The NASCAR Hall of Fame will induct the five members of its inaugural class May 23. Leading up to the hall’s induction ceremony, SPEEDtv.com is profiling the first five racing legends chosen for this unique honor.
Dale Earnhardt once owed thousands. He wound up owning millions.
Son of NASCAR short-track star Ralph Earnhardt, Dale grew up in the mill village of Kannapolis, N.C. He hated school. He loved working on his dad’s cars. There was little doubt in his mind, even as a child, where his life was going.
Connecting the dots between the dream and the reality, though, was difficult. In the end, that made the Earnhardt story all the more remarkable, however, and helped solidify him as a working man’s hero, a champion to millions who saw themselves in him.
Earnhardt graduated from the hard-knocks school of small-town North Carolina – he quit high school to go racing – and became one of the world’s most famous race car drivers, acquiring riches and reputation along the way and becoming one of NASCAR’s most marketable competitors.
Earnhardt will be part of the inaugural class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, an honor that was a virtual certainty when construction of the hall was announced.
Through an aggressive driving style and a menacing presence, Earnhardt built a huge fan base that became as devoted as any in sports. They bought his caps and T-shirts by the truckloads, and they proudly held up three fingers – his number – at the track. They named their children Dale and tattooed his car and his profile on their arms (and other body parts). They made pilgrimages to his “Garage Mahal” shop in Mooresville, N.C., both before and after his death.
His final lap came on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, and the sport grieved. It had lost its competitive heart.
Time magazine put him on its cover, and his death brought the biggest changes in the sport in a generation. NASCAR launched a comprehensive study of its approach to safety, resulting in a string of changes and a new seriousness about the issue.
Since Earnhardt died at Daytona on that black Sunday, there have been no other deaths in NASCAR. For some, that is his legacy.
For many others, particularly the black-clad legions who still line up trackside to buy his merchandise and who still celebrate his birthday like a national holiday, he always will be stock car racing’s greatest driver ever.
And he did it his way.
“Dale was really a self-made guy,” said NASCAR historian Buz McKim. “He started out with nothing. Ralph had nothing to pass on to him. Dale made it on his own with little education but a lot of determination and talent.
“He’ll be the guy looked on forever as the working man’s man.”
Few things better illustrate Earnhardt’s struggle to make it in NASCAR than his debut. That came on May 25, 1975, in one of NASCAR’s toughest races, the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt had made a reputation for himself by bumping around Carolinas short tracks and doing well with marginal equipment. He was targeting the big time, but he had no money to pursue it.
Through the intervention of his friend, Norman Negre, he got a ride in the 600. Ed Negre, Norman’s father, owned a Cup team and was a regular driver in the series. Norman talked his father into letting Earnhardt drive a second team Dodge in the 600, a decision Ed Negre made only after telling his son he and Earnhardt had to prepare the car.
They jumped at the chance.
It was a comedy of sorts. Earnhardt had never raced in an event even close to the length of the CMS marathon, and he made one pit stop simply to pick up a drink of water. He finished 22nd, 45 laps down, and no one paid much notice.
TUESDAY: The Championships Begin
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.
The NASCAR Hall of Fame Grand Opening is set for May 11, 2010. Outdoor Opening Ceremonies are May 11th from 9 to 10 am ET free of charge, open to the public. Outdoor festivities including driver appearances and concerts May 11th from 10 am until 8 pm ET open to the public, free of charge. Tickets to enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame are on sale now at www.NASCARHall.com or by calling 877-231-2010. The countdown to the NASCAR Hall of Fame is on! Visit www.NASCARHall.com/50days for daily updates about the NASCAR Hall of Fame.