Saturday, January 12, 2008
Hard charging to the finish line
It wasn't easy when I wrote "I Remember Dale Earnhardt" in 2001. Current Cup drivers and all but one Cup owner (Bill Davis) would not talk to me. They said they were concerned with licensing -- Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, wasn't getting a huge chunk of the pie. So I called or emailed one team after another and got a no or a no reply. The book was good. All of the stories were genuine and heartfelt, but most of them were too nice. A few people talked about Earnhardt's often ruthless tactics, but no one could REALLY tell what it was like to race Earnhardt or give his dark side. I had wanted for years to update the book. I really wanted to talk to Terry Labonte, get him to talk about winning at Bristol in '95 with a front end crumpled by a last-lap bump from Earnhardt. Or the 1999 Bristol race, when Terry was leading on the last lap, and Earnhardt "rattled his cage" all the way into the wall. Then in August 2008, I got an email from Cumberland House, the publishing house for "I Remember Dale Earnhardt." Publisher Ron Pitkin wanted to update the book; would I be interested? Just send a quick proposal, I was told, and we'll go from there. I did, and I quickly contacted Richard Childress Racing (Earnhardt's old team) and every Cup team that had a car owner or driver who raced against Earnhardt. Then I did the same with Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series teams. I called and left messages. One woman told me that the guy I was pursuing was out of the country; wouldn't say where. Most teams ignored me. Kyle Petty's PR guy called and said Kyle was concerned with licensing. But he called. Jeff Gordon's assistant said Jeff isn't doing books right now. Several people I know wouldn't call back. I called one former driver several times, and I actually got him. He said he was busy but for me to call back in a half hour. I did, expecting an interview, and he said he didn't want to talk about Earnhardt. Had nothing good to say. I had a hard time in '01, but it was harder this time. I'd already talked to a bunch of track presidents, PR guys, fans, hometown folk and such. All wonderful, but I wanted gritty stories and, most of all, drivers. I wasn't bashful. The first guy I contacted was NASCAR publicist Jim Hunter, the former president of Darlington Raceway. I called Mike Curb, who excelled as a songwriter and as a car owner. I called Mike Helton, the president of NASCAR. I tried Steve Park, who raced for Earnhardt. And I called Brett Bodine, a former driver I met in 1987 and now an employee at NASCAR's R&D center. I got Hunter, and our conversation carried me mentally back to the '90s, when I was at the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier, an important paper to Hunter and Darlington Raceway. Jim was warm and real. Didn't get a callback from Curb, Helton, Park and Bodine, but all you can do is try. I did luck out and get Ron Hornaday, who also drove for Earnhardt. Dick Trickle called me back. So did Geoff Bodine (Earnhardt's chief rival in the '80s), David Pearson, Larry McReynolds (Earnhardt's crew chief when he won the 1998 Daytona 500), current Cup driver Ken Schrader, and other former drivers like Dave Marcis (Dale's great friend), Jerry Nadeau and Randy LaJoie. All were terrific. Bodine fleshed out the rivalry, and Dick told me that Earnhardt didn't hassle him because of the age difference between the two men. You don't wreck your daddy. I did some networking and found Gary Hargett, Earnhardt's car owner in Late Model Sportsman in the '70s. Gary said that Earnhardt hadn't changed. He was always an asshole; then he became a rich asshole. Gary told some stories, and he helped breathe some life -- not myth -- into the Earnhardt legend. I found Jay Wells, whom Earnhardt nicknamed the Troll (the story is explained in the book). I talked to Bob Misenheimer, the current mayor of Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt's hometown. And I called Dr. Joe Mattioli, the boss at Pocono Raceway, a man I've known to be human, humane and funny. The book won't be "I Remember Dale Earnhardt" this time, even though some of the text is the same. A few years ago, I wrote a story about Earnhardt's kindnesses to children with the hopes of sending it to newspapers as a tool to promote "I Remember Dale Earnhardt". I named that story "Dale Earnhardt, the Angel in Black". I chose that title because of Earnhardt's nickname -- the Man in Black -- and it harkened back to Earnhardt's favorite race track, Darlington, nicknamed the Lady in Black. I sent the story to Cumberland House's editor, John Mitchell, and John showed it to Ron Pitkin, the publisher. Ron fell in love with Angel in Black, and the book eventually became "Angel in Black: Memories of Dale Earnhardt Sr." It comes out Feb. 29, 2008. I wish I could have gotten Richard Childress, Mike Helton and a bunch of current Cup drivers, but what can you do? You just keep the engine running, keep it in gear and charge to the finish. Like Earnhardt.