Read an Excerpt
"Then Tony Said to Junior ..."
The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told
By Michael Hembree
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Michael Hembree
All rights reserved.
It is no small salute to Dale Earnhardt Sr. that, years after his death, his presence in stock-car racing is very real.
It can be seen at any stop on the NASCAR Cup tour. Thousands swing by the souvenir haulers to buy the T-shirts, caps, and an assortment of other paraphernalia that continues to stamp his image on the sport. In the grandstands, fans still stand and thrust three fingers into the sky. Many still wear faded and battered T-shirts from the Intimidator's glory days.
There has been no other driver quite like him. It can be argued that some have been better, but there is little debate that he carved a unique spot for himself in the long timeline of the sport.
His legacy roars on.
A Tearful Day for Dale
Dale Earnhardt cultivated his image as the Intimidator, the fierce competitor who asked no quarter and gave none, the tough customer whose hard stare in your rearview mirror could produce fear and trembling.
He wasn't always that way, of course, and some drivers weren't scared of his glare, but that persona served him well on the track — and it sold a ton of T-shirts.
There was another side to the man many view as NASCAR's greatest driver ever, and it popped up in the winter of 1993.
As part of an annual racing-media tour organized by Lowe's Motor Speedway, reporters spend four days in January traveling to race shops and meeting with drivers, crew members, and other officials to preview the upcoming season. The 1993 tour included an unusual component — a chartered flight to Daytona Beach, Florida, for a day of preseason testing at Daytona International Speedway.
As a five-time champion and perennially one of the circuit's top drivers, Earnhardt was much in demand by the media. He was testing at Daytona that day, and the hundreds of reporters arriving at the speedway assumed he would be available for interviews.
They — and the tour organizers — assumed wrong.
Earnhardt refused to do one-on-one interviews or to meet with the group in a press-conference setting. Although Earnhardt was at times difficult with the news media, it was surprising for him to be so stubborn in a situation where that much time and expense had been invested to create the opportunity for so many reporters to visit with him.
The news-media contingent was outraged, and so were the tour organizers. Eddie Gossage, a friend of Earnhardt's and the speedway's public-relations director at the time, went to the speedway garage area to find Earnhardt and discuss the matter.
"He was just as mad as he could be," Gossage said. "He was poking me in the chest. He said, 'I'm not talking to you guys. You're interrupting my work. I'm trying to win.' I got back in his face, and they wound up separating us. And he didn't talk to anybody."
The tour group went home without being enlightened by Earnhardt.
Gossage was notified later that night that his mother, Lucille Gossage, had passed away in Tennessee. He left the media tour to be with his family.
Gossage returned to work at the speedway the following Monday and found a visitor waiting in his office.
"I got in early to catch up, since I had been away," he said. "I walked down the hall and noticed that my office door was open and the light was on. I rounded the corner, and Earnhardt was sitting there. 'You sure come to work late,' he said.
"He said, 'I'm sorry about your mom.' He remembered having met her in Nashville. He said, 'Tell me about her.'
"I started talking about her, and tears came to my eyes. Then he started telling stories about his dad [the late Ralph Earnhardt], and he started crying. We talked for about 45 minutes and both had tears running down our faces.
"He said, 'I'm sorry we had a fight. I brought you a peace offering.' Then he gave me one of his helmets. He walked to the door to go, turned around and looked at me, and said, 'Don't you ever tell anybody.'"
Did Earnhardt Ride with Extra Magic?
Although superstitions aren't talked about much in modern stock-car racing, they once were items of serious consideration for many racers.
Two things that were thought to be very bad luck, for example, from the early days of racing until the 1970s, were green cars and peanuts in the pits. Perceptions of green began changing when sponsors who had green products — for example, Mountain Dew and Gatorade — wanted to sponsor teams. Suddenly, green wasn't so bad. In fact, it was downright welcome.
Some speedways also were known for unusual infield characters who, it was said, could put a "hex" on a particular driver and thus prevent that driver from doing well that day. The opposite also was true — some racetrack regulars could give a driver a boost, it was said, simply by touching his car.
This phenomenon impacted one of NASCAR's all-time greats in an unusual way. Dale Earnhardt had one of stock-car racing's all-time best résumés, with 76 Cup victories and seven national championships, but he struggled for two decades to score a victory in his sport's biggest race, the Daytona 500. He seemed to have victory locked down several times, only to have it slip away in the closing laps.
In December 1997 Earnhardt and members of the Richard Childress Racing team traveled to Greenville-Pickens Speedway (GPS) in South Carolina for two days of off-season testing. Earnhardt loved Greenville-Pickens, a half-mile track that once hosted the Cup Series. His father, Ralph, raced there many times when Dale was a child, and GPS old-timers remember a young Dale playing in the little creek that runs through the track's infield. GPS, which hasn't hosted a Cup race since 1971, remains a popular testing spot for Cup teams.
"We had a guy at the track who had told me that if he could rub that No. 3 [Earnhardt's Chevrolet], that Earnhardt would win Daytona," said track operator Tom Blackwell. "I took him over to see the car during one of their test breaks. I told him, 'Okay, you get over there and rub on that car like you said you were.' He did. Richard Childress came over and said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I'm going to put some magic on that car to make it win.'"
Two months later, Earnhardt finally broke through in the 500, winning the race to ignite the sort of wild celebration that is seldom seen in NASCAR racing. "The monkey is finally off my back," Earnhardt said.
A couple weeks later, Bill Elliott was at GPS testing. "Hey, where's that guy who touches cars?" he asked.
Dale Earnhardt in a Ford?
Although Dale Earnhardt won all of his seven championships and 73 of his 76 Cup victories in Chevrolets, there was a detour in his racing life. His devoted following forever links him to Chevrolet and, in particular, the black No. 3 he drove for Richard Childress Racing, but he once was a solid Ford driver. And he could have remained that.
Earnhardt raced for Bud Moore Engineering in Fords as he was trying to build the foundation for a driving career. It was his last stop before joining Childress and embarking on the wildly successful part of his career.
If the times had been different, said Moore, now retired, Earnhardt might have been a Ford driver for the rest of his career. The Blue Oval was going through tough times in its motorsports program during that period, especially with its engine performance. Ford won only two of 30 Cup races in 1982. The problems were solved later in the 1980s, but, by then, Earnhardt had sailed for clearer waters.
"I knew what type person Dale was and what type [of] driver he was beginning to be," said Moore. "We had a couple of good years. We didn't have the right parts and pieces to keep the engines together like we should. We broke a lot of valve springs and lost a lot of valves during those years. It was a tough time to be racing Fords; not because they weren't good, but because we couldn't get the pieces.
"I think that sort of discouraged Dale a little and was the reason he left me and went on to Childress."
The delicate nature of the Ford engines was in direct contrast to Earnhardt's nature — run them, and run them hard.
"I remember once at Darlington, we were leading the race and were quite a ways out front," Moore said. "I told Dale on the radio, 'Look, take it easy. Don't turn the engine so hard. We've got to watch the valve springs.' I looked at my stopwatch the next time around, and he had picked up speed. I said, 'Man, I didn't tell you to speed up. Slow down.'
"He said, 'I'm backing off now. I'm just loafing.' It was amazing. I kept after him, but it seemed like the more he loafed the faster he ran.
"The thing about Dale was, he was going to run up front. He's not going to run second. If the piece of equipment he had under him didn't take him to the front, he's going there anyway. I was sure sorry to see him leave. I knew he was going to be great."
Maybe the greatest, and Chevrolet got the benefits.
A Tough Day in No. 8
It seems almost unbelievable now, but the NASCAR Cup debut of a man who would become one of international motorsports' greatest drivers and a national sports icon passed without much significant notice.
Dale Earnhardt drove in a Cup race for the first time on May 25, 1975, in the World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte Motor Speedway (now Lowe's Motor Speedway). He started 33rd and finished 22nd and won $2,425, a first paycheck on the way to the multiple millions his career would produce.
There was no grand plan and no great sponsor debut behind Earnhardt's first race. He had been trying to ignite his driving career on North Carolina short tracks, having been inspired by his father, Ralph Earnhardt, one of NASCAR's best-ever short-track racers. Among those assisting Earnhardt as he banged around the regional Late Model circuit was Norman Negre, son of veteran Cup driver Ed Negre.
Earnhardt wound up hanging around Negre's modest racing shop in Concord, North Carolina. The more the younger Negre saw Earnhardt drive, the more convinced he became that Earnhardt had special talent. He went to his father with a plan.
"Norman came to me one day and said, 'Dad, Earnhardt is really a good driver,'" Ed Negre said. "He got me to listen to him. I said, 'What are you trying to tell me, that I should put him in one of my cars?' He said, 'I bet he could drive one.' I said, 'We can't hardly afford to run one car, let alone two.' So I got one car ready [for the 600] and told him, 'If you want to run him in the other car, that's your deal and his. You go down there and get it ready to race.'"
The car was a sleek Dodge Charger. It carried the No. 8, which also was Ralph Earnhardt's number (and, much later, would be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s number).
With Norman Negre leading the crew, Earnhardt qualified the car and faced what must have seemed like an insurmountable challenge — a 600-mile race.
"He came in the pits when I didn't expect it," Ed Negre said. "I asked Norman what was wrong. He said, 'There's nothing wrong.' He laughed and said Dale stopped for a drink of water. He'd never run a 600-mile race. He was one worn-out kid when that race was over."
Earnhardt finished 45 laps off the pace of race winner Richard Petty, who, ironically, shares the Cup record for national championships with Earnhardt at seven.
"I didn't realize at that time what my part in racing was or where I was going," Earnhardt said later. "I just wanted to race, and I had the opportunity to drive Ed's car. Ed did that himself. He didn't have a sponsor or anybody to buy tires. As a matter of fact, I think we ran used tires all day that we got from other people."
Unfortunately, Negre didn't keep the car Earnhardt raced that day. His brief tie-in with the future champion did pay off, however. "They made a die-cast model of the car later on, and I made more money off those cars than I did while I was racing," he said.
It's also worth noting that, in his debut, Earnhardt finished one position in front of Richard Childress, the man he would later join to make motorsports history. That's an odd circumstance that came up in Earnhardt-Childress conversations on more than one occasion over the years.
Did Earnhardt Plan to Quit?
Before Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, he had made no public pronouncements about his racing future. He wanted to win an eighth Cup championship and break the recordtie he shared with Richard Petty, but he had given no public indication that he would retire in one, two, or even five years.
Some close friends had urged Earnhardt to quit driving. He had built a successful Cup team, had won everything in sight, had invested his millions wisely, and could easily afford to detour onto easy street.
There certainly was nothing else to prove, as friends repeatedly reminded him, but Earnhardt loved driving and the give-and-take of the competition.
"Race day is a fun day; that's what keeps me going," he said in August 2000, six months before his death. "The bottom line is that I'm excited about driving a race car. I still want to win. When I get in behind that steering wheel, I'm not happy with where I'm at unless I'm close to the front or in the front. That has kept me going.
"There are some that want to write me off. Somebody has a tough streak, and somebody writes that he needs to get out of it. That happens, but I've always felt confident that we could do it, that I could do it."
Many believe, however, that if Earnhardt had won his eighth championship in 2001 that he would have parked his race cars for good.
It's Dale Earnhardt Ink
Scott Tappan will carry his allegiance to seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt with him forever.
That's because it's there in ink in a huge tattoo across Tappan's right shoulder blade.
More than a few fans show support for their favorite drivers by having car numbers or sponsors tattooed on various parts of their bodies, but few have gone to Tappan's extreme. His huge tattoo includes Earnhardt's face and his black No. 3 race car.
An industrial electrician from Sayre, Pennsylvania, Tappan got the tattoo the week after Earnhardt was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.
In two sessions totaling 10 hours, a nearby tattoo artist put Earnhardt and his race car on Tappan's upper right back.
When Tappan takes off his shirt at races, fans want to take photographs of the tattoo, he said.
Asked why he put the Earnhardt Sr. tattoo on the right side of his back, Tappan said, "Junior. He's going on the other side."
Martin vs. Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt was a racer's racer, a man respected by virtually everybody who drove against him. New drivers didn't automatically get respect from Earnhardt. They had to earn it.
Mark Martin has built a reputation similar to Earnhardt's in that Martin is among the most respected drivers among his peers in the sport's history. To get to that point, Martin had to have his "moment" with Earnhardt, who always put newcomers to the test.
"Dale Earnhardt tested me for fun," Martin said. "It was entertainment for Dale. He wanted to see what I would do, because Dale was that kind of guy. I took it for just a little bit, and then I had to stand up to him, but I did it differently than Geoff Bodine [who had a famous series of on-track confrontations with Earnhardt] did. Sparks flew every time those guys got within a quarter of a mile of each other; whereas I handled my deal with Dale differently, and nobody really noticed, except maybe the crews.
"I earned his respect, and we went on, but there was a period of time when he wanted to see what I was made of and how I would react, and I guess I reacted in a way that he could respect and some others didn't. The ones that didn't, he just continually kept on, and sparks flew."
Martin and Earnhardt never had a significant problem after Martin stood his ground — however quietly.
Earnhardt: It's All Competition
Dale Earnhardt was one of the most competitive racers in the history of NASCAR. He'd race you hard for first place or 20th place, particularly in the last laps, when it came time to pay money and pay points.
That part of the sport — the intense, close-quarters fighting for positions in the heat of the moment — kept Earnhardt's blood pumping and made him one of the toughest drivers to pass.
Excerpted from "Then Tony Said to Junior ..." by Michael Hembree. Copyright © 2009 Michael Hembree. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.