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.
In an interview seven months before his death, Dale Earnhardt talked about his pursuit of what would have been a record eighth Cup championship.
“I’ve got four years of racing left, at least,” he said. “Who knows, I might even drive another car with my own team. I’m not ruling anything out. I’ve got a job and an opportunity to win that eighth championship. That’s what we’re focusing on. That’s what we’re driving for. That’s what we’re working for."
“I’m excited about what I do. I’m not content with not winning. If somebody tells you I’m riding my years out, they’re not paying attention.”
His driving produced Earnhardt’s greatest acclaim, but he was immensely proud of what he built at Dale Earnhardt Inc., the Mooresville, N.C. racing operation that carried his name and his reputation. There he put together the team that gave his son, Dale Jr., his start in NASCAR.
“He built his race shop in his front yard,” said Ty Norris, who began managing DEI operations in 1996 and stayed there in the difficult months that followed Earnhardt’s death. “He got up early in the morning and drove through his farm and then came and walked around the shop. If he wasn’t off doing an appearance, he was in the race shop.
“He knew how to weld, how to do so many things in the shop, how to build race cars. He was interested in people in the shop and what they were doing, and he’d go talk to them about it. But he let the managers do their jobs. They had respect for him.”
Norris, who now works for Michael Waltrip Racing, had a close friendship with Earnhardt long before he took a job working for him.
Earnhardt was not the Intimidator in the executive suite, Norris said, but he had his moments.
“The one time he yelled at me, he was pacing around with a baseball bat in his hand,” Norris said. “I was nervous as hell. I didn’t know what he was going to do with that bat.
“He had a long-standing relationship with a company, and a competitor of that company asked about Dale Jr., so I went to Dale Jr.’s house and was asking him about this company. They had said they would do X, Y and Z for him. They were going to do more for him than Dale’s long-time partner.
“When Dale heard about it, he got mad that I would offer it to Junior and that it was a better deal. He brought me into his office. He said.
‘We’re friends, right?’ He said, ‘Well, right now I’m your boss.’ He had a bat that Jeff Blauser of the Braves had given him. He was walking around hitting his boots with it and yelling at me and cussing me and saying, ‘Don’t you ever go to Dale Jr. with something from a competitor of mine without coming to me first.’ There was no debating that day. As soon as he got done yelling and chewing my ass, he said, ‘You want to get lunch?’ ”
Norris called Earnhardt “the valedictorian of the university of common sense. It was unbelievable how intuitive he was about certain issues and items, whether they were financial, business, competition or personnel.”
The sport fell into deep mourning in February 2001 when Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500, the race that had defined his career.
Thousands of fans showed up at DEI to leave flowers, caps, T-shirts, photographs and countless other items in front of the shop. One man left his prosthetic leg, saying he wouldn’t need it again because he wouldn’t be going to watch Earnhardt race.
“I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but we lost our commissioner,” Norris said. “That’s no disrespect to anybody else at all. But everybody – all the other owners, all the other drivers, all the Frances, they all respected Dale’s opinions.
“Then [after Earnhardt’s death], we started seeing fragmenting. Jeff [Gordon] tried to carry the commercial part of the sport. Jeff Burton stepped into the safety role. Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick and their guys tried to step into the competition side. It was four or five different people, where I always thought Dale had that central commissioner’s kind of role – not by name but by influence.
“There probably has been a struggle to get that one central person that every driver, every race track operator every NASCAR officials, every owner has the same amount of respect for.
“I don’t think there’s another one in here like him.”
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.