The Tale Of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

By Jack Labens

Even to those who don’t follow NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was and may always been a household name. No other racecar driver in recent history has made such an impact on the country the way he did. His open smile and casual and friendly demeanor ingratiated him to an American population in a way that made NASCAR a much more well-known sport.

Dale Earnhardt, Sr. started his professional racing career at 24 years of age. His father, Ralph Earnhardt, was a short-track driver in their home state of North Carolina. Going against his father’s wishes, Earnhardt started skipping school to race cars, and when Ralph died in 1973 Dale still felt like he had a lot to prove.

By then he was already a husband for the second time and the father of two children. He married Latane Brown when he was a young 17 years of age in 1968 and their chaild, Kerry, was born in 1969. In 1970 Dale and Latane got divorced, and Dale got remarried to the child of a car builder for NASCAR in 1971. That wife’s name was Brenda Gee, and they had their first child together in 1972 (Kelly), and a son named Ralph Dale Jr. in 1974, after Dale Sr.’s father had passed away. Dale and Brenda divorced soon after Dale Jr. was born.

In 1975, Dale Sr. debuted at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the World 600 – the longest race on the Winston Cup circuit. He finished 22nd. The next four years would see Dale compete in eight more races before he joined Rod Osterlund Racing at the same time as Harry Gant and Terry Labonte. Thus began his actual ‘rookie season.’

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During this time, Earnhardt won a race at Bristol, had eleven Top 5 finishes, seventeen Top 10 finishes, won Rookie of the Year, and broke his collarbone. During his sophomore season Earnhardt won the Busch Clash, and won at Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Nashville, and Martinsville, and he won his first Winston Cup championship.

Osterlund then sold his racing team, so Earnhardt left and joined Richard Childress Racing in 1981. In 1982, Earnhardt married Teresa Houston, who would be his wife for the rest of his life. In the 1982 season, Dale won at Darlington, but failed to complete fifteen races and had the worst season of his career, in addition to breaking a knee cap at Pocono Raceway. Dale bounced back in 1983, winning the first of many Twin 125 Daytona 500 qualifiers, and he won at Talladega and at Nashville.

In 1986 Dale Earnhardt Sr. won his second Winston Cup Championship, as well as five races and he had ten Top 5 and sixteen Top 10 finishes. Breaking NASCAR’s record in consecutive wins, by 1987 Dale was known as ‘The Intimidator,’ and was on his way to becoming famous.

1988 saw the birth of his fourth child, Taylor Nichole, and it saw him winning three races that same year.

The 1990s were a whirlwind of ups and downs, the highlights being his beating of Richard Petty’s World Cup Championship Record in 1994 at seven wins and his 1998 victory winning the Daytona 500 after 20 tries. In 2000 there was talk of Earnhardt’s retirement, as his son, Dale Jr., was entering the racing scene. It wasn’t true, and Earnhardt Sr. continued to race, though his performance wasn’t up to his normal standards.

At the Daytona 500 in 2001, Earnhardt started out the race in a confident manner. He was driving well, and he seemed to be showing some of his old promise. He fell back a bit, but when his #3 car made contact with Sterling Martin’s front bumper he lost control, slid off the track, collided with #36, and crashed into the wall at a lethal 160 miles per hour.

He was rushed to Halifax Medical Center, where he died of a basilar skull fracture. Love him or hate him, he was one of the most prominent figures in NASCAR History, and he paved the way for the sport as it exists today.

About the Author: Jack Labens works for Empire Covers, a leading provider of

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