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.

One season later Earnhardt found himself in Victory Lane and won the first of his record-tying seven Winston Cup crowns. A season-ending paycheck of nearly $600,000 had Earnhardt in high cotton, and the brash driver from the backwoods of the Carolinas had become the newest star on the circuit.

But stardom came with a price. In his early days, Earnhardt was hardly a fan favorite and made several enemies on the track. He was unafraid to swap paint with legends of the sport such as Richard Petty and David Pearson, and “love taps” became one of his tricks of the trade.

Was Earnhardt a dangerous driver? Probably. But stock car racing is a dangerous sport, and he was also becoming the best driver in a circuit that was destined to become the most prestigious in the world.

While Osterland gave him his big break, it was the tandem of Earnhardt and Richard Childress that would result in the most dominant force in the modern area of Winston Cup.

Childress, a former driver himself, was a kindred spirit. The two became close friends, and whatever Earnhardt needed to be competitive, Childress provided.

Earnhardt drove 11 races for Childress in 1981, but after a two-year stint with Bud Moore, Earnhardt went with Childress full-time in 1984. Their first Winston Cup title together came in 1986, and they won another one in 1987.

Earnhardt was on top of the stock car world again in 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994. At the age of 43, Dale Earnhardt had won as many points titles as Petty, and he did so when NASCAR competition had reached its zenith.

In 1995 Earnhardt won five races but finished second in the points standings. He won two in 1996, and he went winless for the first time in 16 seasons in 1997.

In 1998 Earnhardt took just one checker, but it came in The Great American Race, marking the first time Earnhardt had ever won the season-opening Daytona 500.

In 1999 Earnhardt got back on track at Talladega Superspeedway, and by the end of the 2000 season Earnhardt was poised to regain his status as the best in the business.

After winning the 2000 Winston 500, Earnhardt had 76 victories and went on to finish second behind Bobby Labonte for the Winston Cup title.

Earnhardt, 49, was running third on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Tragically, it was a lap he would never complete.


Racing with Gomer Pyle
Jim Nabors is no stranger to the world of motorsports. He appeared in the movie Stroker Ace, a stock car racing-themed comedy. Nabors was the crew chief for the title character, played by Burt Reynolds.

Nabors was directed by Hal Needham, whose Budweiser Rocker Car remains a big draw at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and Museum.

But the man who made the character Gomer Pyle famous first on The Andy Griffith Show and later Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. is mostly identified with open wheel racing, thanks to his long-standing relationship with Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“About 35 years ago I was invited by the people at Harrah’s Resort in Las Vegas to go to the Indy 500,” says Nabors. “Once we got there I was introduced to (track owner) Tony Hulman, and he asked me to ‘sing the song.'”

Aside from being a gifted comedic actor, Nabors also possesses a rich baritone voice that has recorded 28 albums, earning him five gold records and one platinum. He assumed Hulman wanted him to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to sing the national anthem in front of all those fans,” Nabors says. “So we started talking about it, and I asked what key they wanted me to sing it in. They just looked at me kind of puzzled.”

As it turns out, “The Star-Spangled Banner” gig was already taken. Instead, track officials wanted Nabors to sing “Back Home in Indiana,” which has become as much a part of The Brickyard as milk in Victory Lane.

“I panicked a little bit because I kept trying to remember the words to the song,” Nabors says. “I started humming it in my head, and the words started to come to me a little. Finally as I remembered them I started writing them down so I’d be sure not to forget, and that’s what started it all.

“I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Nabors now has homes in Oahu and Maui, where he runs a working macadamia nut farm and also grows tropical flowers. He still entertains and appears regularly with the Dallas and St. Louis symphonies.

And of course, he makes an appearance at Indy every Memorial Day weekend.

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