Monday, February 24, 2014

Remembering '98

I should have thought of this before last night's Daytona 500, but I didn't.

My last Daytona 500 in person was in 1998, a big year for Daytona 500s. That was the year Dale Earnhardt finally broke through.

I was writing for a web site — I don't remember which one; it doesn't exist anymore — and a bunch of us web writers were stuck in a tent beside the Winston Cup garage. I could go in the outer area for the Benny Kahn pressroom; my credentials wouldn't let me set up my computer in the main pressroom.

On Saturday before the 500, I led my notebook by saying that this was finally Dale Earnhardt's year, that he'd win it. I wasn't prescient or anything; I just needed something interesting to write, and that seemed appropriate.

On Sunday, I spent the last half of the race in the outer lobby, watching the race on TV. I listened to several sports writers talking about how Earnhardt was bound to lose this one, too. I hoped they were wrong. I liked Earnhardt despite his sometimes aggravating ways, and I thought he deserved to win one.

When he actually won it, I was happy for him. And I was happy that he made me look smart.

Right after the race, I saw Joe Gibbs, the car owner and former (and future) NFL coach. I spoke to him and told him that we'd just recently talked on the phone; I'd interviewed him for a story on Tony Stewart.

Apparently he didn't understand me, because he put that stupid smile on that famous people use when they meet riffraff like me. He pulled out something and signed an autograph. He handed it to me and walked away; I stood there wondering what had just happened. I didn't care about autographs.

Later, when I was writing my notebook for the web site, NASCAR was checking some of the race engines on a dynamometer near us. It was amazing how loud it was, and, yes, it wasn't easy to write with all that noise so close.

I didn't get to see Earnhardt's famous trip down pit road — with all of the other teams saluting him — until later. I was stuck in that tent.

It's funny, but I didn't think to write about that for I Remember Dale Earnhardt or Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr. It just came back to me.

One other thing: Congratulations to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Way to go.


Contact: I can be reached at tgilli52@gmail.com or nc3022@yahoo.com. Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Jarretts

COMMENTARY: The Hall’s a good fit for Dale Jarrett




Posted: Saturday, January 25, 2014 11:30 pm

My first contact with the Jarrett racing family came around 1987.

I was writing auto racing for the Wilmington Star-News, and Ned Jarrett was trying to work out a deal to put son Dale in Hoss Ellington’s No. 1 Fords. Hoss had a part-time racing operation based near Wilmington, but he fielded some good cars with great drivers.
I had already dealt with David Pearson (in the twilight of his career), Sterling Marlin, Davey Allison and Brett Bodine, and the last three would join Pearson as Cup winners when they joined other teams.
Dale Jarrett -- who will join Jack Ingram and Maurice Petty in being inducted this week into the NASCAR Hall of Fame -- never drove for Hoss, but he wound up driving for some good teams: the Wood Brothers, Joe Gibbs Racing and Robert Yates Racing.
In 1990, Ned and I crossed paths again. I don’t remember why, but we talked on the phone and decided to get together at Rockingham. On a cold day, we sat in his automobile with the heat on, and Ned talked about taking the Dale Carnegie course and drawing wisdom from Carnegie’s classic book, “How To Make Friends and Influence People.”
I already knew a good bit about Ned’s hall-of-fame career: 50 wins and two Cup championships (1961 and 1965). I knew he retired young, 33, and he also had a long TV career. He was inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
Ned talked about how he once bought a car from Junior Johnson that had the No. 11 on it; apparently that’s how Ned became famous for the number.
At some point, Ned also talked about Fireball Roberts’ last race and how he, Ned, got out of his car and tried to help him. I’ve always wondered if Fireball’s death in 1966 had anything to do with Ned’s retirement in 1967.
Dale got his first big break when Neil Bonnett was injured in the spring of 1990 at Darlington, S.C. Dale took over the No. 21 Wood Brothers ride and later got one of the most dramatic wins ever, a “by-a-nose” victory over Davey Allison in 1991 at Michigan. That was the first of DJ’s 32 career Cup victories.
I slowly got to know Dale. I had some great interviews with him, but one of them didn’t go so well. He’d just signed on with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 18 Chevrolets, and I found him on the Busch garage at Darlington. He was almost hiding in his team’s stall, and all I got out of him was that Gibbs’ Chevys would be green.
Otherwise, Dale, like Ned, has been a joy to interview. He’d roll in with a wide smile and a big handshake (maybe he’s followed Carnegie as well), and he’d offer up five or 10 minutes of good (or better) quotes. He was thoughtful, and he didn’t struggle for words. It’s no surprise that he’s done so well in retirement as a TV broadcaster.
I was in Daytona in 1993 when Dale battled Dale Earnhardt in the 500, and Ned was doing TV. “It’s the Dale and Dale Show, and you know which Dale I’m rooting for,” Ned said on TV. “Come on, Dale!”… Or words to that effect.
Dale did win that Daytona 500 in 1993, and it’s a highlight on his racing resume that features two more Daytona 500 wins (1996 and 2000) and the 1999 Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) championship.
Last year, I asked several former stars who their favorite driver was, and several took that as “Who was your hero?” Not surprisingly, most of them mentioned Ned Jarrett.
“I liked the way he did things at the racetrack and how he handled himself,” said Ingram, a two-time champion at Hickory Motor Speedway. “I chose that number (11) because of Ned Jarrett.”
Now, Ingram, like Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson, is a hall of famer famous for No. 11.
Morgan Shepherd, another HMS stalwart, is another long-time Ned Jarrett fan.
“Ned Jarrett because he was such a great racer and such a gentleman,” Shepherd said when asked about other drivers he admired. “He has never changed.”
People call him Gentleman Ned, and certainly he was one of the people I most looked forward to seeing at races or the Winston Cup Preview in Winston-Salem. Few people — maybe Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker — were like Ned, always making you feel welcome.
My favorite Ned Jarrett story also includes Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt, and Ned told it himself.
After the “Dale and Dale Show,” Ned felt bad, and he tried to apologize to Earnhardt for blatantly rooting against him on TV. He said before he could get far into his apology, Earnhardt told him not to worry; he told Ned to remember that Earnhardt was a daddy, too. He understood.
The story seemed to be typical Ned, worried about his friend’s feelings.
In this case, it was OK.
Tom Gillispie, the author of “Angel in Black: Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr.,” writes about racing at Hickory Motor Speedway for HDR Sports. He can be reached at nc3022@yahoo.com.


Contact: I can be reached at tgilli52@gmail.com or nc3022@yahoo.com. Also, my Twitter handle is EDITORatWORK.