THE REAL DALE EARNHARDT was hard to find, but I saw him occasionally during my stint as a NASCAR writer from the mid-1980s to around 2000.
Usually, Earnhardt was surly or standoffish with reporters he hadn't known for a long time, and often he was rough on those of us he knew. Dale valued his time, and the last thing he wanted to do was spend time with us.
Then, every once in a while, he'd show us the real man.
In 1991, we had a heck of a storm at Talladega, and the race was going to be run on Monday. One of the reporters had lured Earnhardt into the media center, and Dale was talking about his plane. I eased over, got my tape recorder and joined the impromptu press conference.
Up to that point, I'd never gotten a straight answer out of Dale. He'd always given me a smart-aleck reply, or he'd walked away. Earnhardt must have been in a good mood that day.
I was doing a feature for Winston Cup Scene on drivers' dreams, and I wanted to include Earnhardt, who was a four-time champion at that point. When there was a two-second break in the Q&A, I said something like, "Dale, we don't expect you to win 200 races, but do you have your sights set on Richard Petty's seven Winston Cup titles?"
Without looking at me, Earnhardt answered that, yes, he did want to win seven titles or even eight. Petty was his hero, he said, but seven titles was his goal.
That year, there had been a rumble about Dale's age; his mother said he was 40, and he said he was 39 (my age later that year). After Dale answered my question, he stood up and looked me in the eye and talked to me man-to-man for the first time. He said, "Last week at Martinsville, I didn't know it was my 50th victory until somebody told me, but I knowed it was my 40th birthday, but I wasn't going to tell nobody!"
Dale stayed with us for at least two hours. When a TV monitor didn't work, he climbed onto a table and fixed it. When we played Hangman on a PR man's computer, Dale joined us. He wasn't great with words, but he was competitive. Big surprise.
He regaled us with stories, and he showed me his Rolex, a gift from a friend. I'd never seen one before.
Earnhardt wasn't a factor that day. Kyle Petty suffered a broken leg in a huge wreck that Ernie Irvan started. Harry Gant won the race even though he was running out of gas on the last lap. Rick Mast bump-drafted Gant on the backstretch, giving him enough momentum to cross the line first.
Mostly I remember Earnhardt finally showing his humanity. It wasn't the only time, though. I don't remember what year it was, but Earnhardt had just won an IROC race at Daytona. It was just one of 34 races he won at Daytona, but every victory anywhere was precious to Dale.
I was sitting at the end of the table, closest to the door in the Benny Kahn media center in the Daytona infield. I was typing furiously when suddenly I felt strong hands on my shoulders. Without turning, I looked straight over my head and saw a black Chevrolet cap, a big mustache and an ear-to-ear grin. I went "Whoa!", and the smile got even wider.
Earnhardt squeezed my shoulders again, then went down the line, alternating his fists and tapping each reporter on the shoulders.
Another time, we were entering the Indigo Lakes facility at Daytona Beach for an IROC luncheon. I got to the double doors, then looked back to see a bunch of women following us. I opened one of the doors, then looked across and saw Dale holding the other door. He was hunched over and grinning, making us look like a couple of fortyish kids playing a prank.
We rarely saw the real Dale. Sometimes Earnhardt was cross or a bully. But sometimes he was happy and at ease, and he was willing to let the enemy ... reporters ... see the man and the humanity beneath the black myth.
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