Friday, February 1, 2013

Dale Earnhardt's intimidating visit

Here's an excerpt from Angel In Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

Jerry Gappens, the longtime publicist for Lowe's Motor Speedway, recalls track president Humpy Wheeler wanting to get Earnhardt for a couple of functions, but Earnhardt's schedule didn't permit it. Wheeler, who had a good relationship with Earnhardt, was a little upset, and that got back to Dale. That's when Gappens got an intimidating visit.

This is the most I've ever been intimidated by Earnhardt: I was trying to hook up with him for a press conference and an autograph session for one of our big Auto Fairs. Typical bad luck: every time I wanted him to do something, he had a conflict and couldn't do it. I was working through his publicist and Don Hawk, his business manager at the time. Humpy wanted to know about Earnhardt, and I said, "He was busy and couldn't do it, blah, blah, blah." That kinda made Humpy mad.

Well, Earnhardt always comes here to get his tickets. He had a condo here, and Humpy would give him his tickets. Earnhardt'd make a tour through the speedway offices, say hi to people, pick up his tickets, sign stuff for employees. After I told Humpy about not being able to get Earnhardt over this three-month stretch, it made him mad. Dale had a lot of respect for Humpy; he and Humpy were very close. Humpy said, "I'll talk to him the next time I see him. He's not too big to help out."

I'm on the phone one afternoon, and the door was open. All of a sudden, Earnhardt walks through my door, followed closely by Don Hawk. Eanhardt stops, shuts the door, and locks it. I think, Oh, my goodness, this is big here. He's towering over my desk, so I say, "How are you doing?" He said, "I'm doing fine. I just want to find out what our problem is. I just went to Humpy's office, and I'm sideways with Humpy." That's exactly how he said it, "sideways with Humpy. He said. "I don't need to be sideways with Humpy. He mentioned some press stuff that didn't get done. I want to try to straighten it out."

I gave him the three situations we were talking about. He says, "Here we go: If you need a press conference, call J.R. Rhodes, my publicist. If you need an autograph, call Don Hawk. Hawk, give him your numbers." Hawk gave me his business number, his home phone number, his cell-hyone number. I had about six numbers for Don Hawk.

He said, "Jerry, all I ask is that you give me enough advance notice so I can get it on my schedule, because my schedule is cramped." I said, "I understand," and he said, "I don't need to be sideways with Humpy. This is my home track, and I don't want to be sideways with anybody here. I want to help out, just like I always have. We have an understanding. And I understand my role it that." So he says, "Are we square?" and I say, "Yes sir." And he reached over and pinched my nose, twisted my nose a little bit. If he liked people, he always pestered them a bit.

I'd just been put in charge of public relations. Eddie Gossage had just gone to Texas to be the general manager there, and I though, Here I have one of Winston Cup's best drivers in my office, and he's going to whip my butt right here. It was a real businesslike conversation, and he gave me that real crappy Earnhardt-like grin. After it was over, he even asked me about my pictures of my kids, what they did, what they liked. He looked around the office because of the racing mementos.

After that, he always helped us out, but I understood where he got the name "the Intimidator."
Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.

Dale Earnhardt Sr., hometown boy

EXCERPT FROM Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr.:

Drive through a major portion of Kannapolis, N.C., nowadays, and there's an Earnhardt theme. Dale Earnhardt Boulevard starts off Exit 60 from Interstate 85 and is one of the major thoroughfares of the town. Dale Earnhardt Boulevard is on NC 3, which was changed from NC 136 on Oct. 22, 2002.

And all along through there, you'll encounter the Dale Trail.

Judy Root, the communications director of the Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that they came up with the Dale Trail because there was an almost constant flow into the visitors center of tourists wanting to find Car Town or Ralph Earnhardt's grave or Dale Earnhardt Inc. So the visitors bureau identified nearly 20 places and came up with the name the Dale Trail.

The bureau designed a brochure with a stylized map that includes information and stories about Earnhardt.

"It was more in response to tourists coming to the visitors bureau, and many of them were just hungry for a connection with Dale and his community," said Root, who never met Earnhardt. She moved to Kannapolis in November of 2001, about nine months after Earnhardt died. "(They were) looking for Ralph's grave, wanting to see the statue in downtown, wanting to know how to get to Dale Earnhardt Inc. Those were the things that were drawing them here, where fans were asking directions. Also wanting to know where he grew up, the house where his family lived. We don't give exact directions to that, because his mom still lives there. It's still in Car Town.

"But we thought, instead of giving fans individually the directions how to get to these places, we would sort of connect the dots with some stories that related to his growing-up years here in Kannapolis."

Dale Earnhardt Boulevard and NC 3 are prominent on the Dale Trail, as is Earnhardt Road, which was long-ago named for an Earnhardt not in Dale's immediate family. Number 7 on the map is Main Street/Midway, where Main Street and the Dale Trail intersect. When Dale was a teenager, there was a slot-car emporium -- D&D Model Raceway -- and Dale won trophies here. Idiot Circle is where teenagers would cruise one side of West Avenue from Vance Street to 1st Street and then back on the other side of the traffic circle created by pull-in parking down the center. According to the brochure, Martha Earnhardt said that her son may have logged more miles around Idiot Circle than he did around racetracks.

Some places on the Dale Trail -- like Lowe's Motor Speedway, Sam Bass Gallery and the Richard Childress Racing -- are not in Kannapolis. The speedway and the gallery are in Concord, maybe 15 miles away, and RCR is about 40 miles away in Welcome, N.C., up Interstate 85 and Highway 52.

Bass's art, by the way, is prominent in the Dale Earnhardt Tribute Center on the corner of West Avenue and West B Street. The Tribute Center is Number 11 on the map.

And the brochure talks about places that aren't there anymore. Eddleman's Garage, for instance, is where Ralph Earnhardt perfected his mechanical skills while working on moonshiners' cars, and, yes, Junior Johnson was one of Ralph's customers. You learn about the Flying Mile, another place that has no landmark; apparently this is where moonshiners "hit the ground running" to test out their souped-up cars.

There's Car Town, the area where the Earnhardts lived, and Martha Earnhardt, Dale's mother, still lives there. You can find Car Town because of the street names -- V8, Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth, Ford, Chevrolet and Cadillac. There's Cannon Village/Cannon Mills, where Ralph Earnhardt first met Martha. The mill buildings are being torn down to make room for the North Carolina Research Campus, a biotechnology center. One of the most prominent features of the Dale Trail is Ralph Earnhardt's gravesite at the Center Grove Lutheran Cemetery. 

Dale Earnhardt Plaza has a nine-foot, 900-pound statue of Earnhardt smiling and folding his arms, plus a granite monument that was contributed by fans from New York and Vermont. 

Also on the tour are Curb Motorsports, since Mike Curb owned cars for Earnhardt, and Kannapolis Intimidators Stadium, as the Piedmont Bollweevils of the South Atlantic League were named for Earnhardt. And there's even the Punchy’s Diner, Number 12 on the map; the owner knew Dale well, and they sold Dale’s Favorite Sandwich – a tomato sandwich. 

The brochure even explains that Martha said that she'd make Dale a tomato sandwich at home with sliced tomato, sometimes lettuce, and Miracle Whip on white bread. 

Perfect for a growing boy in a mill town.

Contact: I can be reached at or Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.