- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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 6'1", 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, "T 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.