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Writer recalls Earnhardt’s life and times

The Associated Press

The first time I approached Dale Earnhardt for an interview was in Riverside, Calif.

Sunday, February 25, 2001

The first time I approached Dale Earnhardt for an interview was in Riverside, Calif., in 1980, the year after he was NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year.

I was the new motorsports writer for The Associated Press, making my first visit to the Winston Cup garage area – a daunting task.

Earnhardt was leaning against the door of his garage with his arms crossed and a distant expression on his young, mustachioed face.

”Hey, Dale,” I said eagerly. ”Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”

He turned slowly, as if he only half heard what I’d said, glared at me with those hawklike eyes and blurted: ”No. Git out of here.”

Chastened and angry, I spun on my heels and began to stride away. Then I heard the deep-throated chuckle that I came to know so well over the next 21 years.

”Hey, man, Don’t take it personal. Git back over here,” he called.

The answers to my questions that day started a dialogue that turned into, if not a close friendship, a fine acquaintanceship.

Over the years, I saw just about every side of a complicated, often-enigmatic man.

Some days he was The Intimidator, Old Ironhead, baiting me and glaring as if he was about to strike. Yet, I never felt truly threatened because he always kept his anger or frustration in check, even when asked the most personal or idiotic question.

Other times, he was all wolfish grin and boyish charm.

In Florence, S.C., the weekend of a Southern 500 in the mid-80s, I ran into Earnhardt in the lobby of our hotel and he invited me to join him and a group of people for dinner.

I offered to drive. A big mistake.

As I drove sedately along a Florence boulevard at 45 mph, Earnhardt griped about the latest NASCAR rule change. Suddenly, he shouted, ”Think fast,” leaned across the front seat and rammed the gearshift lever on the automatic transmission into park.

The car skidded and swerved to a halt with me and the passengers in the backseat hyperventilating and Earnhardt roaring with laughter. I let him drive back to the hotel and never told the car rental company.

Earnhardt was somewhat ashamed of having only a ninth-grade education and often talked about how much he wished he had more ”book learnin’.” But he had common sense and the business acumen of an MBA candidate.

Sitting at lunch one day at yet another racing function, I was talking to Don Hawk, then Earnhardt’s business manager. I asked him to explain the marketing strategy that had helped his driver gain 40 percent of all souvenir and memorabilia sales in NASCAR.

Before Hawk could open his mouth, Earnhardt leaned across the table, his eyes sparkling, and gave me a cogent and informative 15-minute lecture on the art of marketing a race driver.

”See what I have to contend with,” Hawk said, obviously proud of his student.

Although he was often an absentee dad, particularly in the early years of his racing career, Earnhardt’s four kids meant the world to him.

When he talked about daughter Kelley graduating from college, his eyes glistened and his chest puffed out. ”She’s the first one in our family and she worked hard and earned it,” he said.

Youngest daughter Taylor, the only child of Earnhardt’s 18-year marriage to third wife Teresa, was able to turn the hard-driven racer into Jello with just a look.

As for the boys, Kerry and Dale Jr., Earnhardt didn’t push them into racing, or discourage them. Both had to show how much they wanted to be drivers before he gave them any kind of helping hand.

Once they showed they were serious about the sport, though, it was obvious the father was going to take a role. It was the deciding factor for him in starting Dale Earnhardt Inc.

”I’ve got to have something to do after my driving days are done, and something for those boys to go on,” he said.

Two years ago, when Dale Jr. was racing in the Busch Series, the senior Earnhardt won one of the twin 125-mile qualifying races for the Daytona 500. He was brought to the pressbox, high above the track, for a postrace interview.

In the midst of the questioning, Earnhardt cut short an answer in mid-sentence as he swiveled around in his chair and watched intently as Busch practice began.

”I’ve got to keep an eye on the boy,” Earnhardt said. ”Make sure he takes care of that expensive equipment.”

The interview was over.

As tough as Earnhardt appeared, he wasn’t bulletproof. He fainted in the race car on a warmup lap before the 1997 Southern 500. Hospital tests were negative and nothing physical ever surfaced to explain the collapse.

”There ain’t nothing wrong with me,” he blustered at the time. ”It was just something I ate or some flu thing.”

The 1997 season was the first time in 15 years that Earnhardt failed to win a race. Everybody, including me, wondered if it was the beginning of the end of Earnhardt’s career.

It wasn’t. He won the Daytona 500 at the start of the 1998 season, after 20 years of trying to win NASCAR’s big one. It ended a 59-race winless string and sparked the resurgence of his career.

The morning after the victory, Earnhardt was still pumped. After talking with a few writers, a broadcaster from a local morning radio show approached and said:

”Hey, Dale, is finally winning the Daytona 500 as good as the best sex you ever had?”

Without missing a beat or batting an eye, Earnhardt replied: ”Man, you ain’t never met my wife.”

The seven-time Winston Cup champion not only continued to find Victory Lane but became a contender again in 2000.

He raced well just about everywhere, but he was definitely at his best on NASCAR’s biggest and fastest racks – Daytona and Talladega.

Last October, he was spectacular.

New aerodynamic equipment kept nearly the entire field at Talladega bunched together at speeds close to 200 mph for 500 miles.

Earnhardt saved the best for last – somehow picking his way through a wall of speeding cars to shoot from 18th to first in the last five laps, earning the last of his 76 victories.

”Man, all I did was aim the car where they wasn’t and hope there’d still be a hole when I got there,” he said happily. ”I couldn’t even believe it.”

I knew he took chances, but, for some reason, I never worried about Dale Earnhardt.

For years, I worried about the aging A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Richard Petty – then the three biggest names in U.S. auto racing – as their skills faded and people wondered why they didn’t retire.

But I never worried about Earnhardt. He was too tough, too focused, too … well, Dale. Now, unbelievably, he’s gone.

Editors: Mike Harris has covered motorsports for The AP for since 1970 and has written about more than 600 feature races.