Monday, October 19, 2009

Earnhardt played, and PR guy squirmed

Back in 1995, an unknowing Russell Branham was about to have the rides of his life.

With Dale Earnhardt.

All of us have ridden with crazed drivers who are intent on scaring us to death, but Branham didn't take a joyride with Joe Schmoe from down the street. His driver was the Intimidator, the Man in Black, the winningest driver at Darlington (if you count both Winston Cup and Busch Series victories). Earnhardt was fast, he was tough, and he LOVED to make Russell, Darlington's PR guy at the time, suffer.

They'd just repaved the track in '95, and Earnhardt told Branham that they'd done a bad job. Branham had a company van, so Earnhardt drove them out onto the track. He'd stop, point to a spot in the asphalt and explain something to an uncomprehending Branham.

"It was Japanese to me what he was saying," Branham said for my 2001 book 'I Remember Dale Earnhardt.' "Then he said, 'Do you want to feel it?' Here, I'm thinking we're going to go around 60 to 70 miles an hour, and I don't know what we're looking for. He gasses it up, and, within three to four laps, the speedometer was locked. Here we are, in a van with thin tires, and he's decided to take me for a joyride.

"We go into the corner wide open, with smoke billowing everywhere. You can smell rubber, there's smoke in the vents, and the tires are screaming. I'm holding on to the little handle above the window and trying to keep my composure. He knows I'm scared to death, and he gives me that devilish grin. That's when I knew I was in good hands. To him, this wasn't anything. He had his sun shades on, and he gave me this look like, 'I gotcha.' I held my composure, but I said a few bad words.

"Needless to say, we didn't go back out there that day. That afternoon, he crashed his race car in turn three ... destroyed the car."

That scared Branham, but it didn't scare him enough.

Three years later, Earnhardt called and said that he was flying his helicopter into the infield, and he'd bring along his Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers, Dale Jr. and Ron Hornaday. Would Branham pick them up in the infield?

When Branham got them in his car, Earnhardt asked him to take them out onto the track. He said he wanted to show Dale Jr. and Hornaday the groove around the track, since neither has seen it up close. Dale Jr. was a Busch Series rookie, and Hornaday was going to drive the No. 1 car for the injured Steve Park.

"I felt pretty good about that," Branham said for the book. "I got one of the best ever in the sport asking to drive 'em. No problem at all."

Branham had given many track rides over the years, so he was confident. But when he followed the rubber around the track, Earnhardt complained.

"Finally, he looks over at me, and he said, 'Where did you learn how to drive this place?' " Branham said. "I said, 'From watching you guys, and I'm looking at the rubber from the last race.' He says, 'The rubber you're looking at is from the guys who haven't won here before.' He said, 'You're looking at the wrong rubber. Those guys don't know how to get around this place as fast as I do.' "

Earnhardt got Branham to speed up to 80 or 85 mph, and the drivers in the backseat were leaning over the seats like children catching the sights. But, again, Earnhardt complained. So he lifted his left foot over the big console in the Bonneville. He kicked Branham's foot off the gas and grabbed the steering wheel with his left hand.

"I think, 'Here we go again,'" Branham said. "We're wide open again, and he's locked the blamed speedometer."

Branham was behind the wheel, but the Intimidator was in the groove.

"He looks over at me and says, 'Russell, are you scared?' " Branham said. "I said, 'No, I'm not scared. Keep driving, keep driving.' I'm trying to act Mr. Cool.

"But to see him do this physically, and, at the same time, he's being a teacher telling Little Earnhardt and Hornaday what they need to do to get around that race track. It was like school was in session. It was like the students were on the playground listening to him, and he was playing. It was absolutely amazing to see him at work doing that. There again, those old tires were screaming, and there's the smell of rubber. This is a race-track car; and if it gets crashed, I'm in hot water."

But this was Earnhardt, showing off his unparalleled skills and picking on his favorite victim. Branham said he later asked why Earnhardt was so hard on him.

"He said, 'If I didn't pick on you, it would mean I didn't like you,' " Branham said. "I took it as a huge compliment. He ALWAYS, ALWAYS made me squirm."

One postscript: In January 2007, I asked Hornaday if he remembered the incident at Darlington. He did, in a way.

"He did that all the time; he did that to EVERYBODY," Hornaday said, his eyes round and his face glowing with delight.

Maybe, but at least one victim got both barrels of Earnhardt's attention. And he still squirms at the memories.