​I Remember You ~ Dale Earnhardt ~

​A note to my gentle readers:

What follows is my own personal tribute to the greatest driver ever to sit behind a steering wheel. This article has been seen at other times and other places, but on the 20th anniversary of the day the light went out of racing, it seemed appropriate to present it once again and weep one more time. The style employed here is not my usual writing. It was just too painful to write about Dale in the past tense, so instead, I wrote to him. It didn’t help; I cried all the way through it back then, and if a few of the words seem a bit blurry this time around, well… tears will do that, even after all these years.

Come, walk with me down Memory Lane once again and allow me to share with you my memories.

I Remember You

In loving memory of Ralph Dale Earnhardt

April 29, 1951 – February 18, 2001

I remember you!

I remember 1979, when you were a rookie on the Winston Cup circuit (It was called “Grand National” back then), driving for Rod Osterlund in the ride Dave Marcis gave up to start his own team. You even won a race that year at Bristol and won Rookie of the Year honors easily. Back in those days, rookies didn’t win races and that made you very special. It would be many years later before we knew just how special you were.

I remember you!

I remember how you won the Championship in 1980, in only your second year of racing. Many drivers spend that year in what they call “the sophomore slump”, but not you! Instead, you chalked up five wins to finish first in points. No one else has ever been Rookie of the Year and Winston Cup Champion in two successive years. You bested Cale Yarborough, who had been my favorite driver for many years, to win that Championship. About that time, a different light began to shine in my eyes.

I remember your mop of unkempt hair replete with long sideburns, that signature mustache (also unkempt) and a cowboy hat slouched down over your eyes. The Gargoyles had not yet become a part of your uniform back then.
I remember a lot of folks thinking you were too pushy and way too cocky for a young newcomer, but for my part, I was already getting glimpses of what your future could be; seeing those flashes of brilliance that reveal the potential yet to be realized.

I remember you!

I remember when Rod Osterlund sold the whole team to J.D. Stacy in the middle of 1981, and within 4 races, you quit the team. I remember Wrangler Jeans moving their sponsorship to Richard Childress’ car, with the stipulation that you would drive the car, not Richard. That year turned out to be a racing disaster, with no numbers in the win column for you, but looking back, it had to be one of the best also, because it put you and Richard together for the first time, and we all know how that turned out.

I remember you!

I remember that for the years 1982 and 1983 you drove Bud Moore’s #15 Ford, still with the Wrangler Sponsorship and the blue and yellow colors that had become your trademark. I remember, at the end of the 1982 season, you married Teresa Houston, a longtime friend who had been by your side for several years.

I remember you!

I remember your return to Richard Childress Racing in 1984, in a carefully engineered driver swap between Childress and Moore, so that Ricky Rudd became Moore’s driver, and you became Richard’s again. The Wrangler sponsorship moved with you to Childress Racing, but for that year only, they also stayed on Moore’s car, so there were two blue and yellow Wrangler cars that year, the #15, and the #3. A dynasty was in the making.

1984 Dale Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd

I remember you!

I remember watching you struggle just a bit through 1984 and 1985, trying to regain that Championship form. I watched you and Richard grow closer as friends and watched the entire team slowly improve because of that. It wasn’t that those years were bad ones! RCR was 4th and 8th in the point standings, respectively, and you had long carried the well-earned nickname of “One Tough Customer”, which coincidentally applied to Wrangler Jeans as well as the man who wore them.

I remember you!

I remember 1986 almost as if it were yesterday. That was the year they christened you “The Intimidator.” First, I remember the Daytona 500 that year, when you had a great car, but ran out of gas at the end, allowing Geoff Bodine to take the win. I guess that was the first of the many creative ways you found not to win that elusive race. Then, of course, I remember Richmond the following week, when you and a not so ol’ DW beat and banged on each other through the whole race. Right there at the end, I guess you got a bit impatient and gave him one final rap, putting both of you into the wall and collecting Bodine and Joe Ruttman as well. There were only five cars left on the lead lap, and as a reward for being nowhere near the leaders, a young Kyle Petty got his first Winston Cup win.

Seems to me I also remember DW, with a badly broken car and steam coming from his ears, slamming your car one more time for good measure, after the race was over. NASCAR was less than pleased with the whole affair. They fined you $3000.00, along with putting you on probation. They finally did lift the probation, but the fine and the nickname stayed. Yet, for all of that, you won five races that year and your second Winston Cup Championship.

I remember you!

I remember 1987, arguably your best year ever, when you won 11 races and scored your third Championship by a whopping 288 points over Darrell Waltrip. Impressive stuff! Still, what I remember best about that year was The Winston All-star race and the now famous “Pass in the Grass.” Heck, as I look up at the wall in front of me, there is a 3×4-foot poster of that race, mounted on wood and laminated, showing all the participants and several scenes from the race.

Truth to tell, it never was a pass. You were in the lead when the #9-car body slammed you, still in the lead when you drove through the grass and by golly, still in the lead when you got all four wheels back on the track. Nice piece of driving there! Of course, there was that thing about helping Bill up into the marbles afterwards, and the fine NASCAR levied on the wrong driver, but what the heck! It helped build your reputation as an Intimidator.

I remember you!

I remember 1988, when Vanity Fair had bought up Wrangler Jeans and that company decided not to continue with sponsorship in Winston Cup. The fans anxiously waited to see who the new sponsor would be and what your new car would look like. The sponsor, of course, turned out to be Goodwrench, and the car an almost unheard of solid black with red on the interior. Pretty sharp, all the same! That color scheme and maybe just a bit of your personality and driving style, would earn you yet another nickname, this time spoken with utter respect, “The Man in Black” I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed just a bit from that in creating my “Lady in Black” character. Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.I remember you!

Through 1988 and 1989, you remained at the top of the racing game, though Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace took home the big prize in those years. Certainly, I remember you in 1990. That was the year when you won the Daytona 499, dominating the race only to cut down a tire on the last lap and watch Derrike Cope go on to victory.

I remember being at Martinsville in April of that year and strolling out to the souvenir trailers. As we were crossing the access road into the track, I looked to my left to see a big black Chevy Blazer waiting for the pedestrian traffic to clear. No one else seemed to recognize you, but for sure, I did, as I stopped and stared, I’m sure with my mouth open and hopefully not drooling. I guess I stood there long enough for others to look too, and a small crowd gathered around the truck seeking autographs, which you were kind enough to sign. Since I’d been the one in front of you, I was the last to get to meet you, and I stammered something about being afraid you would have to leave before I got there. You patted me on the arm and said, “Don’t worry Darlin’, we won’t disappoint you.” I got your autograph that day, which I had laminated so that it might last forever, but I also got the wonderful memory of one tiny moment in time, when I actually got to meet my hero. Thank you for that!

I remember 1990 as the year when you returned to the top and won your fourth Winston Cup Championship, along with your first IROC (International Race of Champions) Championship. The year 1991 saw you take your fifth Championship in Winston Cup, and folks were beginning to wonder if Richard Petty’s seemingly unassailable record of seven might be threatened. Alternately, it was also the year that a seagull flew into your grill at the Daytona 500, causing the car to overheat. Once more, a dominant car lost the race through circumstances no one could foresee.

I remember you!

I remember 1992 as being a year I’m sure you would rather forget, with only one win and an unseemly 12th place finish in the points. Folks who weren’t your fans were saying that you had reached the end of the line. Some speculated that you were too old to compete or were “burned out.” Heck, at the end of that year, your long-time crew chief, Kirk Shelmerdine, quit the team and things looked rather bleak, but Richard rose to the occasion and hired exactly the right replacement in Andy Petree. Together, you and Andy went right back to the top and put together two more Championship runs in 1993 and 1994. They would be your sixth and that record tying seventh. You might have broken the record in 1995 but had to settle for second place behind a young newcomer named Gordon. You did take home your second IROC trophy that year though, so it wasn’t a total loss.

I remember you!

I remember that 1996 wasn’t the best of years for you. Even though you managed to finish 4th in the points, there was that awful wreck at Talladega that left you with broken bones and a lot of pain. The next week, you had to get out of the car after only a few laps at Indy and let Mike Skinner take over the wheel. Anyone looking at your face knew that was a very different kind of pain. At the end of that season, Andy Petree left the team to accept what he said was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse, the ownership of the retiring Leo Jackson’s #33 team.

I remember being very excited on hearing the news that Richard had signed Larry McReynolds as your crew chief for 1997, but my hopes for a “dream team” were quieted, as I’m sure yours were when you went winless in 1997 for the first time since 1981. There was a lot of speculation that you never quite got over the injuries from the Talladega wreck, and of course, the detractors said that you’d lost your nerve, but I knew that wasn’t true. You did nearly scare me to death at the Southern 500 that year though, when you passed out at the wheel before the start of the race. That was a weird thing, but I’m sure you know that better than I do. Between your doctors and NASCAR, you got clearance to go on racing, and I guess they never did figure out what caused that.

I remember you!

I remember the 1998 season beginning as they all do, full of hope for every driver and team, with that clean slate waiting to be written on, and what a signature you put on it at Daytona! In the 40th year of the Daytona 500 and your 20th attempt to win it, you were not about to be denied again. Like many of your fans, who had hoped so much to see you finally win it, I was on my feet, screaming and cheering as you took the checkers that day. (I was in my living room.) What came next was a sight that race fans will never forget, as every crewmember from every team and all the NASCAR officials in the pits as well, lined up on pit road just to shake the hand of the Master. Decidedly no driver, before or since, has been shown the honor and respect that were heaped upon you that day by your peers. Not even trying to choke back the tears that fell, I watched you wheel that famous black car into the grass and cut the #3 into the turf, just as clearly as could be! When asked what your feelings were about finally winning that elusive prize, you commented, “I wish that at some point in their lives, everyone could experience the feeling I had at Daytona.” It was a special day for your fans and a far more special day for you.

1998 Daytona 500

Unfortunately, that would prove to be the only race you won that year, and it seemed your entire team was struggling for balance. Once more, Richard waved his magic wand, this time swapping crew chiefs between your team and the team of Mike Skinner, with McReynolds moving to the #31 team and Kevin Hamlin becoming your new crew chief. Once again, Richard’s intuition would prove itself, as things got back on track.

I remember you!

I remember 1999, when you returned to Victory Lane three times, and won a third IROC Championship as well. You only managed a 7th place points finish that year, but that was about to improve markedly. In the year 2000, you’d win yet another IROC Championship, and finish second to Bobby Labonte in Winston Cup points. So near to that record-breaking #8! So very near!

I remember you!

I remember the Daytona 500 in 2001, although I wish I could forget it. Like everyone else, mostly I remember the end of that race. On the last lap, you were running in third place, but your own two cars from DEI, driven by Mikey Waltrip and your namesake, Dale Jr., were running first and second. When your car reached the fourth turn, it looked as though you might have done a bit of blocking to keep Sterling Marlin behind you, and the two cars made very slight contact. The cameras, of course, were on the two DEI cars, streaking toward the finish line, but in the corner of the screen, those of us that always watched the black car could see a car jerk to the right, then see a second car strike it on its way to the wall. I knew in an instant that it was your car, but never thought to worry at the time. Sure, it would be disappointing to lose it in the fourth turn one more time, but that was the year you were going to win that 8th Championship. Right? I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I remember how it slowly began to dawn on everyone that it was taking you a very long time to climb from that car. I remember Mikey in Victory Lane, so happy with his first win, after so many tries. I remember him craning his neck, trying to see back to that fourth turn when he realized that you weren’t there with him. I remember Junior, on a dead run to get back to your car, and I remember Darrell Waltrip, in his initial stint as a FOX broadcaster, so elated at first for his brother Mikey, then slowly coming to the realization that something might be very much amiss with his long-time friend. Mostly, I remember Kenny Schrader, the driver of the second car in the accident, and the look on his face when he turned away from your car, which he’d hurried to as soon as the cars came to a stop. I think most of us who have known Kenny over the years were very sure in that instant that something precious had been lost.

I remember FOX going off the air, leaving the fans to wait and wonder. I remember spending the next hour or more, alternately switching sports channels and searching the Internet for any news. I remember praying… a lot! Then I remember Mike Helton as that big, gruff man choked on his own tears when he had to deliver in a shaking voice, the words “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

Well Dale, it’s been 20 years since you left us, but as I sit here, looking at your picture and once more awash in tears, it seems like only yesterday. Nothing was the same after that day in Daytona and for so many of us, it will never be the same again. When you left, it was as though a bright light had been turned off and all the luster that had been racing was gone, leaving only darkness.

Today, I’m thankful that I have this fortune in memories, and that I’m able to share them with my gentle readers. All I can say to you now Dale is, “I still remember you…and always will.”

Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!

~PattyKay 

(Editor’s note: This story is publish with the permission from the author! It was originally published on RaceFansForever; I Remember You ~ Dale Earnhardt ~ 20 Years (racefansforever.org) )

4 comments

  1. Dear my. This is almost like when I got Davey Allison autograph at a Ford dealership in Belmont, then 25 years later, his son’s. I wasn’t an Earnhardt fan until 99′ and then I met him and he took the time to talk to me for 10 minutes!!!! (with people in line, waiting). Unfortunate thing for me was that I was in college at the time and when Waltrip said, “I hope Dale’s okay. I’m sure he’s okay, isn’t he?” and I knew then. I wanted to see that 8th championship. I wished Jr would have gotten one–what a celebration that would have been. I sometimes wonder what NASCAR would be if Senior were here–but you can’t change the past, only plan for the future. Great article.

  2. You are one among millions that have wondered that same thing, but ALAS, we shall never know. As for Darrell, that was his very first broadcast for FOX, and he really thought the whole show was about him. In light of the truth we would all soon know, I found his comment to be self-serving and disturbing. I tried hard to keep those feelings OUT of the finished article. I wanted this one to be all about Dale and ONLY Dale.
    ~PattyKay

  3. This one gets me every time, no matter how many times I have read it over the years. In my opinion, it has to be my favorite of all the ones you have written. I thank you, once again, and yes, tears still come for me, too…

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