Racing beat

| January 03, 2006

Racing legend Dale Earnhardt roars into the Hall of Fame.

Eligibility for induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame requires a five-year waiting period. So when ballots went out for the Class of 2006, it was obvious Dale Earnhardt would be at the top of the list.

“It was a no-brainer,” says Jim Freeman, executive director of the IMHoF. “Every voter and every fan of motorsports knew Earnhardt would go in on the first ballot, and of course he did. It’s a great class, but Earnhardt is certainly at the top.”

Earnhardt joined Humpy Wheeler, Jack Roush, Janet Guthrie and Harry Gant in the newest class, which will officially be inducted in the spring of 2006.

Earnhardt, however, leads the way by far.

Ralph Earnhardt was an aggressive stock car driver and a man’s man, but he was also a father who was idolized by his son. Dale, who grew up in Kannapolis, N.C., was only 5 years old when his papa won the NASCAR Sportsman championship, but Dale knew at an early age that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

At age 22, Dale was a working man while his dad was a racing man. With only a ninth-grade education, the younger Earnhardt made ends meet by working in a textile factory.

That same year – 1973 – Ralph was tinkering with his car when he died of heart failure. Suddenly, the patriarch of the Earnhardt clan was gone, and it was up to Dale to carry the torch.

A ham-and-egg driver while trying to feed his family with a full-time job, Dale Earnhardt was determined to break into the sport he and his father loved – and succeed.

In 1975 Earnhardt drove one race for owner Ed Negre, winning a grand total of $1,925. The next season he raced in two Winston Cup events, driving a car for Walter Ballard in the first and Johnny Ray the next.

In 1977 it was one-and-out for Earnhardt, who piloted a car for Henly Gray and failed to finish the only race he started.

In 1978 Earnhardt was on the track five times – the first four for Will Cronkrite and the fifth for Rod Osterland. It was that last race – Earnhardt finished fourth – that got the attention of Osterland. The car owner was so impressed with the confident young man that he offered the twice-divorced father of three a chance to compete a full slate of Winston Cup racing in 1979.

Needless to say, Earnhardt made the most of his opportunity.

Suiting up for 27 of the circuit’s events, Earnhardt picked up his first career win at Bristol and also had one second place spot, three thirds, four, fourth-place spots and two fifths.

When the season was done, Ralph’s boy had brought home $264,086 and won NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors.

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