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Who Was Dale Earnhardt Sr?
Years after his tragic death at the 2001 Daytona 500, the legend of Dale Earnhardt Sr stands even taller than it did when he was at the peak of his popularity. He started from humble beginnings in the textile mill town of Kannapolis, North Carolina near Charlotte, but by the time of his death, he was meeting with Presidents and CEO’s, making appearances in movies, guesting on David Letterman’s show, and hanging out with Brooks & Dunn. It was an incredible journey which included seven Winston Cup titles and 76 NASCAR wins.
Fans were instantly attracted to the way Dale Sr. drove his black #3 Monte Carlo. He was fearless and aggressive, made room where there wasn’t any, and drafted a little closer than other drivers. He wasn’t afraid to bump other cars out of the way. This all led to his nickname "The Intimidator," which fit him perfectly. Most of all, though, he was real and everyone could relate to him because of it. We all know the highlights of his life, but here are ten items that many casual fans may not know about The Intimidator.
1. He Dropped Out of High School
Dale dropped out of high school after ninth grade at the age of 16. His dad Ralph was furious with him and they had a strained relationship for a few years because of it. Dale would later say he regretted this decision as much as any he ever made.
But at the time, though, where did someone go to learn car racing? Certainly not high school, and there were, and are, no college stock car teams. You learn racing by racing, not by sitting in a classroom, and right or wrong that’s the path Dale took.
Dropping out of school was not uncommon around racing circles back in the early days. His father dropped out of school in the sixth grade and both Richard Childress, his car owner, and Hank Jones, his first merchandising manager, also left school before graduating.
2. His Father Was Also a Race Car Driver
Dale's father Ralph Earnhardt was also a race car driver and was somewhat of a local Carolina legend driving his #8 car. His nickname was Ironheart, which was not only a play on his last name, but also a tribute to his determination and spirit. Dale idolized Ralph and said he was honest, quiet, and independent.
He was the Sportsman car racing champion in 1956 and was also runner-up in 1955 and third in 1957. He was the first car builder and driver to understand and use tire stagger to improve his racing finishes. For his contributions to the sport he was elected to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1997.
He died of a heart attack in his home in 1973 at the age of 45, which was a big blow to Dale, who was in his early twenties and was sometimes driving in the same races as his Dad. It’s hard to say how much Dale learned from Ralph about cars and racing, but it’s safe to say it was a lot. Dale ran one race against his Dad. Ralph pushed him past another driver to finish third.
3. He Drove a Pink Car in His First Race
Dale’s first race happened in 1970 at the old Metrolina dirt track course not far from the Charlotte airport. The car he used was a 1956 Ford Victoria Sedan owned by his neighbor David Oliver. Dale’s cousin Wayne was supposed to paint it avocado green, but it came out pink when he incorrectly mixed up the color. They didn’t have enough money to buy more paint so the car stayed pink. Dale finished a respectable tenth and surprisingly he didn’t get into any wrecks during the race. People also said he looked like he knew what he was doing behind the wheel. The car color, though, was a long way from the black that came to define his image later in his career and it may be one of the reasons he hated Fords.
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4. Success Didn’t Come Fast or Easy
Dale knocked around quite a bit before he finally started to gain traction in 1979. It was a long winding road that took him through two divorces and multiple moves from apartment to apartment and trailer to trailer. He worked in a wheel alignment shop, as a welder, as an insulation installer, and in the nearby textile mill. He even drove dirt cars just to pay bills and was starting to get old at 27 before his luck started to turn.
This background of how he just doggedly kept at it is what made him so endearing to fans. It didn’t come easy for him and success wasn’t guaranteed. He was just a wild-eyed country boy from a poor background that made it happen.
5. The Wins Were a Team Effort
No doubt Dale was a great driver, but he had a lot of help along the way and great people around him that helped him win those 76 cup races. He needed a great team to support the way he drove, which resulted in a lot of wear, tear, and broken parts on his cars. Early on Rod Osterlund, a California businessman, came along and gave Dale his first real chance as a full-time Winston Cup driver in 1979. In the late 1980s Richard Childress and his crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine gave him an indestructible car that would allow Dale to out endure other drivers. Then when the strategy of car design shifted away from endurance in the early 1990s his new crew chief Andy Petree brought in a new focus on lightweight parts and performance.
6. His First Nickname Was “The Dominator”
The nickname made sense because he dominated NASCAR races in the late 1980’s, but the name didn’t click with fans, according to Hank Jones who was Dale’s merchandise dealer at the time. So, in 1988 Hank came up with another name, "The Intimidator," but Dale wasn’t keen on it. Hank eventually convinced him to give it a try by saying that people often called him a lot worse during races, and even when he didn’t win he still intimidated the other drivers. Hank had some shirts printed up for the next race and they sold like hot cakes. The fans loved the new name and the other drivers seemed to get a kick out of it.
The Intimidator name took off from there and just added to the Earnhardt legend. No other nickname ever matched the person better than this one and it turned into a merchandising gold mine. The image was complete: The Man in Black, #3, and The Intimidator. Around the garage he also had the nickname of Ironhead, which accurately captured his thick-headed stubbornness. He was also called The Man in Black, The Count of Monte Carlo, and Mr. Restrictor Plate.
7. He Wanted to Win at Marketing Too
Dale also wanted to be the top earning athlete of the day over the other popular stars like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tiger Woods. Don Hawk, his new business manager, worked to make this happen.
The money rolled in and Dale seemed to spend it as fast as it came in. He had a boat in Florida with a full-time captain, a private jet, a 900-acre estate, and on and on. The revenue from souvenir sales in 1994 was estimated to be 50 million and his personal income was close to 14 million. Before his death he was regularly earning over 20 million dollars a year and often made the list of top 10 athletes by income. In 1998 he was fifth on the list and in 2000 placed sixth.
Despite his free spending, Dale was a wise investor, thanks in part to his wife Teresa.
8. He Had the Greatest Smile, but Also the Fiercest Stare
Dale had the warmest smile that could win over any grandmother or child, but he also was known for an intense gaze that could rattle even the hardest veteran drivers. Jeff Byrd, president of Bristol Motor Speedway back in the day, remembers a time when Dale’s picture was used without him knowing. Dale was furious about it, but Jeff pointed out that the Winston contract allowed the use of a driver’s image for promotional purposes. Dale just stared at him with an icy glare for 45 seconds without saying a word. Others have told similar stories about encountering the stare. It provided a glimpse into his competitiveness, intensity, and complicated nature. You don’t become The Man and stay The Man for as long as Dale did without having that boldness, tenacity, and mettle.
9. He Shaved Off His Mustache in 1999
He went on a snorkeling trip with his family to the Caribbean in the summer of 1999. The mustache was causing problems with his diving mask so he shaved off his famous facial hair just like that. He’d had the mustache since 1982 and it was a big part of his image. A shoot for a Coke commercial had to be delayed because he refused to wear a fake one. The shaving also made the list of ten happenings of the week in Entertainment Weekly. One thing is for certain, Dale just didn’t look right without it.
10. His First Pit Stop in a Winston Cup Race Was for a Drink of Water
Dale made his debut in Winston Cup racing on Memorial Day 1975 in the Charlotte 600. He drove a #8 Dodge, finished 22nd, and won $2425. What is most memorable is that he made a pit stop after 200 laps to get more water after drinking all 3 gallons he had in his car to start the race.
The books At the Altar of Speed by Leigh Montville and Earnhardt Nation by Jay Busbee were used as source material for this article.