Thursday, July 17, 2008

Being an Earnhardt fan, Revisited

I have a lot of fun doing this blog, because I get to talk about my favorite subject, which is stock car auto racing. Not just Nascar, but all stock car racing. I love watching the ARCA series. I love watching late model races at my local track as well. I like watching dirt track racing. When I was a teenager, I used to come home happy, and covered with dust after watching a red dirt race up at Riverside Speedway, in northern Greenville County, South Carolina.

I've also been a fan of drag racing, but not as much. I used to watch Scotty Cannon back in the day when he raced and won a lot at the Greer Dragway, which I believe is in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Back in those days, they had nights when you could take any car you wanted to down to the track, and drag race. Maybe they still do. I had a friend with a Ford F100 pickup, 1977 model, I think, with a 390 cubic inch engine and an old 3 on the tree transmission. For those of you who don't know what a three on the tree was, that was an old style column shift manual transmission. My friend could drop the clutch in 2nd gear and burn rubber for as long as he kept the gas pedal on the floor. Lot's of smoke, lots of screaming engine sounds, lots of fun. He raced his truck sometimes at the Greer Dragway, and I think he actually won a few. Think about it. A Ford pickup truck beating Camaros and Firebirds on a quarter mile strip. He did it.

My friend doesn't race anymore, to my knowledge. But racing is something that gets into your blood. I watched my first Nascar race when I was about 6 or 7 years old, and I've been hooked ever since. 99.9 per cent of the races I've watched where on TV, and back when I was a kid, you only got to see parts of races on Wide World of Sports, on ABC. In the 1980's, I began to go to some race tracks, such as Darlington and Atlanta and Charlotte. A few years ago, I got to go to Talladega, and that was a real experience. I've been at the track two times when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won, and back in the day, I was at the track as well when his father won. Regardless of anything else going on in my life, those were and still are special moments to me.

I'm an Earnhardt fan. I wasn't always. When I was a kid, I liked Richard Petty a lot, but usually pulled for David Pearson, because he was from the next town over, Spartanburg. In 1979 when Earnhardt came along, I saw him, but didn't really SEE him. It took a few years. Back in those days I probably thought of Dale Earnhardt much like I think of Kyle Busch today. Dale wrecked a lot of cars. He did what I considered to be stupid things on the track. It wasn't until about midway through the 1980's, when Dale was winning everything there was to win, that I began to respect the man. There was a race, one time, and I think it might have been Bristol, but I'm not sure, but Dale was penalized a lap for rough driving, and proceeded to not only race back to make up that lap, but went on and won the race. Dale never needed to be motivated. He had it always inside him. He was born to race, and was always a pure racer. To him, nothing mattered at all except winning.

And win he did. 76 races and 7 championships. Richard Petty also won 7 championships, but he raced in a lot more races, and also back in the day when they used to run 60 or 70 races a year. But to me, race for race, pass for pass, Dale Earnhardt was and will always be the greatest stock car driver that ever lived.

It might surprise you to know that I'm not a fan of his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., just because he's Dale Earnhardt's son. The first time I ever saw Dale Jr. on camera was in 1997, or maybe 1998. He just seemed like a great kid. He had a lot of confidence, but he didn't whine or complain when he wrecked or made a mistake. He respected the old school drivers, and talked to them and learned from them. He grew up watching his dad and other drivers race. He knew a lot about the sport before he ever climbed into a race car. He watched videos of old races, studied driver's styles and moves. It's true that Dale Jr. had resources his father never had. But Dale Jr. approached it from a racer's point of view, just like his dad did. Anything you can do to beat the other guy, or that gives you some advantage, you learn from it. Dale did it, and so did his son.

When Rod Osterlund sold the team to J.D. Stacy, Dale left. He didn't like the situation, so he left. He'd already won a championship, but the main thing was that Dale wanted to race with the best equipment, but also the best people. He worked briefly with Richard Childress, who had been a driver himself. Richard told Dale to go away until he got his shop and cars in order. Dale drove for Bud Moore for a couple of years, but hated the Fords he was driving. He won, but wasn't happy with the way things were working out. Finally, Dale went back to Childress, and history was made. 6 championships with Richard Childress. The 3 car was truly bullet proof.

We all thought so. I cried the day that Dale won the 1998 Daytona 500. To me, that might be the most memorable moment in Nascar history. I also shed some tears when Dale Jr. won the 2001 Pepsi 400 at Daytona, and when he won the 2004 Daytona 500.

I don't really like to talk about February 18, 2001. I didn't even get to see the entire race, because I had other committments that day. When I heard the news, I was totally stunned. I think I walked around in a trance for about 3 months after that. I was happy to see Steve Park win at Rockingham the following week. I was happy to see Kevin Harvick win at Atlanta a couple of weeks later. But everytime I thought about it, tears came to my eyes. I'm not the crying type, either. But the loss of Dale Earnhardt did and still does bring tears to my eyes.

The son doesn't look much like the father. Sometimes he sounds like him, but even his driving style doesn't remind me of his father's. But somehow, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has achieved amazing success on his own, even after his father died. A lot of people like Dale Jr. for a lot of reasons, but I think there is one underlying reason for his amazing popularity. It's really simple. He's a nice guy.

With Dale Earnhardt Jr., you get what you see. He does not try to be a celebrity, but he is. He doesn't try to make the young ladies swoon, but he does. I think if you asked Dale Jr. why he's so popular, he'd probably tell you he has no idea. He appreciates his fans, almost to a fault, and does a lot of things for his fans that other drivers would distain to do. He creates dvd's and TV shows, and does it solely for his fans. He apologizes to his fans when he doesn't run well. Of course he's under tremendous pressure from his sponsors to perform well, and he does. But I think he worries about disapointing his fans more. The same could be said about probably quite a few drivers these days, but Dale Jr. is the one that I notice the most that seems to be trying to make his fans happy.

We've always got the detractors out there, but that's fine. The sport needs detractors. We all have our favorite drivers and the drivers we don't like. Dale Earnhardt Jr. may not win 200 races. He may not win 7 championships. But he'll always be remembered for being the person that he is. He'll eventually be put on the list of the greatest drivers, maybe not because of the number of wins or championships, but for the guy that the majority of the fans pull for.

Dale Jr., You have arrived.


  1. I was there in the infield of 2001. We left after the finish to avoid the traffic bullpucky. By the time we were on our way to I-4 we heard the news. I still cry to this day when I think of the first time I met him. That is a story all it's own, I just remember a real man that was real. I even have his portrait tattooed on my back. He was my idol, and always will be...!!!


  3. I like Dale Jr because he could so easily be the son I never had.
    Again, another great post. Keep 'em coming.

  4. great post. It made me remember Earnhardt and Petty as a kid. I had Aurora AFX slot car race set, I had a Dodge Charger Richard petty replica that was my favorite car to race with. Of course my cousin had the #3 Earnhardt car, my arch rival.
    Thanks for the post.


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