Dale Turns 'Em Pale
Dale Earnhardt, this year's NASCAR champion, isn't shy about banging fenders
By Sam Moses
Issue date: September 7, 1987
Dale Earnhardt was just hanging out in the back of his team's trailer before the Summer 500 at Pocono International Raceway when a fan approached him for an autograph. The young man, a local stock car racer, had also come to the NASCAR champion with a problem: On the track he could catch his opponents, but he just couldn't seem to pass them. Earnhardt offered a few tips, easily sharing hard-learned secrets in the art of getting by. As more and more information flowed, the young driver grew wide-eyed over such attention and generosity. Earnhardt told him that when a driver is following someone he wants to pass, the driver should strike fast and get it over with; patience when passing is no virtue, the master emphasized. Then he added, ''But whatever you do, don't hit him.''
Coming from Earnhardt that advice sounded downright hilarious. Last year he won nearly $1.8 million and the NASCAR points championship, and this year he has won 9 of 20 races, $1,122,320 and leads the series by a mile. But frequently, according to his critics, Earnhardt drives his yellow-and-blue Monte Carlo SS as if it were a bulldozer. His aggressive style has stirred the passions of racing fans -- delighting many, outraging some -- given heartburn to officials and infuriated his fellow drivers. Meanwhile, his favorite response to anyone who doesn't like his style is a smile, a shrug and the suggestion, ''Feed 'em fish heads.''
The six-foot-one, 190-pound, square-shouldered Earnhardt has a gunfighter's mustache, steel-gray eyes and the publicity handle of One Tough Customer. On the track, drivers such as Bill Elliott, Geoff Bodine, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty think he often crosses the border between tough and rough. Others -- Tim Richmond, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker -- say they would trust him on their bumper on the final lap. NASCAR officials have pronounced the 35-year-old Earnhardt merely careless in the crunch. Careless enough to win might be more accurate.
At a 1986 race in Richmond, Va., Earnhardt was fined $5,000 and put on probation for running into the leader, Waltrip, while trying to pass with three laps left in the race, tearing up metal on both cars as well as on several others. He appealed the decision on grounds of lack of intent, and NASCAR reduced the fine to $3,000 and removed the probation. He went on to whomp Waltrip for the championship, winning five times while flirting with more trouble -- Elliott, in particular, was feeling put-upon by Earnhardt's fenders.
Of Earnhardt's nine wins this season, three came after he nudged the leaders out of the way --Harry Gant at Richmond in February, Sterling Marlin at Bristol (Tenn.) in April and Alan Kulwicki at Pocono in July.
And then there was his May win in the Winston, a 20-car invitational in Charlotte that is, in effect, NASCAR's all-star game. Earnhardt was involved in three separate incidents during the race -- make that five, if you count the two on the cool-off lap when Elliott and Bodine each slammed into him to express their displeasure with the way he had just beaten them for $200,000. ''If that's what it takes to be a champion, I don't want to be it,'' said the red-hot redheaded Elliott. Added a furious Bodine, who had finished fourth, ''I just hope it's stopped before someone gets hurt.'' Earnhardt countered that he never touched either one of them and charged that, in fact, Elliott had tried to push him off the track. ''But I'm not mad at Bill Elliott,'' he said. ''He's just thrusterated [sic] because he had the race won and then got beat. But if he wants to carry it on, we will. I'll stand flatfooted with the man any day.''
NASCAR fined Earnhardt and Elliott $2,500 each and Bodine $1,000 for the incidents, and competition director Dick Beaty and vice-president Les Richter -- an All-Pro linebacker for the Rams in the '50s and '60s and still not the first guy you would pick to go toe-to-toe with -- sat them down and delivered a lecture on the facts of racing life. The next week Bodine ran into Earnhardt and wrecked him and was fined $15,000 and put on probation for the rest of the season. Bodine appealed based on lack of intent, and a NASCAR board erased the fine and probation.
Lately things have eased up, although Earnhardt's right foot hasn't. He's bulldozing toward a third championship, his first having come in 1980. This followed a Rookie of the Year title in '79. And that followed seven years of driving in his legendary father's tire tracks. Ralph Earnhardt was king of the NASCAR's minor league in the '50s and '60s, and the organization's sportsman division champion in 1956.
That circuit, mostly in the Carolinas and Georgia, was poor and gritty, and Daddy Ralph was toughest of the tough, a ''driver's driver'' who won by never giving an inch. He was the father of five who supported his family by racing three nights a week. They called him Ironheart.
Ralph Dale Earnhardt is his father's son, except they call him Ironhead. The hardest thing for young Dale to endure was watching his father go off to race while he had to go to school, so he quit in the ninth grade. ''It was the only thing I ever let my daddy down over,'' he says. ''He wanted me to finish; it was the only thing he ever pleaded with me to do. But I was so hardheaded. For about a year and a half after that, we didn't have a close relationship.''
Two things kept Ralph Earnhardt from making it in the big time: luck and money. He died of a heart attack in 1973, after 23 years of racing, while working on a carburetor. He was 44.
Dale began racing when he was 19, in cars owned by friends. For two years he was the terror of the dirt tracks around Charlotte, driving like his father -- never giving an inch. He often drove at the same events as Ralph, although not in the same races, since Dale was usually in the junker division. ''Daddy had begun to help me with engine work and giving me used tires, and he'd talked to Mama about putting me in his car,'' says Dale. ''Then he died. It left me in a situation where I had to make it on my own. I'd give up everything I got if he were still alive, but I don't think I'd be where I am if he hadn't died.''
After her husband's death, Martha Earnhardt turned Ralph's two race cars over to her ''middle young'un,'' and Dale took over the shop his daddy had built behind the house on Sedan Street in Kannapolis, N.C. Martha, a spirited and young-looking 57-year-old great-grandmother, still lives in the house, while the shop continues to be home for Dale's extracurricular short-track racing. ''There's been somebody in my backyard working on cars ever since I've been here, and that's been 33 years now,'' says Martha.
Earnhardt's road to the Grand National division was filled with the usual poor-man's potholes. He worked as a welder and a mechanic. He would get a 90- day loan from the bank in the spring and hope to win enough to pay it back by fall. He was confident that he had the ability, if only he could get ''the right deal in the right situation.'' His break into Grand National racing, in 1978, came just as Earnhardt Racing was about to go under. Driving for Rod Osterlund, he won his Rookie of the Year award in '79 and in 1980 won the NASCAR championship by a squeaky 19 points over Cale Yarborough. Earnhardt is the only second-year man in NASCAR history to win the title.
During those years Earnhardt was, in his own words, ''wild and crazy, young and dumb.'' Adds one buddy, ''He was the kind of guy who would wake you up at 3 a.m. blasting a shotgun in your yard.'' His love life, too, was about as quiet as a shotgun blast. He had gotten married at 17; had a son, Kerry Dale, who's now 17; got divorced at 19; married again at 20; had a daughter and another son; and got divorced again at 25 after a few separations. In 1982 he married Teresa Houston, and he believes he got it right this time. Daughter Kelley King, 14, and Dale Jr., 12, live with Dale and Teresa and attend Oak Ridge (N.C.) Military Academy.
Earnhardt proposed to Teresa from a hospital bed after he broke his leg in a crash at Pocono. She suspects that the injury made him realize there is more to life than being independent. When he talks about his wife, Earnhardt's inveterate chauvinism gives way to respect, and he often brags about her brains, beauty and accomplishments, and especially the fact that she got through high school in two years. She handles and organizes much of his racing business, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., from an office in their house.
A lot of Earnhardt's toughness is really wariness. His lack of education has made him cautious. And because he's bright, busy and uncompromising, he's also blunt; what he doesn't know, he asks, quick and to the point, like a lawyer. He gives instructions the same way, and his manner can be intimidating, especially to people he works with. Says Pheaton Guinn, a rep for Peak Antifreeze, which Earnhardt endorses, ''I was scared to death when I started working with him, because I'd heard all the stories about how hard he was, what a hardcase he is. But he's one of the greatest guys I've ever come across. You just have to deal with him up front. Never surprise him and never lie to him, and you'll never have a problem.''
Last year Earnhardt bought 296 wooded acres near Mooresville, N.C, a few miles from where he and Teresa live. They're turning the land into a farm, complete with a house and a 20,000-square-foot race shop. It will be a genuine working farm, not just a country gentleman's showcase. Earnhardt plans to raise chickens. He has also bought some construction equipment, which he drives like he drives his Monte Carlo, while clearing his land for pastures and ponds.
Whenever he has an uncommitted day, usually only the Monday after a race, he's out on the farm at daybreak and stays there until dark, bouncing around in his big black pickup with chrome rollbars and a telephone on which he conducts the never-ending business of racing. Earnhardt grew up around farms and seems to be able to do anything from repairing the engine on a backhoe to selecting the proper seed. ''My mind goes in gear when I open my eyes, and my eyes open when daylight comes in the room,'' he says. ''I'm in a business world I've never been into. I used to carry $40 around and think I was rich. Now you get into hundreds of thousands of dollars. It scares you. Sometimes that's where I miss an education. But still, I sit down with accountants and lawyers and things, and I can make the right decisions.''
The day after his victory in the Winston, Earnhardt hitched a horse trailer to his pickup, piled in two friends and drove about 50 miles to pick up the bull that Richard Childress, the owner of the team for which Earnhardt drives, promised he would give Dale as a bonus if Earnhardt won the Winston. Two laconic cowboys wearing spurs and 10-gallon hats showed the visitors straight to the pen in which 20 bulls snorted and posed like street-corner toughs. Earnhardt strode inside as if it were an even match, and, after being advised by the cowboys on what to look for, made his selection. Not surprisingly, his choice was the meanest-looking bull of the bunch, a 1,200-pound Black Angus, which he immediately named Winston.
Winston was not all that pleased with having been selected, a point he made clear on the ride back home. As the bull threw his weight around in the trailer behind the pickup, Earnhardt fought the steering wheel to keep the truck from weaving off the highway. ''Ol' Winston must be doin' a tap dance back there,'' he said. ''Feels like we're drivin' down the backstraight at Daytona on a cut tire.''
Earnhardt likes the farm project because it's something real and solid to worry about -- as opposed to being bothered by what people think of his driving. Lately the fans have started booing him, and although he doesn't take it personally, or to heart, he's not unaffected by the criticism that he's a dirty driver. He absolutely denies it's true, although he does concede that he sometimes gets carried away and makes mistakes by trying too hard.
''I care about winning races, not if they like me,'' he said. ''But sometimes that crap eats you alive. You don't know how to take it. NASCAR has let those drivers run their mouths about me, about everwhat they wanted to, calling me a lowlife. I can't do anything about it. All I can do is drive the best I can and stand my ground. I got to do what I got to do. You got to go on with your program, man. This deal's too short.
''Year before last, Bill Elliott won 11 races but lost the championship because he let the pressure get to him. Waltrip psyched him out, blowed his mind, he chewed him up and spit him out. He done it with his mouth!
''It won't happen to me. Because you know what I care most about right now? What really bothers me is worryin' how that bull's going to react when I get him out to pasture. There's no pressure on me when I'm in a race car. Hell, that's when I'm relaxed; that's the best time in my life.''
In the late afternoon the pickup and trailer rig wheeled up to the farm, where a few of Earnhardt's buddies were waiting. Apparently word of the new arrival had gotten out, and they were eager for the show to begin. Winston was off-loaded into a tiny stall, where the cowboys had suggested he be kept for a couple of days until he cooled off. The group of good ol' boys kept growing, and more and more cars pulled up to the tailgate party outside Winston's stall. It was after dark now, and everyone was whooping it up pretty good when, all of a sudden, with a bellow and a crash, the bull leaped over the stall's five-foot-high steel fence.
Now here's an odd situation: The NASCAR champion and a bunch of his buddies are out in a barnyard trying to round up a 1,200-pound bull who is very peeved, and very black, on a moonless night. The first problem was just to find the bull. Everybody spread out and began cautiously wandering around, unenthusiastically calling, ''Here Winston . . . he-ere boy . . . e-e-easy big fella.''
A snort and a clomp shot out of the dark, causing all hands to hit the deck. Somehow, much later, they coaxed Winston through a gate into the pasture, where there were two other bulls to keep him company for the night, which was probably all he wanted. Today Earnhardt says he can walk right up to the bull and stroke his nose.
As for racing, he continues to go about it the same way he always has. ''I love racing,'' he says. ''It's something that's in me. It was born and bred in me by my daddy, and that's why I'm so good at it. Racing comes just like breathing to me. It's always going to be there, like my damn heartbeat.''
Issue date: September 7, 1987