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 Earnhardt, 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 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.
“This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements I’ve ever had to make. But after the accident in turn 4 of the Daytona 500, we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”
– NASCAR CEO Mike Helton
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 was in two Winston Cup events, driving a car for W. Ballard and a car for Johnny Ray.
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 W. Cronkrite and the fifth for Rod Osterland. It was that last race – one that saw Earnhardt finish 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.”Brooke and I are deeply saddened by this devastating loss. Not only is it a huge loss for the sport, but a huge loss for me personally. Dale taught me so much and became a great friend.”
– NASCAR’s Jeff Gordon
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 he 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.
Stardom came with a price, however. 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.
“Like all of the NASCAR family, I was stunned and saddened by the loss of Dale Earnhardt. We shared a common bond in championships as well as mutual respect. Our family has raced against his family since the sport began, going back to when Dad and I raced against Ralph Earnhardt.”
– NASCAR’s Richard Petty
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 went winless for the first time in 16 seasons in 1997.
“Words cannot express the tremendous loss all of us at Richard Childress Racing feel at this time. Dale Earnhardt was much more than a racecar driver; he was a loving husband, proud father and great businessman. Dale was a friend, and we worked side by side and hunted together. I will miss him always, for he was the greatest.”
– car owner Richard Childress
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, it was Talladega Superspeedway that proved to be the venue that saw Earnhardt get back on track, 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.
Dale Earnhardt, 49, was running third on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Tragically, it was a lap he would never complete.
“I am saddened by the untimely loss of this American legend and want to express my deepest sympathy to his family, friends and fans. Dale was an American icon who made great contributions to his sport. Dale’s legacy will live on for millions of Americans. He was an inspiration to many.”
– President George W. Bush
With one lap to go in the Feb. 25 Dura-Lube 400 NASCAR Winston Cup Rockingham event, Steve Park decided to practice what his mentor preached – and the result was the Pennzoil Chevrolet pilot’s second career win on the circuit and first on an oval course.
Park, driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., fought off a strong challenge from defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte to take the checker and give DEI its second consecutive win. Park’s vehicle got loose down the stretch, and Labonte’s actually made contact with the wall. The result was a great finish to a race that served as yet another tribute to Earnhardt.
“Emotions were all over the place,” said the 33-year-old Park “We were so excited to win that race for Dale, and we feel like maybe it started the healing process. Hopefully, by winning, it will start to lift the spirits of all the people at DEI.”
The race was delayed by a day due to heavy rain at Rockingham, but Park looked strong from flag to flag. When he crossed the finish line, Park waved a Dale Earnhardt cap out of his car window and was congratulated by DEI teammate Michael Waltrip, who won the season opening Daytona 500 moments after Earnhardt’s fatal crash.
“We know that Dale’s proud of us,” Park said. “Physically, he’s not here to enjoy it, but spiritually he’s looking down on us. I think Teresa (Earnhardt) and Dale Jr. are carrying on the vision Dale had of winning races.”
Park owes his Winston Cup career to Earnhardt, who plucked the Islip, N.Y., native out of the northeast short track scene and brought him into his racing empire.
Park won his first modified race in 1988 and finished as runner-up in the NASCAR Featherlite Modified standings in 1995 and 1996.
Park, named one of the 50 Greatest Modified Series Drivers of all time, continued to race on short tracks and the Busch North Series before being called up by Earnhardt to drive his AC Delco Chevrolet in 1997.
That year Park won Rookie of the Year honors in BGN and started to make a name for himself in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. He hooked up with Earnhardt for 17 races in 1998 and continues to be a regular in racing’s biggest league.
“It was nothing short of incredible to work with Dale,” Park said. “I’m racing in the northeast on short tracks, and then Dale comes along and gives me this opportunity. He helped me fulfill my dream.
“He was not only my boss, but we had become good friends. I think the fact that we grew close on a personal level makes all this hurt so much.”
Although their fallen comrade was on the minds of most competitors at Rockingham, Park said the race helped everyone move forward. He also said Earnhardt’s death didn’t change the way drivers approached their jobs.
“I think if you watched the race it didn’t look like Bobby or myself eased up at all,” Park said. “We’re doing what we’re paid to do. We’re well aware that this isn’t the safest thing in the world to do, but we have some of the best safety equipment in the world, and NASCAR does a great job of making this as safe as possible.”
Park admits Earnhardt will never be far from his thoughts.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be able to step into Dale’s role,” he said. “I can’t picture anyone filling those shoes. We have a lot of guys who are helping NASCAR grow, but Dale can’t be replaced, and we’ll always remember him and miss him.”