It’s the morning of the 2001 Daytona 500, and the vibe on pit road, where the cars line up for the start of the race, is chaotic, with crews, families and sponsors scrambling to clear out before the famous command, “Gentlemen, Start your engines,” jump starts The Great American Race.
Still fresh in my mind is something I’d heard earlier, as drivers arrived on the frontstretch for introductions: “It will be a race you won’t forget,” Steve Hmiel, then the technical director for the race team owned by Dale Earnhardt Sr., had promised.
Now, pushing toward the front of the pack, I can see Earnhardt settling into his car. As I walk in front of his black No. 3, he smiles, winks and waves.
And, just over three hours later, he’s gone.
Earnhardt dies that day, Feb. 18, 2001, on the final lap. While playing defense for his drivers, Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., because his car is slightly damaged, Earnhardt gets entangled with Sterling Marlin, and Earnhardt and Ken Schrader’s cars are launched into the Turn 4 wall. After the race comes the news that the sport has lost a legend.
As the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt’s death nears, as Daytona 500 officials make plans to honor one of their own on Sunday, I decided to dig into my archives to retrieve the notes from my final one-on-one interview with Earnhardt only weeks before his death.
The man who will be remembered Sunday with a moment of silence during Lap 3 had granted me a chunk of his time on a late-January day because he was going to be the featured story for The Sporting News, the first time a driver would grace the cover of the nation’s oldest national sports publication.
The plan was to preview Speedweeks at Daytona. But it just as well could have been the coming-out party for Earnhardt’s sport.
With a $2.4 billion multiyear contract with network TV powerhouses FOX and NBC, NASCAR was finally getting a more consistent broadcast schedule and, thus, exposure to more fans than ever before.
More important, at least to Earnhardt and NASCAR fans, was that the seven-time Cup champion was due for a resurgence of his own.
After building and testing new cars for the 2001 season, the team for which Earnhardt drove, Richard Childress Racing, was stronger than ever — and so was Earnhardt, whose relationship with crew chief Kevin Hamlin was the perfect balance of respect and camaraderie.
These and other thoughts — like the fact Earnhardt drove for RCR even though he owned a NASCAR team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. — raced through my mind as I traveled the winding back roads of Iredell County, just north of Charlotte, N.C., to 1676 Coddle Creek Highway.
The new shop on the familiar landscape — farm fields peppered with modest houses and mobile homes — was a stark departure from what I saw on my first visit to Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 1996: a shop where deer heads adorned the walls and men in grease-covered jeans and T-shirts massaged sheet metal into pristine race cars for the Busch Series in their spare time.
Since that visit, when I interviewed Dale Jr. in advance of his Busch (now Nationwide) Series debut, DEI had expanded its operation to include three Cup teams, hundreds of employees and a promising future.
Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s vision was becoming a reality.
“I enjoy racing,” Earnhardt said. “That is my life. All of this sort of came with having a Busch team, driving your own car and growing from that. It all started falling into place. We built this shop to house it all. In the grand scheme of things, it is unique to have this.”
This, the headquarters for DEI, has been dubbed the “Garage Mahal.” And for good reason: How many racing organizations have an on-site chef serving up food in a corporate dining room enclosed by glass windows that overlook a massive marble showroom floor filled with classic autos?
Earnhardt offered brief histories for each of the vehicles in that showroom, lighting up while discussing the details of the white Corvette he had purchased for daughter Taylor’s 12th birthday the previous month. The 1988 model was built to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Corvette brand and was released the year Taylor was born. Earnhardt talked with pride about giving his youngest daughter driving lessons around the family farm and her ability to single-handedly park the car in the showroom.
The DEI complex was proof of an organization ascending to the next level, both in the realm of competition and Earnhardt’s priorities. But even his No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet and RCR team were a distant third in importance, “behind God and family.”
While we talked and shared a meal, he beamed as he described the feeling when he first held his granddaughter, Karsyn, a gift from oldest daughter Kelley. The experience only cemented his desire to build a business that would serve his family for generations to come.
“I feel like one day Dale Jr. will be able to step in here and run this and hopefully Kelley and (oldest son) Kerry and all the kids will be involved in this and they’ll all race out of here and it will be great,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully, after I retire from driving, I will be a great car owner for several years, then I can turn the reins over to the kids and let them have it. And they can race on.”
But first, Earnhardt had unfinished business. He admitted the RCR organization had become “a little bit lazy in the mid-, late ‘90s,” yet he worked through the complacency in 2000 to challenge for the Cup title.
Earnhardt fell just short, finishing 265 points behind Cup champ Bobby Labonte. That was a vast improvement over the previous season, when Earnhardt finished seventh in the points standings.
“We’ve turned a corner and we’re on the straightaway now,” Earnhardt said. “We had to wake up and open our eyes. We couldn’t keep making the same mistakes.
“It’s an every-year, every-race deal. You have to work hard to beat somebody … It’s a never-ending balance of focus, confidence and hard work to stay on top. If you can keep everybody focused on what their task is you will stay successful.”
Listening to Earnhardt, I was convinced the 2001 NASCAR season would belong to the man known as The Intimidator. The likelihood of an eighth championship appeared more like reality than desire.
“I feel the team wants to win it as bad as I do,” he said. “It’s the confidence of the team. And I think they’re ready for it.”
The energy at DEI was electric. Earnhardt was preparing to make his 2001 debut with Junior in the Rolex 24 at Daytona on Feb. 4. But the Daytona 500 — where he believed no other driver was better — was weeks away.
Hopes were high because Earnhardt was on pace to pass Terry Labonte’s Ironman record of 656 consecutive career starts in 2001 at Talladega, the site of his last victory. Not bad for a guy who was set to turn 50 on April 29 — especially considering his father, Ralph, had died at 45.
If his age bothered Earnhardt, he never admitted it publicly. Surgery a year earlier had alleviated the back pain he had suffered for years. His confidence had never waned and perhaps was bolstered by that remarkable run at Talladega on Oct. 15 that resulted in his 76th, and what would be final, career win.
But there was no finality in Earnhardt’s voice during our final one on one.
“I don’t feel like there is an end to my career in sight in the next couple of years,” he said. “I’m still as competitive and excited about racing as ever.
“Everybody is in line to have a good year. It should be a great year for us because Kevin (Hamlin) and myself are working well together, and the team confidence between all of us is better than it’s ever been. And I feel good.”
Earnhardt had every reason to “feel good.” The business side of his life had never been stronger. The personal side of his life had never been more satisfying. He was at a point in his life where he embraced both sides wholeheartedly.
“Your life changes as you go through it,” Earnhardt said. “You have to focus on things when you’re first getting started and it changes as you go through it. I’m 49 years old. I’m pretty damn comfortable with my life.
“What I do, instead of getting rattled, I analyze the situation and try to correct it and move on. A lot of things rattled me in my younger life, but it all changes as you get older. You learn how to take things in stride and have a good time.”
Earnhardt credited NASCAR head Bill France Jr. for being the catalyst that “helped me grow.”
“It helped me understand the sport better,” Earnhardt said of his relationship with France. “Bill is a great leader, a great philosopher. The great thing about Bill is he doesn’t forget anything about people . . .
“He’s been in unique situations. He knows what to expect and how to handle situations. It’s good to have a leader and it’s good to have a friend like that. Besides my dad, he’s the guy I’ve learned the most from. When it comes to respecting and looking up to someone, he’s the guy.”
As Earnhardt polished off his prime rib, we discussed a variety of topics:
• What drivers will be stars in the future?
Earnhardt didn’t hesitate as he rolled off the names Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, all of whom won championships after the conversation.
Not surprisingly his list included son Dale Jr. and DEI driver Steve Park. Of Earnhardt‘s contemporaries, he couldn’t understand why Mark Martin hadn’t won a title or Jimmy Spencer hadn’t had the opportunity to showcase his talent in top-of-the line equipment.
• Who’s his toughest competition? Does anyone intimidate The Intimidator?
As Earnhardt started to analyze his fellow drivers, country singer Faith Hill appeared on one of the TV monitors in the room. “What the hell did you do to your hair?” Earnhardt opined about her new, shorter ‘do.
The interview continued:
• Greatest strength?
“Perseverance,” he answered.
“What would be my weakness . . . I don’t know,” Earnhardt said. He turned to his public relations assistant, J.R. Rhodes, “What do you think my weakness is? C’mon, big boy, don’t be chickens**t. Say it.”
Rhodes, appearing intimidated, answered cautiously: “I would have to say forgiving or trustworthiness.”
“Yeah, I don’t trust too easy,” Earnhardt said.
But he trusted enough to share with me some of his prized possessions, photographs of Earnhardt and his late father, Ralph, racing together at Metrolina (NC) Speedway that were placed prominently in his office. One moment Earnhardt was nostalgic, the next he was looking ahead.
Earnhardt would never take credit for helping to build the sport, but as a confidant to France, who died in 2007, he was instrumental in shaping NASCAR.
• The future of NASCAR? Earnhardt believed it was on the upswing and would “be fine” in 2001 and beyond.
“They’ll make mistakes and we’ll grow and we’ll get better and we’ll make mistakes and we’ll grow and we’ll get better,” Earnhardt said. “It’s just like life. You learn and experience. Today, at 49, I feel confident in life and I’m fine, but I’m sure tomorrow it could throw me a curveball, something I have to deal with, but I’m ready for it. I’m not going to panic.
“When I’m gone or when I get out of the car, racing won’t change. A lot of people did believe and had believed that when Richard Petty retired from racing (things) would change. It didn’t change. It went on. It will go on after Bill Jr. is gone. It will go on after I’m gone. It won’t change. I think it’s all about the sport itself.
“Racing will go on … the history, the years, the background, the people who are in it. From champions of yesterday — Red Byron to Bobby Labonte today, my son has come into it, Richard Petty’s son (Kyle) came into it, Bobby Allison’s (Davey), they’ve all been a part of it. There are so many pieces of the puzzle that made it what it is today . . .
“There will never be another great series like NASCAR. Never.”
And there will never be another Dale Earnhardt.
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