Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Earnhardt Stories: We All Got 'Em (Repost)







Update: It's been a long time since we remembered Dale Earnhardt Sr. This column was originally published in March of 2011.

Lots of fans have been asking about Dale Earnhardt Sr. and his life and times. It's pretty easy to find a record of his accomplishments on the track and a history of his family life, but there is a lot more.

For those of us who worked in NASCAR television in the 80's and 90's, there was little doubt that sooner or later you would encounter Big E. He was a street smart person who could size someone up pretty quickly and had little patience for those with agendas.

Times were different then. Drivers stayed at hotels and ate out locally with everyone else. Lots of problems got solved in hotel bars and sometimes others got started. It wasn't as shiny, corporate or polished. It was a lot of fun.

We are going to encourage folks to add their own Dale Sr. stories on this blog post and see how it goes. I'll start with one of mine. It all began when NASCAR decided to branch out and go race at the Brickyard.

At the time, I was working at Sunbelt Video in Charlotte, NC. This company produced Inside Winston Cup Racing for TNN, did a ton of corporate work for sponsors at the track and generally was responsible for archiving NASCAR race footage. Back then, NASCAR wanted nothing to do with the TV business.

NASCAR decided to create a kind of temporary theme park on the IU-PUI campus with different kinds of interactive stock car attractions. It was designed to get folks in that area up to speed on the sport. It was going to be called NASCAR World.

Sunbelt Video was asked to handle the TV part and gladly said yes. Basically, a big high-tech tent was put in place and inside we built a stage and bleachers for an audience. The idea was to bring in several hundred fans during the days before the race and have radio and TV shows originate from the site.

Back then, This Week in NASCAR with Eli Gold was a weekly one-hour show that featured a driver on live TV answering questions from the audience and phone callers. The featured driver on the final night before the race was going to be Dale Earnhardt Sr.

When practical jokes are played, I am not the one involved in setting them up. As I have been reminded many times in my TV life, I am a wonderful victim. At various times on the road I have been duct taped into my hotel room, put on the wrong flight and famously had my legs shaved by a college women's swim team. That wasn't pretty.

I had absolutely nothing for Dale Earnhardt and he knew it. I was a Boy Scout and he was a heavyweight boxer. I knew my role and this show in Indy was going to be a big moment for both of us. He was set to be driven to the show by a police car and was right on time.

Eli was already on stage, the entire house was packed and Earnhardt was the reason. All he had to do was walk up three little steps, come out from behind Eli and take a seat. I shook his hand, said thanks for coming and left him in the hands of the Stage Manager.

I wanted to see the fans, so I walked around to the front of the big tent and then inside. It had been closed off a while back after being filled with fans in black shirts with the number three on everything they wore. It was just a couple of minutes until air time, the crowd was screaming and everything was perfect.

The show hit the air live, Eli said his hellos and then went to a quick commercial before introducing Earnhardt. It was electric. One of the ushers we hired stood next to me and as Eli began to introduce Dale I said to him quietly that this was going to be fun. Then, it happened.

The usher said, "You think?" I recognized the voice. My head swiveled. Staring me in the face about three inches from my nose was Earnhardt. Eli was looking back for him, the crowd was now standing and the only thing Earnhardt wanted to do was watch me turn a shade of purple that cannot be accurately described in the English language.

Before I could decide to scream, faint or have a heart attack he was gone. He happily walked up the aisle of screaming fans from behind carefully knocking the baseball hats off the ones on the end of the rows. When he got to the chest high stage he got a running start, jumped up on it and slowly stood up. The entire place went nuts.

Eli is a pro who is used to driver antics and he got Earnhardt in the chair. It was finally occurring to the chosen fans that their heads had gotten the famous Earnhardt swat as he came down the aisle. The Dale show was in full effect and yet only two of us knew the reality.

As Eli started into his opening remarks, Earnhardt was slowly unveiling the one trait that every single person who knew him had experienced. As I stood there shaking my head and wondering if my heart would return to a normal rhythm, I was the recipient of one of the most famous shit-eating grins in the known universe.

What made it more special to him was that none of the screaming fans, the show host or even the producer knew what had happened. Earnhardt had seen his opportunity, taken it and was now basking in the glow of his achievement. I just had to sit down.

That's one of my Earnhardt TV stories. Others that have been told to me over the years involve his boating adventures, various activities around town during race weeks and scaring the heck out of fans by stopping by their infield campers.

If you have been around for a while in the sport as a fan or a working type, please feel free to share a story or anecdote about Dale Sr. with us. I appreciate our Twitter friends for encouraging me to offer this topic. To add your comment, just click the comments button below. Thanks for stopping by.

22 comments:

Jay said...

It was January of 1998, I took one of my Dale action packed racing cards, and mailed it to the RCR address. I simply stated in hand a written letter, that I was wishing him good luck in the upcoming season, and when he got a chance, if he could autograph the card and send it back in the envelope provided. Having watched Dale since the late 80's, I knew he was a very busy man, not knowing if he would get a chance to sign it, or if it would just be lost or put aside. In September of that year, I went out and got the mail, I noticed the envelope that I had prepared 9 months earlier. Immediately my face, ears, and neck were flush and tingly with excitement. Sure enough there it was, the card with his signature in black sharpie marker. To this day I still reflect in amazement that Dale Earnhardt took the time, at his leisure, to sign a card that a kid from upstate New York sent to him.

NancyW. said...

JD, absolutely a great story, thanks for sharing. I only wish I could have met him myself!

GinaV24 said...

JD, I love that story, thanks for sharing it. When I opened to your blog this morning and saw all those pictures, it made me smile. It makes me remember why, even though I'm a Gordon fan and fussed with all of the Earnhardt fans for years at various tracks, I miss Dale.

TexasRaceLady said...

I never got to meet The Man, to my sorrow. But, having listened to him on the scanner for years, 1 favorite exchange comes to mind.

It was a Busch race at Charlotte. Junior came into the pit running 10th, went out 3rd. Pops Eury apologized for not getting a cold drink to Junior. Junior said he'd trade a pitstop like that for a drink any "f****** time." Almost immediately, THE VOICE came over the radio --- "Dale" --- "Yes, Daddy?" --- "Your grandmother is listening."
The crowd and I almost cracked a rib laughing.

Anonymous said...

The man in the third photograph from the bottom is so familiar to me, yet I cannot recall his name. Will you identify him for us?

Roland said...

Never got to meet Dale personally but Ill share this.
I was 9 years old in 1998. The first race I watched was the Daytona 500. Watched Dale win and instantly became a fan.

My dad took me to my first race in 1999. It was the night race at Bristol. I was 9 so I dont remember much about that night. I was sitting in turn 2 and saw Dale drive right over Terry. It was AWESOME!!!!! The crowd went insane. Half of em loved it and the other half wanted to kill him. Fights were breaking out everywhere. In the stands, under the stands, in the parking lot. It was so rowdy that my Dad didnt take me back until 2004 haha. Its a shame I was so young and didnt get to appreciate him when he was here.

Paul said...

In 1998 I managed to get pit passes to Bristol from a customer of mine. Several of us were waiting by Dale's pit for when practice was over. I noticed he should have been in but did not see his car. So I ran down to the inspection area and there's his car with him walking to the hauler area. Even though I'm a few years older, I almost lost it. I ran over, stuttering....'uh Dale, would you mind signing my (#3) hat?' Well it was still on my head and he said 'well, take you're hat off, I can't sign it on you're 'bleepin'' head!

So I handed it to him, he signed it and put it on my head. Then gave me that unbelievable grin and said 'have fun at the race'. I'll NEVER forget that moment.

Jeff said...

I was lucky enough in 1989 to win an all expense paid trip to the 500, the whole deal, plane tickets, hotel rental car, early thatmorning was spent in ther Purolator hospitality tent, when they handed us our tickets they included passes to the infield before the race, we went down, walked up and down pit road the cars all lined up, quite a few of the drivers standing by but no Earnhardt, me and my buddy made our way back to the surprisingly deserted garages and there he was, we kind of stood around just outside the door looking in and were about to leave as it was only about 45 minutes til green flag. Dale saw us turning to leave, hollered at us to come in. We spent it seemed like hours but was probably on 5-10 minutes talking with him, I used to have a great picture of me with Dales arm around my neck, sadly somewhere over the years it got lost. I spent 5 minutes with a legend that day, don't have the picture anymore but I'll always have the memory.

Todd Crane said...

JD, back when Jr. was running Myrtle Beach Speedway, and was a few weeks from his first Busch start, I was doing the PA, and went to Jr. after qualifying to talk to him with a wireless mic. Before I turned it on, I said lets talk about your GN start. He said that he didn't know much about it. I said hey it's # 8, with Teresa listed as the owner. He said better not. So I said ok lets talk about his qualifing position for that nights LMS race. He was going to start 3rd. After we finished, a voice came from behind the curtain. It was Dale Sr., who used to come when he could to watch Jr. He'd hide in the trailer, and get up on the roof to watch the race, after it got dark, then get back down before the fans knew he was there. I mean he wanted to have private time with Jr., and watch him race. I did have a great 10 min. before I had to get back to my PA duties, with Dale Sr. in that trailer.

Luke said...

My first Cup race I attended was the 2nd Brickyard 400. A longtime open wheel fan, I had no idea who was who in stock cars. My companion that day was a lontime Rusty Wallace fan and I was quickly made aware of who was driving the Miller Genuine Draft #2 car. After the first lap (we were sitting high up in turn 3) my friend said I had to pick someone to cheer for. As the cars came out of turn 2 and started the mile long trip to turn three I watched the black #3 pass for the lead. I said "I'll go with that guy!" Next thing I knew I was shoved off my seat and tumbled three stairs down. When I got back up I was informed I could pick ANYONE BUT HIM!!! That was my introduction to the passion and rivalries that Dale Earnhardt created. Been a cup fan ever since.

Brett W. said...

I was at the All Star race in Charlotte in the late 90's and was lucky enough to be in the pits and garage thanks to Bruce Rooney. It was still early in the evening, before the Winston Open and I was walking through the transporters heading away from pit road and hoping to find a drink. Well I was distracted, looking down at my scanner or something and I literally ran into someone. Not a light hit, this person was moving at a pace much faster than walking. I looked up with some embarrassment as I could tell it was a driver and I was a guest in their work area. Well...it was Earnhardt. I kind of stammered and he asked if I was ok. I was still kinda in shock at who I had just walked into but saw he didn't seem mad. I told him yes, I was fine..sorry for not watching where I was going then added...I run into people back here, I'll let you do it out there. I got a look for just a second from Earnhardt, then that famous grin. Nothing more needed to be said as he smiled and walked/jogged away. I continued on, very much aware of where I was walking!

Anonymous said...

I have always been a Ford guy and am an adamant supporter/fan of the "other Dale." E was always the black hat and I despised him for the way he was one the track and how he drove so offensively (just ask Rusty and Terry). It's just too bad as well as sad that only now can I appreciate him as a person and understand how he drove combined with the influence he had on the sport (it wouldn't be the mess it is today if he were still around). Great story JD, thanks for sharing. JR

Ken-Michigan said...

My first encounter with Dale Earnhardt is the one I remember the most.

It took place at Michigan International Speedway in 1987 or maybe 1988. The speedway would hold and still does hold a media day 3 or 4 weeks before the annual June NASCAR event. Back then I worked for a local radio station close to MIS and the speedway would invite us to come out to the media day, which served as a PR function to help promote the upcoming race season.

NASCAR would always send a driver to these events and this time around, the driver attending the media day was Earnhardt. Being a longtime race fan, I had my moments when I hated & booed Dale & other times I found myself rooting FOR HIM... but I had never met the man.

Most of these media days are rather uneventful with radio, TV & print media sitting at tables while the driver addresses questions. But this media day would feature Pace Car rides for the media members WITH....you guessed it, Dale Earnhardt driving the Pace Car.

Knowing this in advance, I invited our stations news director to attend the media day with me. This news man had never been to a race, never seen MIS, let alone meet Earnhardt. ( I love taking first timers to the race track)

Finally it was our turn to ride in the Pontiac Grand Prix pace car for 2 laps around the 2 mile oval. The news director sat in the back seat passenger side, while I, knowing what a special treat this was going to be, sat in front seat next to Dale.

I remember the speedometer pegged at 120mph (as high as it would go). I remember Dale driving with only his left hand on the wheel, while his left elbow was resting on the drivers door panel as if he was driving down the Interstate.
The newsman in the back seat all but shit his pants.

Then as we exited turn 2 on our final lap with Dale, knowing I may never get this chance again, I nudged Earnhardt's right elbow with my left elbow and I said, "Hey Dale, when we get to turn 3, take us up into that high groove
you like to run late in the race".

Dale replied to me, " I can't do that.... this is just the pace car, I can't take this car up that high on the race track".

As we entered turn 3 at Michigan, expecting to take the "low line", Dale grabbed the wheel with both hands, allowed the pace car to straight up the banking until we were inches from it at 120mph plus.

Then as I glanced over at Dale, I saw it.... that grin. That Earnhardt grin that said, I Gotcha.

He kept the car inches the retaining wall until turn 4 and while still on the gas, jerked the wheel left and entered pit road.

The Earnhardt grin was on his face all the way down pit road, while more media members waited for rides.

Truly a moment that I cherish to this day.

Ohhh.... that newsman, never visited the race track again.

Anonymous said...

My faveroite would be as he walked thru the garage area there would alway be fans that gained acess into the garage some how some with the corp pied pipers leading the tour. Some one would always spy him and ask for a autograph , he would stop gather them and others up on his walk straight to the nascr hauler.
Once he got there he'd gather them up and make sure he was plugging the acess into and out of the nascar big red truck
and have a imprompto autograph session right there .
he would sign and grin at the nascar brass .

Erin said...

Wow great memories from everyone! I especially got a kick out of out Luke's but then I guess he got he got a kick too lol =) I also agree the sport would be very different but unfortunately or maybe even fortunately, thought it's crap that it took Big E's death, the safety changes have saved numerous lives including Dale Jr's.
My Big E story is very, very different from every ones else's. Mine doesn't involve a race or a souvenir. Heck I didn't even know he was until until it was over with. In 2000 I was in Las Vegas checking into a hotel for friends wedding. It was late at night and being the middle of the week it was deserted. The attendant was trying to find my room reservation so I was sitting on the couches and there was this man sitting there. I didn't pay him no attention. Well except to think I'm not going to sit next to him.Anyway after I while of sitting there I started talking to myself and he looked at me and smiled and asked why I was in LV. I explained. He smiled and I thought god he looks familiar but he had sunglasses on but it's LV. Everyone is weird in LV. Next thing I know another attendant walks into the lobby and says "Mr Earnhardt? You're car is here" He stood up lowered his glasses and smiled that Earnhardt grin and walked away! I almost fell off the couch! I had been a Earnhardt fan before this as well. I had a Earnhardt zipped hoodie on while we were sitting there too.I still couldn't believe what had happened the next day but when went to leave for my friends wedding the consieur said I had a package. In it was a Black 3 hat. I will never forget that!

Chrisb59 said...

Never met the man but my first NASCAR race was Phoenix in 91 or 92. We got to the track during a late practice with the Sun setting over turn 1. I got as close to the fence as possible before Security ran me off and looking back towards Turn 4 here comes Earnhardt. With the sun so low it lit up the inside of the car. Dale was running up against the wall making his entry into turn 1. Dale with goggles on, head tilted and that mustached smile will be etched in my mind for ever. He looked as comfortable and at piece with the world as you or I sitting at home in our recliner resting. You knew that is right where he wanted to be. As I started attending more races over the years I would always look for him on pit road and watch who he would "Grab ass" with. Heard many scanner conversations and remember one with McReynolds at Atlanta where Larry was being serious about not running to well and Dale asking Larry to make him a ham sandwich for his next pit stop. Larry responding he was busy working on setups and Dale responding he was hungry. I thoroughly enjoyed rooting for him and following him all those years and do miss him. I really believe the sport is lacking since he passed. Thanks for the article and all those who have shared their stories...

Anonymous said...

The driver with Dale in the 3rd photo Is Dan Gurney.

Winner of 67 LeMans with AJ. The only American driver to win a F1 GP with an american car, the 67 Belgian GP in his own AAR Eagle. he won races in F1, Indy cars, Sports Cars and Stock cars.
Many fans myself included rank him in the Top 5 American Race drivers along with in no order:

AJ Foyt
Mario Andretti
David Pearson
and of course the subject of this post Dale SR.

Dot said...

Thank you JD and the Planeteers for the great Earnhardt stories.

I don't have one. I am glad that I did get to see him race though.

Like others have said, nascar would be a lot better if he were still around. Would have reined in brian france for sure. ;)

West Coast Diane said...

Wow. Thanks JD. Love the stories. Wish there were more.

Mine is nothing in comparison, but Big E won fans in many ways.

My husband couldn't stand Earnhart, at least until the race where Big E jumped out of the ambulance when he found out his car would still crank.

Never. Would. Happen. Today.

KudzuCarl said...

I was on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Nagoya Japan in the late 90's. Dale and Theresa were in First Class and I was sitting with his over-the-wall guys in Business Class. They were on their way to test in preparation for one of the exhibition races held in Japan. The crew guys took over the drink cart, serving other passengers, and generally had a great time on the flight. When we arrived at Nagoya, there was a crowd in the terminal waiting for Earnhardt. I stood and watched him while I waited for my ride. He answered every question no matter how bad the English, posed for pictures, treated the media unbelievably well and was a great ambassador for NASCAR even after a 17 hour flight. That's the day I became an Earnhardt fan.

Slick said...

This is only a TV memory, but I thought I'd share it:

After Dale's last win, at Talledega in October 2000, he's on the stage and starts shaking up the Magnum of Champagne, with Teresa beside him on his left side. Dale starts sprayin' everyone with the Bubbly, turning to his right, doin' a 360. When he's about half-way round, Teresa sees him coming around, and ducks and crouches down to waist-level so as to give him room to keep spinning around. Anyway, as Dale completes his 360 maneuver, he doesn't see Teresa 'cus she's crouched down, so he keeps going with shaking the bottle, and bops her right on top of the head, where she's crouched down!

Funny as hell, and Teresa was okay.

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Word Verification : nizest

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AncientRacer said...

In a bar one night of a race weekend Dale was there, Childress was there and a number of other racy types. I go to the facility. Guy next to me starts talking about Earnhardt and how much talent he has. Someone comes out of the stall behind us and says. "He's got some, but mostly the SOB is just lucky in my opinion."

Looked around...and you already know the punchline. :)