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Dale Earnhardt Sr. - What Makes A Champ?

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Born in Kannapolis in south central North Carolina, on April 29, 1951, Earnhardt was the oldest son of Ralph and Martha Earnhardt. With two older sisters and two younger brothers, he fell in the middle of his four siblings. The Earnhardts were known as lint heads in their regional slang—a lint head being anyone from Kannapolis, which is the mill town headquarters of Cannon Mills. With a population of 36,000, Kannapolis is a suburb to the northeast of Charlotte and is the largest unincorporated population center in the area. The name Kannapolis is Greek for the "City of Looms," and it is an unwritten tradition among the residents that everyone in the town works at the mill at one time or another.

The mills and looms notwithstanding, Earnhardt's heritage was much larger than lint town. The red dirt countryside where he was raised falls on a terrain called the Piedmont that stretches northward from Birmingham, Alabama, and into Virginia. The landscape of the Piedmont encompasses a vast bed of fine red clay where dirt-road racers are nurtured.

Dale Earnhardt held a great admiration for his father, a sixth-grade dropout who quit the mills at a young age and went on to become a hall-of-fame NASCAR driver. In the early days, with a wife and a family to support, Ralph Earnhardt worked in an auto garage to supplement his income, and Dale Earnhardt and his brothers

Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

spent a good deal of time in the shop. They learned to maintain and care for the cars, and in 1956 they cheered their father's victory in the NASCAR Sportsman series championship. Earnhardt, who was much like his father, quit school at age sixteen, married young, and fathered a son named Kerry.

Unlike his father, Earnhardt was soon divorced and living alone. He began his career as a dirt-road racer, driving a 1956 Ford Club Sedan as his first bona fide race car. The six-cylinder Ford was nothing remarkable. Earnhardt had ordered it painted purple, although it ended up an un-macho pink. He drove it regardless. His first race was on the Concord Speedway, a local track owned by a man named Henry Furr.

By 1973 Earnhardt was working in Concord, at Punch Whitaker's wheel alignment shop on Route 9. He had married again—this time to Brenda Gee. Their daughter, Kelley, was born in 1972. After a while Earnhardt found a cache of old Ford Falcons and selected one to be his new race car. He made a project out of fixing it up in his spare time and supported his family by working as a welder for the Great Dane Trucking Company.

The family lived poorly in assorted apartments and trailers, and Earnhardt was sometimes slow in paying his bills. They all rode around in old fixer-upper cars, and all the while he kept a steady stream of race cars moving through the garage at the old Earnhardt family home on Sedan Avenue in Kannapolis. Earnhardt and Gee soon had a son, Dale Jr., born in 1974. That same year Earnhardt Sr. switched from dirt racing to asphalt. He picked up a used race car and drove in local races as part of the old Sportsman division which later became the Busch circuit.

He made his debut on the Winston Cup circuit at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, driving in the Charlotte 600 on Memorial Day 1975. He drove car number 8, a Dodge belonging to Ed Negré and his mechanic son, Norman. Earnhardt finished at twenty-second place in the race and pocketed $2,425.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. - Guts Make A Champ [next]

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