nobody noticed during this entire time was that this rookie by the name of Dale Earnhardt manages to make his way up and finish eighth.

This is almost unprecedented for a rookie to do this well. This was the season that Dale Earnhardt started to become Dale Earnhardt. He would go on to win rookie of the year that year and he was racing with the number three he got the Wrangler sponsorship and then in 1980 it all comes together when he wins the championship. In his second year as a driver he wins his first of what would eventually be seven championships and he does it with an aggressive style that upset much of the rest of the garage. There's always a certain code among drivers that you don't go out of your way to wreck another driver you don't go out of your way to cause harm or cause difficulty I should say for another driver because it would be very easy to win a race if all you are trying to do is wreck every other driver on the track and yet here was Earnhardt with aggression and pent-up frustration and rage and desire to win trading paint with everybody on the track not giving an inch constantly knocking fenders constantly ending up in walls and the other drivers at the time didn't care for this kind of aggression because it was just too much for the level that they wanted to be racing at. Because of this kind of chaotic driving Earnhardt earned the name the Intimidator and you can see why particularly once he switched over to his black car in the 1980s the last thing you wanted to see was Earnhardt coming up in your rearview mirror that was incredibly intimidating and it's a perfect nickname you don't even have to go and trade paint with anybody you don't even have to knock into anybody if you're intimidating them you're managing to put them on their heels just by your sheer presence and that's what Earnhardt did he didn't have a whole lot of fights he didn't get into a whole lot of actual physical face-to-face fist flying brawls he was intimidating enough on his own that almost everybody would back down in front of him and it worked. Dale was the kind of guy that you wanted to be you wanted to be able whether you were male female young old adult kid you wanted to be like Dale Earnhardt and not just because he drove fast but because he was able to speak his mind and because he was able to be intimidating in a way that most people aren't he had a charisma and he had a willpower about him that quite simply most people don't he was the kind of voice of people who wanted to be able to tell their boss to take this job and shove it he wanted to he was the voice of people who wanted to follow their passions he would take advantage of whatever his opponent's weakness was if Bill Elliott was known as too nice of a guy Earnhardt would push him so that so that Elliott would get mad. Darrell Waltrip was well known for talking Earnhardt would push him into saying something ridiculous and then would come back with a devastating one-liner so whatever his opponent's strength was Earnhardt would turn it into a weakness he wasn't under anybody's control he was able to do what he wanted without recrimination and he was able to to do it his own way and that's an incredibly attractive quality for people looking for someone to be and then he enjoyed the benefits of fame which to him meant having fun with it for instance he would be on hunting or fishing trips and he'd walk into a bait shop in the middle of nowhere Alabama and the clerk would look at him and say you know who you look just like and Earnhardt would just smile he loved to help tracks all over the NASCAR circuit sell tickets sometimes he would get on the phone with actual customers kind of berating them to come out and spend some more money on some higher priced seats sometimes he'd even go out and stand on street corners outside the track and he'd hold up a sign saying buy tickets to the next race and people that were driving by surely said that couldn't possibly be who it looks like could it and then around the house and by house I mean the enormous estate that Dale Earnhardt owned in rural North Carolina he loved to do yard work and drive his tractor right up next to the people who were hanging outside his gates waiting for a glimpse of him he liked to see how long it would take for them to notice who was driving the tractor for Earnhardt fame was a byproduct an enjoyable byproduct but a byproduct all the same of what truly drove him the need to win and the need to triumph once he did that the fame and the money took care of themselves this is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I've ever personally had to make but after the accident in turn four at the end of the Daytona 500 we've lost Dale Earnhardt how could NASCAR's most popular star have died on the day of its marquee event how could this possibly have happened it just didn't make sense in any way and it's one of the grim ironies of Earnhardt's death that his passing led to safety improvements all across NASCAR that almost certainly have saved the lives of many many drivers since then beyond that what Earnhardt's death did was bring attention to NASCAR in a way that it hadn't had ever in its history people were watching NASCAR and and ironically enough paying more attention to it than they were when he was alive there were several years in the 2000s when it was second only the NFL he commanded respect in a way that no other driver did he was intimidating yes but he also won races he made a whole lot of people a whole lot of money and he spoke the language of the common fan but maybe most significantly for NASCAR he was the voice of drivers in the garage he would stand up to sponsors stand up to NASCAR officials stand up to track officials whenever they needed it because drivers historically had very little power and very little representation if you're showing up to drive you're going to be at the mercy of the tracks Earnhardt flipped that around money drives NASCAR money wants the drivers to fit in certain very non-offensive boxes turning them into brand-friendly robots Earnhardt never put up with that he was happy to sponsor products he even went so far one time as to ask a doctor to stitch a w into his knee when he was getting stitches for wrangler jeans that the doctor wisely refused but Earnhardt would not diminish himself to sponsor products in a way that NASCAR drivers today to some extent have to diminish themselves have to sand off the rough edges of their personality Earnhardt leaned into that if you wanted him to sponsor your product you got the whole deal Earnhardt was the last of the truly larger than life NASCAR drivers he was someone who had the charisma and the energy that most people not just most drivers but most people simply don't have today's drivers are more technically skilled than Earnhardt but they don't have that combination of talent personality and attitude that Earnhardt had we always compare the later generations unfavorably with those who came before them in sports if you are a Michael Jordan fan growing up nothing that LeBron James ever does will match up to Jordan's achievements but what Earnhardt did was singular he established himself as an iconic driver while he was at the height of his powers and still driving he would cast a shadow that went in both directions both before him and after him of the other drivers who won seven titles you might like Richard Petty's personality a little bit more you might believe that Jimmy Johnson possesses finer technical skills but neither one of them were the total package like Earnhardt was Dale Earnhardt is a true American original he embodies so many elements of who we like to believe we are as a nation and who we want to believe we can be ourselves he was a winner a champion he was a master of speed and a master of the automobile these are two essential American obsessions he created his entire world himself he was raised in poor surroundings and literally raced his way into a palace that is the American dream right there you cannot get more honestly American than what Dale Earnhardt did he gave the south a voice in a way that few others did he had an accent that he didn't try to clean up he loved where he came from and he encouraged others to do the same and finally he was always his own man he was an icon for people who wanted to follow their dream their muse their north star he did everything his way not society's way and that made him a legend there's never been another one like him and there never will be a terrific job on the production editing and storytelling by Monty Montgomery and a special thanks to Jay Busby what a story he told by the way get his book Earnhardt Nation it's available it's available at Amazon and all the usual suspects and all of those things are so true what he did he gave a voice to the drivers he enjoyed the fame but my goodness he was a winner he was a champion a self-made man didn't clean up that southern accent the story of Dale Earnhardt the story of the American dream and so much more here on Our American Story
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-20 04:17:22 / 2023-02-20 04:32:01 / 15

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