Dale Earnhardt Sr. was a racer absolutely comfortable with being himself. The flamboyance and aggression in his driving earned him many a nickname: 'Mr. Restrictor Plate', 'Ironhead', 'The Man in Black', and most famously, 'The Intimidator'. This also made him a favorite with the media, and a divisive figure, loved and hated with equal ferocity. And what's more, he had a passion for the sport right from his early teens. This was when he worked during the day, and raced or repaired cars in the night. To finance his passion, he borrowed from banks and tried to win money in races for payback. This passion was reflected in his attitude in his later days as well. When some drivers complained about the cars being too fast, he shot back in typical fashion―"You want to race or don't you? I want to race." And it was this love for the sport that propelled him to win the Daytona 500 race in 1998, the only major victory that had kept him waiting for twenty years, when he was well past his prime.
Earnhardt was protective about his personal life, and kept it away from the glare of the media and the public. Unlike his aggressive professional image, Dale was kind and generous with his family and friends. He was born on 29th April, 1951, to Martha Coleman and Ralph Earnhardt, in Kannapolis, North Carolina. He was interested in racing right from the start. His father, Ralph, was a top-class short-track driver, and won his only NASCAR Championship in 1956. Dale had four children from three wives. His first wife was Latane Brown, whom he married in 1968, and divorced in 1970. She was the mother of his first child, a son named Kerry. Between 1971 and 1974, he was married to Brenda Gee, and had two children with her―a daughter named Kelly, and a son named after him, Dale Jr. Dale founded a race team and merchandising corporation named Dale Earnhardt Inc., with Teresa in 1980. Teresa and Dale got married in 1982, and she bore him a daughter named Taylor. His family was very dear to him, and he spent a lot of quality time with them. He also worked on his farm in Mooresville. When not on the farm, he went out to fish and hunt with his family.
NASCAR and Stock Cars
NASCAR stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. A stock car is any automobile that is used for racing, but not specially designed for racing. This sets it apart from race cars, which are specially made for racing. However, today, most stock cars are custom-built. Stock Car races involve racing on oval tracks. The length of the lap ranges from 400 meters to 4.2 kilometers. Such races are held mostly in USA, Britain, New Zealand, Canada, and Brazil, and are governed by NASCAR. The Sprint Cup Series (earlier known as the Winston Cup Series) is the most important series in Stock Car racing.
Career and Achievements
In 1975, Earnhardt participated in his first Winston Cup, making his debut at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It took him four years to register his maiden victory here, when he won at Bristol in 1979, after joining Rod Osterlund Racing in the same year. This win, along with some other good performances, made him eligible for the Rookie of the Year Award in 1979. In the next year, Dale won his first Winston Cup Championship. By doing so, he created history―being the only driver in NASCAR Winston Cup to win the rookie award and the championship in successive years. This record holds good till date. He then went on to win the championship six times, in 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1994. Only Richard Petty has won an equal number of championships.
In 1981, he joined Richard Childress Racing, and returned here after 1983, having worked with Bud Moore in 1982-1983. Dale was nicknamed 'The Intimidator' during the 1987 season. The 1988 season gave him another nickname, 'The Man in Black', due to the black color of his famous #3 car.
In 1995, Dale only managed to finish second in the final rankings. Tragedy struck in 1996, when Earnhardt sustained major injuries in a car crash at Winston 500, Talladega. In the next race at Watkins Glen, he dominated for most part, before fatigue forced him into the sixth position. 1997 was one of his worst years, when he went without a win throughout the entire season, for the second time in his career. In 1998, he won the Dayton 500, something that had kept him waiting for two decades. The entry of his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the Winston Cup, motivated him to such an extent, that he almost won his eighth championship in 2000, when he finished second. His win at Winston 500 (Talladega) in 2000 was his final victory.
Earnhardt won a total of 76 races, and had career winnings in excess of 40 million dollars. In 1998, Dale Sr. and his father Ralph were named by NASCAR in their list of best 50 drivers. In fact, Dale was the second best in this list, behind David Pearson. And moreover, in 2007, six years after his death, he still managed to pip Richard Petty, the only other driver to have won seven Sprint Cup Championships, to top ESPN's list of 20 greatest drivers of NASCAR. In 2002, he was included in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a fatal car crash during the Dayton 500 race. His death saddened America in a manner that only few ever did. It also led to a NASCAR inquiry. It was rumored that Dale had not fastened his seat belt properly, which was his normal practice to avoid being clamped down, leading to a seat belt failure. Angry reactions were received from fans. NASCAR then went on to make major changes in the safety standards inside cars and on the race tracks.
Be as it may, Dale Earnhardt Sr. will be remembered, not only for his style and substance, but also for being one of the finest and most successful drivers in Stock Car history.