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.