Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hanging out with Dale Earnhardt Sr.

This is an excerpt from Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The next spring (1991) we were at Talladega, and the race was rained out on Sunday. On Monday morning Dale was in the infield media center talking to a friend of mine, long-time journalist Bob Myers, about Earnhardt's plane and pilot. I eased over to my bag, pulled out a tape recorder, and quietly taped the interview.

Afterward, Earnhardt stayed with us. The media center TV wasn’t working, so Dale climbed up there and fixed it for us. Then when Chevrolet publicist Ray Cooper was playing Hangman on his computer, Dale joined us. He wasn’t good at it, but he was competitive. Big surprise there.

Later, we had an impromptu press conference. Dale was asked about his goals, and I perked up. At Rockingham I had wanted to ask him about his dreams for a magazine story on drivers’ dreams I was doing. I still could sell that story, I thought, and this could be the centerpiece for it. When a lull came in the answers, I asked him if he felt that, since he wasn’t likely to catch Richard Petty’s two hundred career victories, would he shoot for Richard’s seven championships?

Dale, who didn’t feel comfortable with unknown reporters, didn’t look up at me from his seated position. He said that, yes, he thought two hundred wins were out of his reach, and, yes, he wanted to add three more championships and catch his hero. Then he talked a little more about his dreams, particularly about car ownership. That surprised us, because we couldn’t see Dale as a car owner. But this was 1991, and what did we know?

Anyway, there had been some question that month about Dale’s age. Was he thirty-nine or forty? Dale said thirty-nine; his mother, Martha, said forty. Without saying another word, Earnhardt stood up and looked me in the eye. “Last week at Martinsville, I didn’t know that it was my fiftieth win, but I knowed that it was my fortieth birthday. I just wasn’t saying.” He smiled that wicked Earnhardt smile and clapped me on the shoulder. Apparently, I was now a member of the fraternity. He’d actually answered my questions, and he’d given me the quotes I had been pursuing at the Rock. (And, yes, it was the best magazine story I’d written up to that time, by far.)

Just then, Russell Branham, the chief publicist at Darlington Raceway, strolled in. Russell had done some PR work for David Pearson in the past. Earnhardt knew Russell was a big Pearson fan, and Dale loved to pick on him. So Earnhardt lit into Branham as we watched, and Russell gave back as good as he got. In fact, he bet Dale a hundred bucks that he’d never win 105 races, Pearson’s total. Earnhardt took the bet, as I recall, but, ultimately, he came up twenty-nine victories short. And Russell never got the hundred bucks.

In those kinds of situations a driver becomes the Big Man on Campus (BMOC) to reporters. We’d give Dale our attention, and he’d happily regale us with stories. I guess, in this case, he was BMOT (Big Man on Track). One-on-one, he probably thought he was wasting his time. He loved being in a group, and we usually enjoyed it, too.

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