February 1, 2008
By Rebecca Gladden
When veteran motorsports writer Tom Gillispie learned in 2001 that a publishing house wanted someone to write a book about NASCAR's Man in Black, he knew he had to do it.
Cumberland House Publishing wanted to commemorate Dale Earnhardt's recent death in the Daytona 500 with a book of personal recollections, adding to its "I Remember … " series of tributes to fallen athletes from various sports genres.
Gillispie's efforts led to his first book about the Intimidator, "I Remember Dale Earnhardt - Personal Memories of, and Testimonials to, Stock Car Racing's Most Beloved Driver, as Told by the People Who Knew Him Best."
Now seven years later, Cumberland is releasing an updated version of the book, also authored by Gillispie, entitled, "Angel in Black - Remembering Dale Earnhardt, Sr." The new version contains all of the copy from the first book, some of it retooled, along with many fresh, fascinating interviews.
Both books are packed full of memories and personal anecdotes from members of the NASCAR community who worked with and competed against the seven-time Cup series champion. The new book, due to be released February 29th, includes stories from Dick Trickle, Geoff Bodine, David Pearson, Larry McReynolds, Ken Schrader, Dave Marcis, Jerry Nadeau and Randy LaJoie, along with many others.
Though the end result is a worthwhile read for fans of Earnhardt and the sport in general, Gillispie did not set out to create an overly flattering tribute, but a balanced portrayal of a man with many complex, often conflicting, personality traits. At once kind and generous, brash and bullying, Earnhardt has always had as many detractors as supporters.
"I talked to Gary Hargett. He was Earnhardt's car owner in Late Model Sportsman in the '70s," Gillispie told me. "He said that when he met Earnhardt he was an a**hole and when he became rich, he became a rich a**hole."
That's just one man's opinion, of course, but Gillispie notes that Earnhardt's nature fostered tales that run the gamut from tough to touching, harsh to humorous - like the time he drove 30 miles from one town to another with the car in reverse. Why? "Because the car wouldn't shift into drive," explained Gillispie, adding, "he actually passed cars along the way - but they were driving forward and he was driving backwards."
There was also the tender side of Dale Earnhardt, who had a particular soft spot for children. "He had this reputation of being a tough guy, and he was," said Gillispie. "But he was always doing things for kids. He had a Kids' Day down in Kannapolis (his hometown) and it was always unstated that Earnhardt would be there. The signs might have said, 'Well-Known Speaker,' but Earnhardt would show up and he often brought someone with him, usually Neil Bonnett, Davey Allison, even Brooks and Dunn."
It was Earnhardt's love of children that led to the title of Gillispie's new book. "Angel in Black comes from a story I wrote to promote 'I Remember Dale Earnhardt'," said Gillispie. "I told about Earnhardt's love of children, how he went to extremes to please them, how he promoted education. I said that, to the children, Earnhardt wasn't the Intimidator or 'One Tough Customer' from his Wrangler's ads. He was an angel in black. I sent the story to the editor and he showed it to the publisher. The publisher fell in love with 'Angel in Black' and it became part of the book title."
Given his long tenure as a motorsports writer, I asked Gillispie which current driver most reminds him of Earnhardt in terms of personality. "Tony Stewart," he said without hesitation. "I've seen days when Stewart was a great interview, and days when he wouldn't give you one second. That was very much Earnhardt."
But, when it comes to driving skill, Gillispie adds a second name to the mix. "A lot of my friends in racing agree with me that the only drivers in Cup racing for a long time who have resembled Earnhardt are Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. I talk about that in the book. For a long time Earnhardt tried to intimidate Jeff Gordon, then he realized that he couldn't. He became almost like a big brother to Jeff. He admired him and they did a lot of business together. They were very similar in a lot of ways."
One of those similarities, notes Gillispie, is the way the fans reacted to both men. "Earnhardt was the most admired and the most booed driver. Half the fans were rooting for him and the other half were hating him. When Gordon came up and he started winning championships, he started rivaling Earnhardt for fans, and for boos."
Gillispie also points out that the departure of Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., from the company his father started would not have transpired had Earnhardt Sr. lived. "A lot of people ask me what Earnhardt would have thought about the situation. But if he'd been alive, it never would have happened. Earnhardt really had the people skills at DEI. He was good at making people feel needed and loved. (Wife) Teresa had the business skills, but it was Dale who was great at finding the talent and the employees. Once Dale was gone, the people skills weren't there any more."
In fact, Gillispie says one of the biggest challenges in writing both of his Earnhardt books was the issue of licensing involving Teresa Earnhardt. "It wasn't easy when I wrote 'I Remember Dale Earnhardt' in 2001. Current Cup drivers and all but one Cup owner 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."
Still, the book became a reality, and readers will not be disappointed by its rich content, full of hundreds of Earnhardt stories that paint a unique picture of a complex man, including Gillispie's personal recollections.
"After he got to know me, when he saw me in the media center he'd stop and talk, but it wasn't to do an interview," Gillispie said. "He hated giving interviews. He just talked to me as one country boy to another - because that's what we both were."
Tom Gillispie's new book, "Angel In Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt, Sr.," may be ordered online at Amazon.com.
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