Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Guts Make A Champ
From 1976-79 Earnhardt drove in eight Winston Cup races altogether. Sponsors agreed that he was an excellent driver. He possessed the natural grit and calm demeanor to be a champion driver. Earnhardt was fearless, in fact, to a fault. He crashed and flipped cars as if they were old soda pop cans. As a result his potential went largely untapped because he could not find sponsors willing to subsidize the cost of repairing his cars.
With the failure of his second marriage in 1977 he returned home briefly and lived with his mother. He stopped racing on the asphalt circuit and drove the dirtroad tracks again. He worked for Chrysler Motors, testing so-called kit cars.
In 1978 Earnhardt crossed paths with an investor named Rod Osterlund who was putting together a Winston Cup team in an old garage in Derita, near Charlotte. Earnhardt drove two races for Osterlund and finished second and fourth respectively. The following year, at age twenty-nine, Earnhardt joined Osterlund's team as one of two drivers. With Osterlund's help Earnhardt purchased a home on Lake Norman near the Frog Creek Campground, where Osterlund's crew housed and maintained their cars at the Car-o-Winds trailer park.
On April 1 of his rookie year, Earnhardt won his first Winston Cup race. The race, at Bristol, was the Southeastern 500, the seventh on the circuit. Earnhardt led for 160 laps and beat Bobby Allison to the finish. Earnhardt was only the fourth rookie in the history of NASCAR to win a race. With winnings of $264,086 that year, he was named NASCAR's Rookie of the Year and signed to drive for five more years with Osterlund.
For a no-holds-barred driver like Earnhardt, of course, winning came at a price. He lost four weeks to recuperation that season after a severe crash at Pocono. Earnhardt, who blew a tire and hit the wall, suffered two broken collarbones, a concussion, and severe bruises. This extreme style paid off in 1980, however, when he won his first Winston Cup at age twenty-nine. He took the trophy by a nineteen-point margin, his winnings for the season totaling more than one-half million dollars.
In 1981 Osterlund sold the Winston Cup operation to J. D. Stacy and moved to the West Coast. Unhappy with the change of operations, Earnhardt drove only four races for Stacy then quit. He completed the 1981 season by driving ten races for Bud Moore Engineering, but altogether that year finished only twelve of thirty races.
Earnhardt signed with Richard Childress in August of 1981. Childress was a would-be driver himself who, like Earnhardt, had dropped out of school at a young age. Then thirty-six years old, Childress was wheeling and dealing in earnest to build a racing car empire. At the time that he hooked up with Earnhardt he had a parts deal underway with General Motors (GM) at Talladega (in Anniston, Alabama). A tire deal with Goodyear was
already signed and sealed. Earnhardt in turn brought sizable funding with him in the form of a sponsorship contract from Wrangler Jeans.
Still driving Ford cars, Earnhardt finished in twelfth place in points in 1982; he finished eighth in 1983. He renewed his deal with Childress who—through deals with GM, Goodyear, and others—was crafting entire cars in the shop. Earnhardt began driving the sturdier Childress chasses and won two Winston circuit races in 1984, to finish in fourth place in points. Ricky Rudd joined the Childress team as a driver around that time.
In 1985, Earnhardt ranked eighth in points for the season. His family by that time had grown to include four children and a new wife. With a larger family to support, Earnhardt pulled out all of the stops, and his reckless competition style emerged with a vengeance. In three out of his four wins that year he bumped other drivers from his path.
At the second Winston Cup race of the 1986 season, at Richmond, Earnhardt knocked Darrell Waltrip's car so hard in the final lap that both drivers spun out. The officials slapped Earnhardt with a $5,000 fine and one year of probation. Although the probation was lifted, the incident sparked an intense rivalry that season between the two drivers. In the end it was Earnhardt, with five wins, who took home the Winston Cup.
Around that time an entrepreneur named Hank Jones had dubbed Earnhardt the Dominator and had printed t-shirts and souvenirs with the moniker. Although the Dominator merchandise never sold well, Jones followed a new hunch and reordered more Earnhardt souvenir merchandise with a different nickname, calling Earnhardt the Intimidator instead. The new name hit pay dirt, and Jones made $180,000 selling Intimidator souvenirs from a trackside trailer in 1985. Before long the name and the logos were registered with the copyright office, and sales outlets were expanded to include a cable television shopping network. Earnhardt created his own marketing company, Sports Image Incorporated, to handle the business, and the name of Dale Earnhardt Sr. became synonymous with the new alias, the Intimidator.
When his seven-year sponsorship arrangement with Wrangler came to a premature conclusion in 1987, Earnhardt turned to GM Goodwrench for funding and used the opportunity to purchase his car number. Thus the familiar black Chevrolet sedan with a big white "3" on the top became Earnhardt's trademark on the track. After winning six of the first eight races in 1987, he finished the season with eleven wins, clinching the Winston Cup with two races still in the offing.
Earnhardt earned a reputation for highly emotional displays and outbursts while driving. He was a moody, aggressive competitor who went after the competition by making physical contact between the cars. It was midway through the 1987 season when he accomplished what will be remembered as his remarkable Pass-in-the-Grass chase at the Charlotte speedway. A skirmish/collision (between Bill Elliott, Geoff Bodine, and Earnhardt) sent Earnhardt skidding onto the grassy bank of the race course. Without missing a lap, the Intimidator stayed the course and kept driving; he returned to the asphalt and continued the race. All three drivers—Elliott, Bodine, and Earnhardt—were fined after the race.
Although tire problems plagued Earnhardt's car during the 1988 season, he bounced back to a second-place finish in 1989. He won his fourth Winston Cup in 1990 and a fifth in 1991. Faced with replacing his crew chief in 1992, Earnhardt slumped into a twelfth place finish. He brought Andy Petree into the organization in 1993, won six of his first eighteen races, and ended the season with a sixth Winston Cup in hand. A third consecutive championship in 1994 came as a result of a consistently winning season wherein he took first place in four races, second place in seven, and third place in six. It was Earnhardt's seventh Winston Cup overall, to tie Richard Petty's record for most Winston Cup championships.
The death of Neil Bonnett in a crash in 1994 had a profound effect on Earnhardt as the two had been very close. They were hunting buddies and confidants, and had helped each other through difficult times. That year Earnhardt moved his family from Lake Norman to a two-story house in Mooresville, North Carolina. The estate, situated on 900 acres, included a 108,000-foot garage.
Showing no less mercy on the track than before, the Intimidator continued his rule of the asphalt track. A horrific crash at Talladega in 1996 left him with a broken collarbone and sternum, and with a bruised pelvis. Overall he was lucky, but he expressed some concern over a memory blackout during a race at Darlington the following season.
Earnhardt, with an annual income approaching $24.5 million in the late 1990s, sold the Sports Image venture for $30 million in 1996. By 2000 he ranked at number forty on the Forbes list of 100 wealthiest celebrities. In addition to his new home with its so-called Garage Mahal car maintenance facility, he owned a helicopter, a Leer Jet, numerous ATVs, and an oversized trailer, plus he kept a fully staffed yacht moored in Florida.