EDITOR’S NOTE: NBC Sports will take a look at the life, legacy, and long-lasting impact of Dale Earnhardt, who died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. This is the first in an oral history series that remembers “The Intimidator” though the voices of those who knew the seven-time Cup Series champion, who remains one of the biggest icons in NASCAR history.
Many have tried to define Dale Earnhardt, explain the essence of the man behind the reflective sunglasses and thick mustache, whose mill town upbringing resonated with the everyday man even as Earnhardt did remarkable things with the black No. 3 Chevrolet.
There were those who viewed Earnhardt as NASCAR’s Elvis for the fervor his fans showed. Some looked at him as the sport’s Babe Ruth for being among the best at what he did. Others compared him to James Dean, whose time ended well before it should have.
Twenty years after his death in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt remains a relevant figure in NASCAR that time has enhanced, not forgotten. Many continue to try to explain who Earnhardt was to those who didn’t witness his greatness on the track and the person off it.
The fact is, he was simply Dale.
What does that mean?
Let these people explain:
Humpy Wheeler (former general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2006 interview): Dale Earnhardt was the last working-man driver that we had. The guy running the backhoe and the shrimp boat captain and the carpenter, people out there working with their hands, they loved Earnhardt.
Ken Squier (during the 2001 broadcast of Earnhardt’s memorial service): I’ve always thought part of the magic of Dale Earnhardt was that he was the common man who did uncommon things. He was everybody who ever had a dream. He was the one with the focus and concentration and strength to live out his dream and take it to the greatest heights. … He was that John Wayne character that wasn’t a fictitious character on the screen. This was for real.
Kyle Petty: He came in like Darrell (Waltrip) did. “I’m here, you gotta make room.” That’s kind of the way Darrell came in. He didn’t tiptoe in. Earnhardt didn’t tiptoe in. Did that ruffle feathers? I don’t ever remember my dad’s feathers being ruffled. You know what I mean? I just don’t. I just don’t ever remember, especially it from Dale. It was just like, “OK, there’s another guy that we got to race against that is good that we got to beat.”
Dale Jarrett: The superstars don’t take no for an answer in their quest to be the best, and Dale was exactly that. He wasn’t letting anything get in his way. He did things his way.
Jeff Gordon (in 2006 interview): A Babe Ruth figure, that’s the way I look at him. He’s probably the best driver I’ve ever raced against, and certainly the way he left the sport is something that’s only going to leave his persona at an even higher level. He still had things to accomplish, he still had things he wanted to do. The fact that we didn’t get to see that happen is only going to continue to make him larger than life.
Felix Sabates (former car owner in a 2006 interview): In a way, Dale dying did a lot for the sport. Jesus dying did a lot for Christianity. No, no, no, I don’t compare him to Jesus. I compare him to Elvis. You know, I know Burt Reynolds, that probably is a good comparison. Because Burt has the personality Dale had.
Kurt Busch: Senior did everything. He did it right. The way he went about himself with the Intimidator look and driving style, it was always there. He did it with the officials. He did it with the manufacturers. Then he had that swagger and that smirk to know what he was capable of at all times. He just nailed it everywhere he went.
I was a kid growing up in Vegas watching races. He was who we rooted for. My dad loved his driving style. I tried to emulate it and that’s what got me in trouble early in my career. Who is this 22-year-old punk acting like he’s going to move people out of the way and then just lip off afterwards and walk away? Yeah, you could do it, but you could only do it if you were Dale Sr.
Billy Scott (a friend of Earnhardt in a 2000 interview with the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C.): Really back when Dale was young and we really didn’t have money to go out and eat steak, we’d eat a lot of tomato sandwiches and stuff like that back in them days. Dale, to me, has never forgotten where he’s come from. He’s proved that by coming to see us. He told us he would never forget us and never would forget where he had come from. That’s been true.
Bill Malcolm (He told the News & Record in 2010 that he often stopped at a gas station for coffee on his way to work in the mid-1980s. Some days, Malcolm arrived before it opened at 6 a.m. Earnhardt was there early now and then, buying a Sundrop): At first, I really didn’t realize who he was. He would pull in. I would pull in. He would talk about his family, and I would talk about our family. We didn’t talk much about racing. We would talk a while, and I would go to work and he would go out on the farm. He was so proud of it. I can remember him telling me, “One more payment, Bill, and I’ll have this farm paid off.”
Dale Beaver (Motor Racing Outreach chaplain from 1999-2005): MRO did this thing called the Father’s Day Olympics (each year at the track). It was always a big deal at the track. Miss Jackie (Pegram), I don’t know how she did it. Miss Jackie was able to get to come to that and just do the goofiest things with (daughter) Taylor when she was little. … She got him to sit down and put like a tablecloth around his neck and Taylor put whip cream or shaving cream all over his face and stuck Cap’n Crunch cereal or whatever it was on. I forget exactly what the object of the game was, but then he gets up from the chair, we all had a big laugh and Taylor is having a ball because now her dad is chasing Miss Jackie, trying to get whipped cream or shaving cream on her.
Kyle Petty: Only him and Neil Bonnett were best buds. We were friends. His dad raced. My dad raced. We raced. Started that same year although I was 10 or 12 years younger or whatever, but we talked just like all drivers talked. We found ourselves in positions and places a lot. And then Junior came along and Adam came along. Man, we found ourselves talking about what they had done at Myrtle Beach or what this had happened because they raced together some times. You just talked about junk and how Junior was doing and how Adam was doing.
Dale Beaver (on the first time he met Earnhardt, asking Earnhardt to sign a permission slip so Taylor could go on a MRO camping trip in 1999): He’s about to qualify. He’s sitting at a table (in the back of the team’s hauler) peeling an orange. … He said, “Come here, I want to ask you about that trip you’re going to take Taylor on.” … We talked for a few minutes about just being dads and how it’s very important that Taylor was going to be somewhere she was going to be secure, who all was going to be there. … I remember looking at him saying, “Dale, I’ve got two boys and I don’t even want them walking across the street without them holding my hand.” He’s like, “You’re exactly right.” He got to talking to me that just the fact “that you blink … and they grow up and they’re not kids anymore. You better keep them safe and take care of them for as long as you can.”
Richard Childress: Not only did he impress me on the race track, he impressed me with so many things that he’d done for people away from the track that people would never ever know about. All of those things. That’s where he had a heart of gold.
Don Hawk (Dale Earnhardt Inc. president from 1993-2001): What you saw – the intimidating, swaggering Earnhardt – that was 100 percent real. It wasn’t an act. He literally drove the same way. His walk and talk and swagger was always consistent. He didn’t give you an inch off the track or an inch on the track. I’m talking about competitively. Because there’s a side of him that was so cool, and I’ve seen personal things that he’s done to help people or churches or stuff like that, and you’d go, “Wow. That’s the same guy?” Yeah, that’s the same guy. But he would do it almost like the Bible says: Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When Dale did a good deed for somebody, he tried to do it as quietly as possible.
Dave Marcis (2020 interview with NBC Sports): We were at Darlington one time and I wanted to ask him to sponsor my car at North Wilkesboro. 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. … About two weeks later, the mail came and he sent me $5,000. You just never knew what to expect from him.
Kyle Petty: We’re out in Riverside (in 1980) riding go-karts with all the R.J. Reynolds people one night. … He got up somehow on top of my go-kart and we kind of got hung together. When it was over with and we got everything off, my pants were ripped from just below my knee and all the way down. I had a pair of cowboy boots and whatever was sharp was under that thing slit my cowboy boots from the top to the bottom like a razor. If it got in my leg, I’d still be in the hospital.
We looked at it and kind of laughed about it and I’m like, “You just ruined my cowboy boots. I just bought these cowboy boots.” … We laughed about it and we joked about it and he never said anything. He just walked over the next week to the truck and said, “I got these for you,” and that was the end of the conversation. So, somewhere it bothered him that he had messed up those cowboy boots. That was the kind of guy he was. You thought he didn’t have a conscience, but he had a conscience.
Don Hawk (Dale Earnhardt Inc. president from 1993-2001): This man came to the gate of DEI, back in the old days before Garage Mahal, it was just a chain-link fence gate. But it was remote controlled by the office with two-way glass. We could see out, they couldn’t see in. At the gate, this man gets out and is standing at the gate looking, and Earnhardt says, “Huh. Open the gate.” I said, “Dale, I don’t know who it is.” He said, “I know who it is, I can’t believe it. Let me feel it out first.” …
The man proceeds to explain to him, “Dale, I know the last time you saw me was over 15 years ago, and I was a drunk. I want you to know I’ve been a dozen years sober, I’m now a preacher at this small church, and I just wanted you to know that I was such a bad example to you, what happened in my life. It just mattered to me to come tell you that.” Dale asked about what kind of church. Dale knew I was religious and asked what I thought. Told him I thought it was legitimate. I’d driven by the church, and it was old and rough.
The guy said, “Yeah, I took it over, and we park right there in the grass.” Dale said, “What do you mean you park in the grass?” He said, “We can’t afford a parking lot, but that’s OK.” We get done talking, Dale takes the guy for a ride around the property, brings him back in my office, and says, “Talk to Hawk for a couple of minutes, I’ll be back.”
He comes back in with a brown bag full of cash and said, “Turn that grass into a parking lot and don’t tell anyone I gave it to you.”
Nate Ryan contributed to this story