Those who knew him best share their memories of the Intimidator
Dale Earnhardt was well known by those around him for his intense desire to win
Off the track, Earnhardt's philanthropy stood out to those who knew him best
Many agree that there will likely never be another driver like Earnhardt
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's tragic death, SI.com's Bruce Martin and Brant James spoke to four people who knew the racing icon best. What follows are heartfelt responses from longtime Earnhardt team owner Richard Childress, gasman Danny "Chocolate" Myers and friends Punchy Whitaker and Humphy Wheeler, former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Of particular note is their memories of the day he died and why they think there'll never be another driver like him.
SI.com: What was your first interaction with Earnhardt like?
Childress: It wasn't the first, but the one that really stands out, in '75 or '76 I won a [local short track] race at Charlotte Metrolina Speedway and Dale ended up finishing second. I was on the back of the truck having a cool Budweiser and he walked up to me, shaggy hair and everything, just like I had, and he said, 'Next time I race you, I'm going to beat you.' I will never forget that. That wasn't the first time, but that was one of my favorite memories, of him coming over and having a cool beer there and talking about the race.
Whitaker (worked with Earnhardt at his first job at Punchy Whitaker's Tire): Dale was a tough old cookie. He was kind of head strong. He was a hustler. I remember a time or two he would drive a car up and down the road wide-open. He worked on cars that helped him down the road. He did tune-ups, wheel balancing and front end alignment. He didn't mind getting dirty.
Myers: I have to tell you the first time I really met Dale I knew who he was and had followed him a little bit. My dad was one of the early pioneers and his dad was one of the early pioneers. The first time I got to meet him he came to shop, but had shaved his mustache off. Was that him or was that his brother? That was the first time. But we tested a little bit in 1983 and went to Daytona in 1984 and met there and the rest is history.
Wheeler: He was just a little kid. He was in his dad's garage. Ralph Earnhardt was one of my dirt test drivers. Dale was always hanging around the garage. He looked like something you needed to sweep out because he was always dirty with stringy hair. He was a typical little kid in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
SI.com: What are your memories of the day he died?
Childress: What I've tried to do is block it out of my mind, that day. There's a lot of it you can't block, and especially 10 years later when people are asking you so many questions. Just so many things went on that day that I tried to forget, but there's some that just still stick in your mind.
Whitaker: We watched the race with some kids at a military home. I promised my kids that we would take them out in the development we were doing and ride in the mud a little bit. We didn't have a radio in the vehicle, so after the wreck nobody knew anything. The wreck didn't look that bad. We went to Subway afterward to get a sandwich and that is when we heard it on the news. I couldn't believe it. It was like somebody running over me with a car. It was terrible. The wreck he was in didn't look that bad; didn't look like that would happen. It was like losing a good friend.
Myers: I was on the pit crew that day. So many things happened that day that we've blocked out of our memory. Watched the race, watched the wreck, no big deal. Been in wrecks before. Turned the car over. It's Dale Earnhardt. He'll be OK. Then a little bit later on, when we were packing up, people were walking over saying, 'Hey, man. It's pretty bad.' Then, walking over to the infield care center and talking to Ken Schrader we realized what happened.
Wheeler: I had been in Daytona and halfway through the race we flew back. I was back in Lake Norman and the race had just gotten over when we had landed and they said Tony Stewart had been hurt but he was OK. So I dismissed the whole thing and went out for a run. My wife knew where I was and where I go to run, so she got in the car and found me and told me that they pronounced Dale Earnhardt dead. It was a shock because I had talked to him earlier in the day. He was in high cotton that day. He was real pumped up and I wished him good luck and left. He was with Teresa. He was hoping that Dale Jr. would win the race. That was his hope. That is the last time I saw him.
SI.com: Will there ever be another driver like him? If not, why not?
Childress: The thing that made him stand out was his connection with the fans. Here was a working guy, worked at day, raced on the side, didn't finish school and neither did I to that point, and I think that was one of the things why we had such a great relationship. He was a lot better race driver than I was, but we had a lot in common. I think how he connected to the race fans, he was the real deal.
He was what racing was about and what the race fans wanted to see and he wanted to give those race fans, every time he sat down in that car, he wanted to give them their money's worth and then when the popularity came and he started selling more t-shirts and diecasts, he wanted to make sure that they had the best quality products. I will never forget someone sent a t-shirt back that had faded a little and he wasn't very happy at all. I remember some conversations we had with the manufacturer over that. He wanted quality and he wanted to make sure his race fans got the best, on the race track or in his likeness.
Whitaker: I don't think so because anybody that started working as a mechanic, kinda low on funds and then worked their way up... it seems like now you have to know somebody to get in there. It is hard with how much money is involved to actually get in the sport. It seems to me that most drivers now are solely in it for the money. I believe he would have raced for free. I don't think you'd have to pay for him. They all make a lot of money and some of them would do it for free and he was one of the few of them. I haven't seen anyone as determined to win or as mad when they didn't. Back in those days I think it's more 75 percent car and 25 percent driver. I think back then before the computers and money it was 25 percent car and 75 percent driver. Earnhardt could take a 10th place car and finish second or third.
Myers: There will never be another Dale Earnhardt. Can anybody come close? We don't know, but why not? Dale Earnhardt was the last guy that raced out of the junkyard. He was a hero because he was a "Mill Hill" town guy. He came out of the cotton mills and worked at the tire store. He was a welder. He did all the things that we had to do. He was a kid who didn't have that silver spoon in his mouth. His Dad made him work. When he got the opportunity he made the best of it.
Wheeler: There probably won't be because unfortunately we've gone past the age of the working man's driver. These were guys that appealed to the truck driver and the backhoe operator, all that kind of thing. It's really unfortunate that things ended up that way. When Richard Petty retired, most of his fans jumped over to Bill Elliott. When Dale Earnhardt died, they didn't go anywhere. A lot of them didn't come back to races. They felt sorry for Jr. but he was a completely different sort. I think we lost a lot of fans that day because there was not a person that stepped forward with that kind of persona. Some of them could have done it -- guys with working man backgrounds -- but they didn't step forward and that was unfortunate. A guy that is driving an $800 old Ford F-150 truck has a hard time relating to a driver with a $1.5 million motorhome and jet.