I like a lot of drivers. I like Tony Stewart. I like Kevin Harvick. I like Bobby and Terry Labonte. I like Kenny Schrader. I like Kasey Kahne. I even like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears. I like Martin Truex Jr. But there's something about the name Earnhardt that really gets my blood flowing.
I'm a fan of the son, Dale Jr. He's my favorite driver, and I will never say I'm sorry for that. But it was the old man that captured my heart as a racing fan. Dale was literally larger than life, but he was for the most part very humble about it. Dale was the man that could leap tall buildings in a single bound, or seemed so at the time. Dale was unstoppable. Dale would never give up. Dale was Nascar.
The famous number 3 Chevy flips over during a race. Dale gets out and goes to the infield care center. When he comes out, he sees the car upright again, and all 4 tires seem to be holding air. He yells at a crew member to see if it will start. The car does start, and Dale climbs back in and goes out to salvage what kind of finish he can, in a car that has flipped. Dale was that kind of man.
In another race, Dale gets penalized for rough driving. His penalty is one lap. Dale gets mad. He proceeds to not only get his lap back by racing hard (These were the days before the Lucky Dog Pass) but he nearly laps the field and wins the race anyway. Message to Nascar: Don't make Dale mad!
This man started several successful businesses. For a man that tried the 9th grade twice, and gave up, he turned out to be a remarkable businessman. He bought a burgeoning race marketing business for 6 million dollars, and a few years later sold it for 30 million. Not bad for a man with an 8th grade education.
Dale was always true to his heritage. He grew up in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and lived his entire life within a short drive of there. Kannapolis was a mill town, possibly the largest mill town in the world. Early in his life, he worked in the mill, worked in the tire store, did what ever he could do to get by, sometimes nearly starving to death just to race. He lost two wives and 3 children before he finally found his place with Rod Osterlund. Later he partnered with Richard Childress, and of course, the rest is history.
A lot of people called him a redneck, but that was a heritage he was proud of. He was largely uneducated, but he educated himself on the road of hard knocks. There are a lot of people in the world with multiple degrees in all forms of education that would envy Dale's success. Eventually, Dale was reunited with all of his children, and he and his third wife, Teresa Houston, had a daughter together, whom they named Taylor. Finally life was good. Dale was the master of millions of dollars, and many successful enterprises. He loved his family, and was delighted in his kids' success.
Just when it seemed like almost all his dreams were realized, Dale's life was snuffed out in a mere moment. On February 18, 2001, Dale was watching his two cars, the 15 of Michael Waltrip and the 8 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing for the win at the Daytona 500. Dale ran 3rd, and started doing something he had never done before. He was blocking. Not going for the win, as he had always done, but blocking, to protect his son and his good friend. His car bobbled, and suddenly he went nearly head on into the Turn 4 wall, on the last lap. A basal skull fracture ended my hero's life in an instant.
Words cannot describe the anguish that I, and millions of other fans felt that evening and in the days that followed. A lot of people, including me get choked up just thinking about that day.
In retrospect, I think Dale's death pretty much sealed the deal when it comes to Nascar. The sport's popularity has exploded. Even in death, Dale gave to the sport. Nascar suddenly became a national sport, and people from other countries began paying more attention. Tragically, Dale was Nascar's driving force, even after his own life was over.
In recent years, we've seen what many call the demise of Dale Earnhardt Inc. Teresa has control over the venture now, and Dale Jr. decided to leave, to pursue racing for the pure joy and rewards of racing. While many of us may disagree with the direction DEI has taken, I for one respect the institution that Dale built.
Dale Jr. seems to be happy now. He's competitive. He's not blown one single engine so far this year. He's 3rd in points, and competing for a championship. He has won a points race. He's doing very well, actually. I like the smile on his face these days. I'm happy to see him smile so widely again.
As Mike Helton said all those years ago, Dale Earnhardt was much more than just a race car driver. He was a proud father and husband, a loving grandfather, and a hero to millions. I think a lot of people have tried to pattern their lives after Dale. I know I have, and no matter how bad times get, I don't give up. I keep trying to move forward. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I fail. but I try to learn from the failures and go on.
I hope everyone out there that reads this learns just one lesson from Dale Earnhardt. Go for your dreams. Never give up. Never, ever give up.