Dale Earnhardt

From Ironhead to the Intimidator

Dale Earnhardt, like many of today's NASCAR greats, was born into a racing family. His father, Ralph Earnhardt, raced with Junior Johnson, and had a similar reputation for being a fierce competitor on the track. Ralph Earnhardt even won NASCAR's modified division championship one year. Dale knew he wanted to race from a young age, and he helped his father out around the shop when he was old enough. Soon Dale was becoming a successful driver in his own right, winning 26 races in only his second year of driving. But when his father died suddenly of a massive heart attack, 19 year-old Dale Earnhardt was left without a guide and without a clue as to what to do. Dale kept struggling in the racing world, trying to make it to the big time. He lived in trailors and cheap apartments, worked odd jobs while trying to save money for parts, and went through two divorces. Earnhardt had a tough road to becoming the 7 time NASCAR champion and all-time NASCAR prize money leader that he is today.

NASCAR drivers are independently contracted individuals that are hired by the racing teams to render their services on the track. But in order for a driver to make it to the Winston Cup circuit, he has to make it on his own for a while and prove his worth in the minor leagues of racing. He has to pay his dues at the dirt tracks and in cars put together in the back yard after a long day of work. Unless a driver is born into great wealth, this is what they must do to become great. Behind most successful NASCAR drivers, including Earnhardt, there is a pleasant sort of Horatio Alger American Dream story. Racing is one of the few professional sports that still has a lively and meaningful "farm system." Where baseball's minor leagues have declined in interest since baseball began to be on television with regularity, lower levels of racing have kept going strong. This interest at the local level is part of the rugged spirit of NASCAR, and for fans it lends legitemacy to those drivers in the big leagues knowing they had to work long and hard and prove themselves in order to get there.

Early in his career, Earnhardt earned the knickname Ironhead because of his stubbornness. Many people thought he was a dangerous racer and caused accidents because of his recklessness. He has been successful nevertheless. Earnhardt is the only driver ever to win rookie of the year honors and the Winston Cup championship in consecutive years, 1979 and 1980. Earnhardt has gone on to win 7 Winston Cup championships in all, only needing one more to eclipse the record of Richard Petty and be the all time points championship leader. (Note: Winston Cup is now the highest circuit of racing, sponsored primarily by the tobacco company. Drivers accumulate points in an intricate system and at the end of the season the driver with the most points wins the championship. Grand National racing is still around; today it's something like the AAA level in baseball, one step below the big leagues.)

Nearly every current book on racing mentions makes one simple analogy to describe Earnhardt's popularity with race fans. Dale Earnhardt is the Michael Jordan of NASCAR. He has matured over the years as a driver, and though he is still involved in nasty wrecks from time to time, he is now known by the more imposing and positive knickname, the Intimidator. He is the man in black, mild mannered and generally softspoken, but that just makes him all the more intimidating. Earnhardt has a rebellious streak in him, not unlike that of Junior Johnson. Seeing Earnhardt in the rear view mirror is not something most drivers look forward to, at least that is how the knickname is supposed to go. As author Mark Howell says, "This is the stuff folk heroes are made of" (Howell 131). Dale Earnhardt is arguably the best driver to ever sit behind the wheel of a stock car, and he is still going strong. As of Earnhardts 46th birthday, (born 1951) Robert Hagstrom reports that he still, "gets up at 5:00 A.M. every morning...the competitive fire still burns deep inside him...There is no one who believes he has lost the ability to drive a race car on the edge" (Hagstrom 156). This year, 1998, Dale finally won the single greatest racing prize which had eluded him for twenty years. At last, after many heartbreaking losses and second place finishes, he won the Daytona 500.

"Earnhardt is the resurrected Confederate soldier...Where [Richard] Petty was always compliant, Earnhardt will stand his ground and say, 'I'm not going to do that.' And the people who love him are the people who are told, every day, what to do and what not to do, and they've got all those rules and regulations to go by. That just draws them closer to him" --H.A. Wheeler, qtd. in Howell 131

Commercialization and Expansion


Barney Oldfield Junior Johnson Dale Earnhardt