Earnhardt slows, takes look back

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Dale Earnhardt is a man of means, but by no means does he take it for granted.

"I'm impressed," he said, almost embarrassed. "I look around at all I've got. I mean, who could have imagined all this? I still walk through [car owner] Richard Childress' garage and see all those people working -- working for me -- and I find it almost unbelievable."

Tonight, he will be dressed in a tux, with his wife, Teresa, by his side in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, where he will be honored as Winston Cup champion for a record-tying seventh time.

But to know what that accomplishment means to Earnhardt, you have to know how he got here.

It was a long time ago, but Earnhardt can still see the light of the sun flickering through a garage door behind the small house in Kannapolis, N.C., where he grew up and his mother still lives.

The sunlight would fall on the face of Ralph Earnhardt, and Dale, about 8 then, was attentive as he sat on the garage floor beside his father, learning about auto racing.

Ralph earned the nickname "Ironheart" for his tenaciousness while putting together a NASCAR Sportsman career that included the 1958 driving championship and four other top 10 seasons. He would sit with a piece of soapstone in his fingers, drawing geometric designs on the concrete floor.

"I learned so much from just being around," Dale said. "I watched him build cars and engines, and I went to races with him. He'd use soapstone to draw suspension geometries on the floor and show me how things worked."

Dale blinked and smiled.

"He must have been a good teacher, because I knew exactly what I was doing the first time I sat in a car," he said. "It was like that moment was meant to be."

And, perhaps, it was.

Former two-time Winston Cup champion Ned Jarrett has said more than once that, "Dale Earnhardt is the only driver I've ever seen who I feel was born to be a race car driver."

And Richard Petty, the man who built the seven-championship mountain that Earnhardt has now also climbed, has paid Earnhardt a huge compliment.

Last year, here at the Waldorf, after a television interview, Petty called out to Earnhardt.

"Richard reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out a slip of paper," said ESPN's Jerry Punch, one of the few to witness the moment. "He handed it to Earnhardt

and asked for his autograph. Earnhardt thought it was a joke at first, but Richard said he was very serious and would Dale please sign for him.

"Earnhardt looked very moved and he signed the paper, 'To the King, you'll always be the greatest, Dale Earnhardt.' "

These days, Petty explains the moment this way.

"I'm just glad, if anyone had to match my record, that it's Dale that's done it because he's a racer like me. He runs hard every lap."

A racer like Petty.

A competitor like Ralph Earnhardt, who had only an eighth-grade education, but knew how to support his family -- wife Martha; two daughters, Kathy and Kay, and three sons, Dale, Randy and Dennis.

"Daddy was a rich man," said Dale. "He didn't have much money, but he had everything he needed in life. We didn't know what rich or poor was. We just knew we were as well off as anybody else we knew."

Like his father, Dale left school in eighth grade, "because I wanted to go racing" with his dad, and work on race cars.

"I thought I didn't need an education and I've been fortunate to do well without it," Dale said. "But I wish I had stayed in school."

Unlike his father, Dale went through two failed marriages and, at the end of his second marriage, in 1978, his racing didn't seem to be going anywhere.

"I wanted to race and couldn't afford to race," he said. "I was ready to go to work for someone, doing something else."

And that's when life began to change.

There was a ride in the Charlotte World 600 in the car Willy T. Ribbs vacated after driving the wrong way on a one-way city street, leading to a run-in with the local police.

The car was owned by Will Conkrite and he gave Earnhardt three more rides that summer. He finished seventh at Daytona in July, and that was enough to persuade car owner Rod Osterlund to fix up an old car and let Earnhardt run it in the Sportsman race at Charlotte.

Earnhardt finished second to Bobby Allison in that race, and Osterlund had seen all he needed.

He signed Earnhardt to run for Rookie of the Year in 1979, and Earnhardt won the award. in 1980, he won his first Winston Cup title.

Ralph Earnhardt died in 1973 at 43, the same age his son is now. He was struck down by a heart attack while working on a carburetor in his kitchen. Dale, then 22, discovered the body when he came by to visit.

"There isn't a day I don't think about Dad," said Dale Earnhardt. "Oh, I don't ponder it all the time, but he is always there. My dad is my hero. Everything I am is because of who he was and what he taught me."

EARNHARDT FILE

Born: April 29, 1951, Kannapolis, N.C.

Residence: Mooresville, N.C.

Family: Wife, Teresa. Children, Taylor Nicole (5), Kelley King (22), Ralph Dale Jr. (20), Kerry (24).

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

1975: Started 33rd and finished 22nd in first Winston Cup start at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the World 600.

1979: Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. Won first Winston Cup race of career, the Southeastern 500, at Bristol International Raceway.

1980: Won first Winston Cup title in second full season, becoming only driver to win Rookie of the Year award and Cup title in back-to-back seasons.

1981: Passed the $1 million mark in career earnings with a 25th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway.

1986: Won second Winston Cup title. Shared National Motorsports Press Association Driver of the Year title with Tim Richmond.

1987: Won third Winston Cup title. Named American Driver of the Year and NMPA Driver of the Year.

1990: Won fourth Winston Cup title. Named NMPA Driver of the Year. Earned then-record $3.08 million.

1991: Won fifth Winston Cup title.

1993: Won sixth Winston Cup title. Earned NASCAR Winston Cup record $3.35 million.

1994: Won record-tying seventh Winston Cup title with four wins and 25 top 10 finishes in 31 starts. Won $3.3 million.

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