Dale Earnhardt Jr. likes to collect racing memorabilia. Especially when it comes to items closely connected to the career of his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
He owns the No. 2 car his father won the 1980 Cup championship with, as well the Corvette they shared in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2001.
Dale Jr. recently added to his collection in the form of a No. 8 Goodwrench car that Dale Sr. won with a handful of times in the Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) in the 1980s.
But his journey to claiming ownership of the car was a stressful and costly affair, which he recounted on this week’s “Dale Jr. Download.”
“I’ve seen this car … pop up for the last 15 years,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been to Monterey, it’s been raced as a vintage racer for many, many years. It’s been to Goodwood (Festival of Speed) twice. I’ve seen this car over and over and over. I’ve never seen it in person. I’ve always wondered is it the real car? They’re claiming it’s the real car, but how do you now?
“Obviously, the car came up for sale recently at Barrett Jackson. I’m getting all kinds of text messages from everybody, even my sister (Kelley). Talking about, ‘Man, you seen this car?’ …
“I wonder why, of course, it’s getting sold. We’ve seen in the past, especially recently, a lot of dad’s cars and my cars going on auction. Some real, some not real. It’s pretty easy to be honest with you to know what’s real and what’s not.”
Earnhardt explained his attachment to the car was due in part to where it was constructed.
“This one in particular is important because it was built in the shop next to (his grandmother’s) house,” he said. “This was before (Dale Earnhardt Inc). … I would beg dad to take me (to the shop).”
Earnhardt’s detective work began with a relative, Robert Gee Jr., an uncle on his mother’s side of the family who worked on the No. 8 car.
“Robert Gee Jr. had verified that this car was legit,” Earnhardt said. “This car was brought up to Robert Gee Jr. to be looked at (in the late 90s). And the reason they would bring it to him is because he put the body on the car. He did several things on the car and would go to the race track with the team as well. I’ve got him at the race track in a photo with the rest of the team standing next to this car. Robert Gee Jr., who works here at JR Motorsports, has worked on this car, put the body on it.”
When Earnhardt asked him if the car was the real deal, Gee said, “Yep, it is. I’m pretty confident this is the car.”
“Well, this car is probably going to go for $150,000,” Earnhardt said. “Are you $150,000 confident that this is the car?’
Gee was “pretty sure.”
Gee explained that when he first verified the car in the late 90s via the car’s drive shaft hoop.
Also of note: who had made the hoop.
“He watched my dad make that hoop,” Earnhardt said. “It’s unique because my dad made it and the way it was made. The way dad chose to make it, he heated it up with an acetylene torch and wrapped this thing around an oxygen tank, which is quite dangerous, and made it himself right there in front of Robert in the shop.”
It wasn’t enough for Earnhardt.
“He couldn’t give me enough confirmation to make me completely sure that this was the real car,” Earnhardt said. “I got some encouragement from within my family that I should purchase this car. I called Tony (Eury) Sr. and talked to him about it.”
Then Earnhardt “swung for the fences.”
He called his former owner Rick Hendrick, who was at the auction.
“I said ‘I got one I need you to get for me if you can and he goes, ‘Sure.’ It’s probably going to go for ($150,000). If it’s under ($200,000), try to stay in the fight.”
$190,000 later, the car was his. It eventually arrived at Earnhardt’s home and was unloaded.
“I have been climbing all over this car, alright? Trying to find some identification,” Earnhardt said. “Something, anything, that would make me feel confident 100% that this was the car.”
He first looked at the floorboard of the car. His father beat the floorboard of the car with a ball peen hammer to get his seat low.
“You can see the ball peen hammer marks in the bottom of the car,” Earnhardt said. “It’s obviously been hammered down a ton, all the way across the back to get his back of the seat lower.”
But it still wasn’t enough confirmation.
“Somebody else could have beat their seat down,” he said. “It’s a very Earnhardt thing. But I can’t find another picture of the car from 1986 of the bottom showing this exact same hammer marks. That doesn’t do it for me.
“I’m the one who has spent the money, I need more.”
Earnhardt turned to his phone, which has thousands of photos his father’s career.
“There’s a couple photos of me that I’ve collected as well and there’s one of me in 1986,” Earnhardt said. “I’m sitting in the car … That gives me a view of the driver’s window. Some of the interior of the car, as far as the rear sheet metal in the back interior of the car, the roll cage. One of the things I look at in this photo is how they hooked up the widow net at the top of the window. Back then, everybody would have done that differently. When you put the body on, you made that yourself, how you were going to hook up the window net. So when you see those mounts, they’re unique to the car. I would look at those mounts and go, ‘That’s exactly like the mounts on my car.’ That’s a pretty good confirmation, but … that’s 99% maybe, or 95% sure this is the car.”
But Earnhardt found another photo from the same day of him sitting in the car taken from the passenger window.
“I can see the seat, the seat belts, the steering wheel, the steering shaft, the dashboard,” Earnhardt said. “If you draw in, look closely, above the steering shaft there is a radio box. It’s riveted to a roll bar with two rivets and then to a piece of sheet metal by two rivets as well. If you look, it’s kind of cocked counter-clockwise just slightly. It’s not level with the roll cage or the car. So I go into the car quickly with my camera. … I dive into that car with my camera, alright? I take a picture of the car today. There’s the rivet holes and they’re off angle. That’s it.
“I don’t need anything else. That to me locks it down that I’m holding the real thing.”
Earnhardt ran up to his house to tell his wife the news.
“I was almost in tears getting that type of confirmation that I have the car,” Earnhardt said. “I was calling my sister, I was calling Rick. I called Robert Jr. I texted Tony Sr. I’m telling everyone, ‘I got it. I got what I needed.”