Editor’s note: This is part two of our interview with NASCAR driver Dave Marcis, where he discusses his relationship with Dale Earnhardt. Part one ran Monday and can be read by clicking here.
It was one of the more unlikely friendships in NASCAR, a guy from Northern Wisconsin and a guy from Kannapolis, North Carolina.
One had a pronounced Wisconsin accent – which remains even after living near Asheville, N.C. for the last 50 years – and was kind of quiet. And when it came to work, he’d rather work for himself than anyone else, even if it meant struggling financially.
The other one had a Southern drawl and countless smirks that belied a confidence – some might call it arrogance – that he was the best behind the wheel. The high school dropout also became a master at business to go along with his success on the track.
Dave Marcis, the wing-tipped shoe wearing wonder from Wausau, Wisconsin, and the man who would become The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, were an unlikely pair but that’s also what made them so close.
In addition to coming up through their respective short track ranks in the Midwest and Southeast, the two men shared common interests that included hunting, fishing and working on both their race cars and personal cars.
Here are some of the stories Marcis told NBC Sports about his friendship with Earnhardt:
“When I first heard of Dale racing down here, he wasn’t in NASCAR yet, but he was running the short tracks and had a good reputation – but he also had a rough reputation at the same time,” Marcis said. “A lot of people would say to me ‘you ought to go run this track and race against Earnhardt.’”
They would eventually do so on several short tracks before racing against each other in several hundred NASCAR Grand National and Winston Cup races. Marcis made his NASCAR debut in the 1968 Daytona 500, while Earnhardt made his NASCAR debut in the 1975 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In 1978, Marcis was near the end of a one-year deal driving for owner Rod Osterlund when he found out that his contract would not be renewed. His replacement for 1979 was Earnhardt, who would go on to win his first of seven Cup championships in 1980.
Marcis wasn’t upset that his friend would replace him behind the wheel. Rather, he looked forward to returning to his roots as an independent team owner/operator and wished Earnhardt the best of luck.
But there were a few instances over their quarter-century of racing against each other in NASCAR where that friendship was tested, with one time in particular, Marcis recalled.
“We were at Martinsville and Dale was hammering at me and hammering at me, and I got ticked off about it and spun him out,” Marcis said, adding with a laugh, “he wouldn’t talk to me for two months. He was mad.
“But you know what, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I had to stand up for myself and I can’t let people run over me because if I did, then I was going to have trouble all the time.
“Finally one day, he walked up to me and grabbed me around the neck, had a big old grin on his face and said, ‘You know that deal at Martinsville?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir.’ And he said, ‘I had that coming. My daddy always told me if you have any problem with anybody, don’t carry it down the road. I guess you had a problem and you didn’t carry it down the road.’”
When Neil Bonnett was killed in a crash while practicing for the 1994 Daytona 500, Earnhardt turned to his friend Marcis to fill Bonnett’s shoes as his test driver.
“We became the biggest, greatest friends, hunted and fished together,” Marcis said. “After we lost Neil Bonnett, who had done a lot of testing for Dale, I did all of Dale’s testing. I was quite honored to have tested the car, worked with Larry McReynolds and all the guys on the team on the car Dale won the Daytona 500 with and he thanked me in victory circle for that testing.
“He was a great guy, did a lot of things for a lot of people that a lot of people didn’t know nothing about and he didn’t want publicity about.”
With others of their era like Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon, Marcis admits he sometimes wondered why Earnhardt chose him to be so close to over the years.
“I think he had respect for me, and exactly why, I don’t know,” Marcis told NBC Sports. “But a lot of people told me, and I don’t know if there was any truth in it, but they said he kind of looked at me kind of like his father because I worked all the time on the car, drove it and hauled it like his father had to do.
“He was a great person. There are some people who would disagree with you, but you have to remember, he had a lot of respect for everybody but he made things happen on the race track. I remember when he bumped Terry Labonte at Bristol, he said he meant to tap him or bump him out of the way, he didn’t mean to wreck him.”
But that was Earnhardt, he was that competitive. And that same drive extended to things away from the race track. Marcis recalled one incident with a big laugh:
“We’d go somewhere to eat and he’d get in line and the first thing he would do, he would not want to be the last guy in that line,” Marcis chuckled. “He’d walk in front of every one of us that he knew and he’d be the guy to be first ahead of you. He wanted to be first.”
In addition to Earnhardt’s largesse off the track, he was especially benevolent to Marcis over the years, giving him parts, advice and money – but usually on Earnhardt’s terms.
“We were at Talladega one day testing and he asked what was I doing tomorrow?” Marcis recalled. “I told him I’d be home at my shop, getting (his own) car and working on it to get it ready to come back here.
“Dale wanted me to test his car for him but I told him I couldn’t, and I only had a couple of guys at that time. He didn’t say no more about it.
“Then that evening, when the track closed, he came up to me, pulled three $100 bills out of his pocket, stuffed it in my shirt pocket and said ‘Here, take your guys out to eat tonight and this will help pay for your motel room. I already called the people at the motel you’re staying at and told them you were staying another night,’ and then just walked away. So what are you going to do? The next day, where was I? I was at Talladega, testing for Dale.”
Being one of the last independent full-time team owner/operators in NASCAR, Marcis was perhaps more in constant search for sponsorship than better- and more fully-funded teams like Earnhardt’s GM Goodwrench Chevrolet.
One day, Marcis asked his buddy if he would be willing to sponsor his race car.
“We were at Darlington one time and I wanted to ask him to sponsor my car at North Wilkesboro,” Marcis said. “I finally got the nerve to go up to him and told him, ‘Dale, you need to sponsor my car at Wilkesboro with Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet.’
“He asked how much did I want. I told him $2,500. He said that wasn’t enough. He never said another word the rest of the weekend to me about it. Monday I’m at the shop working and the phone rang and it was Dale. He asked where did I want him to send the decals to, my address. I ended up outqualifying him. About two weeks later, the mail came and he sent me $5,000. You just never knew what to expect from him.”
Earnhardt also had a special bond with Marcis’ wife, Helen.
“Whenever my wife Helen would be in the garage, Dale never walked by her without giving her a hug. How many drivers would do that? That’s just the kind of guy he was.”
Helen also figured in a practical joke Earnhardt played on Marcis.
“One time, he called my wife at the house and told her, ‘Tell Dave to be ready at the Asheville airport tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. I’ll pick him up and we’re going to go hunting,’ Dave Marcis said. “When I came home for supper, she told me about the call and I said to her, ‘What are we hunting for?’ She said he didn’t say, where we were going or anything, just told her to tell me to be there.
“So I get out there the next morning, was there at 6 a.m. It was a little after 7 a.m. and he still hadn’t shown up. I kept asking (tower officials) if they had a clearance for his plane to land, that it would only take them about 20 minutes to fly from Statesville.
“By then it was about 7:30 a.m., they landed and Dale comes walking in, looks at me smiling and says, ‘I bet you were here at 6 o’clock, weren’t you?’ You know what I told him. We then went to Texas on a deer hunt.”
Earnhardt was proud to call Marcis a friend, to the point where unbeknownst to his buddy, agreed to put both of them on a set of racing trading cards in 1995, the only time The Intimidator did so with another driver.
“Earnhardt had some trading cards made with his picture on one side and my picture on the other,” Marcis said. “I don’t know why he ever did make them. It says on the cards, ‘Dual Jewels.’ He never told me about why he did it.”
When Marcis, then 60 years old, failed to qualify for the 2001 Daytona 500, he hung out with Earnhardt for the rest of the week leading up to the day of the fateful race that would claim Earnhardt’s life.
Earnhardt worried about his good buddy, who was 11 years his senior, and proposed Marcis hang up his fire suit for good and come to work for him.
“Dale was telling me that week that I need to retire,” Marcis said. “He was going to buy some hunting land around the country in different places and we talked about putting together a race team for Kerry (Earnhardt, Dale’s oldest son).
“Dale wanted me to look at hunting land, maybe even hunt it, and decide if it’s worth buying it because he said, ‘I’m going to start spending my souvenir money on hunting land. You’ve accomplished so much, there’ll never be anybody that’s ever going to accomplish what you’ve done with what you’ve done it with. You need to think about retiring and then I’m going to put you to work.’”
— NASCAR Memories (@NASCARMemories) June 6, 2014