Dale Earnhardt is a superstar, a seven-time Winston Cup champion, envied and feared by competitors, admired by his fans, hated by those who cheer for other drivers.
Those who admire the lanky 46-year-old do so, they often say, "because he's just like me, a down-to-earth guy who has worked hard for what he has." It is an image projected not just by Earnhardt, but by almost every Winston Cup driver. It is an image that was real when drivers, such as Earnhardt's father, Ralph, competed in the early 1960s, and it held true through the '70s and '80s.
In some ways, that image still holds. In others, it is craftily maintained, part of the NASCAR appeal that has helped a Southern sport grow into one of the hottest draws in the country.
"My dad always said: 'Never get above your raising,'" Earnhardt said as he ate a banana and lounged in the sitting room of an expensive tractor-trailer rig that hauls the racing cars from race to race. "And I still enjoy the simple things I did before racing got to be big time - walking in the woods, fishing."
During this season, he has seemed even more human, more like one of his fans. His car hasn't always run to his liking; he continues to seek his first victory of the season. And his health, usually so robust, came into question several weeks ago when he fell asleep at the sound of "Gentlemen start your engines" at Darlington, S.C., and double-vision caused him to hit the wall on the first lap.
Though doctors have found no specific health problem, the incident has made Earnhardt, one of NASCAR's most intimidating drivers, appear vulnerable, more easy to identify with.
Earnhardt, unlike his fans and even his fellow competitors, though, has banked almost $30 million in career earnings. So is he really like Joe Fan sitting in the stands?
His mom thinks so. "I think basically, he's the same as he was when he was a little boy," said Martha Earnhardt. "His lifestyle is different, but he's the same boy. Just a regular guy."
He's up every day at 5:30 a.m watching the sun come up, "enjoying the daybreak, seeing a lot of things a lot of people sleep through," he said. Sometimes he gets on his tractor and clears fence rows or bales hay. Sometimes, he and his 8-year-old daughter, Taylor, go horseback riding or fishing.
On a hot afternoon, when he's home, he's happy to settle down with a cold beer.
"My dream was just to work on race cars and race," Earnhardt said. "I had no thought about where it would take me and how far I could go. I just enjoyed racing. Now racing takes you a lot of places and allows you to do a lot of things you wouldn't otherwise get to do, but I don't have to have a lot of excitement to enjoy myself. I'm still the same guy I've always been and I won't have a tough time enjoying life when all this is over."
But there are perks and toys and necessary trappings that can't help but make him seem a bit different.
A few years back, when he was in New York to attend the Winston Cup banquet in celebration of one of his titles, he and his wife, Teresa, went shopping for a piece of art.
"I can't see me owning a Picasso," Earnhardt said then.
But now he owns one.
He also owns a helicopter and three airplanes, including a six-seat Lear jet. And there's a sailing vessel, some might call a yacht, that Earnhardt refers to as his fishing boat.
"It's not luxurious, just some place where we can get away from everything," Earnhardt said. "I can get on that boat and fish, kick back and wear jeans and shorts and T-shirts and be a regular guy. It's a nice boat, but it's not a luxury yacht with butlers and things like that. We don't have people waiting on us hand and foot. We have a captain and a lady who goes on trips with us to cook and clean. But I'm out there washing the boat, rigging tackle, packing ice.
"And the airplanes are a necessity, a business tool," he said. "They get me from place to place. It's not like I get on them and have champagne every night. I get on the airplane and go home. And most of the time when we get off one night, we have to get back on the next morning and go some place else to make another appearance."
A few weeks ago, he had to be in a different place every night and the places were as far apart as Las Vegas, to make a new music video with country music stars Brooks & Dunn, and New York, where he promoted that weekend's race at Watkins Glen.
"Dale called me the other night," said Martha Earnhardt. "They had just had dinner and he and Taylor had been fishing. It's that kind of thing he likes best. He told me one day that he wished he didn't have to worry about any of the things he has to do outside the race car, that he'd love to just drive the car; that's all he ever wanted to do. I told him if he hadn't been so good at it, he wouldn't have to worry about all those other things."
(For career, through Sept. 7)
No. Driver ........ Earnings
1. Dale Earnhardt ... 29,930,852
2. Bill Elliott ..... 17,348,725
3. Darrell Waltrip .. 16,445,398
4. Terry Labonte .... 16,190,687
5. Rusty Wallace .... 15,683,047
Pub Date: 9/14/97