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Inside NASCAR: Earnhardt's everlasting legacy

February 10, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Ten years later, icon's legacy continues to endure in the sport he left behind

The statue stands in a tidy brick plaza just off Main Street, in a part of downtown Kannapolis, N.C., that was once in the shadow of a textile mill. Dale Earnhardt, all nine feet and 900 bronze-cast pounds of him, stares down with that little smirk, his arms folded, looking as sharp as ever in his Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. It's a cold, rainy, weekday morning, so there are no visitors around, no pilgrims paying homage to the native of this hamlet who lost his life 10 years ago. Earnhardt, who made his living amid so much noise and chaos, stands watch this day over a small patch of quiet.

The memorial was dedicated in October 2002, and by design, it's a place heavy on symbolism. The statue's pedestal is made of seven granite sections, one for each of Earnhardt's NASCAR championships, while the inside wall is comprised of 76 sections, one for each of his race victories. Flowers are planted in groups of three, in tribute to the late driver's iconic car number. At night the statue is lit by eight lights, commemorating the car number of Earnhardt's late father, Ralph. The surrounding walkway is in the shape of an oval, as if to signify a race track.

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

But the items that evoke the most emotion are far more personal. Many of the benches surrounding the statue bear plaques identifying donors, with messages such as "My friend forever," or "He was the man." There are more messages on the bricks that comprise the plaza, often anonymous missives such as "I will never forget you" or "Happiness is the 1998 Daytona 500." There are tributes from locals, to be sure, but also from devotees from Massachusetts and Iowa and Ohio and New Jersey and Maryland, and a large black monument donated by fans in New York and Vermont. All of it is testimony to Earnhardt's broad appeal, to the man who through his life and death brought NASCAR to the pinnacle, to the one driver who so many could look at and see a little of themselves.

"He put on no airs, made no excuses, didn't hide in his motor home, and really cared for his fans," recalled former Charlotte Motor Speedway promoter Humpy Wheeler, who now runs a consulting firm. "The mom and pops who worked for a living, the shrimp boat operators, the guy on the 'dozer, the carpenter and the welder were all his people who totally related to this man who came up from the bottom."

Those people were moved en masse after the events of Feb. 18, 2001, when Earnhardt died from a skull fracture suffered in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. There were memorials, candlelight vigils, the unveiling of statues in Daytona Beach and Kannapolis, No. 3s flanked by angel wings stuck to the back windows of pickup trucks from coast to coat. The outpouring of love and loss was unlike anything NASCAR had ever seen. Fans lost an iconic driver, of course, but also someone they viewed as one of their own -- a working man who had made it big. His famous, script numeral began to appear on toolboxes, fire helmets and hard hats. They mourned Earnhardt the way they would have a brother or an uncle, as the messages on those bricks around his statue would attest.

"You would see him working on his farm, throwing hay with his cattle or working his chickens. He worked every day, and he enjoyed it," former car owner Richard Childress said. "And that's what the fans loved about him. ... I'd call him on his cell, if he'd answer it at that time. [He'd say,] 'I'm upstairs at the chicken house right now, I'll call you back,' or he'd be out mowing. He was a working man, and he related to our working-style race fans."

But time, they say, heals all wounds. A decade has now passed since that dark day at Daytona, and commemorations of Earnhardt have morphed from grief into respectful remembrance. His fan base is 10 years older, has been rocked by an economic recession, and flips on the television to see a sport that's very different from the one the Intimidator left behind him in 2001. Four races from traditional tracks have been moved to other locales, and only eight full-time Sprint Cup drivers remain from that 2001 Daytona 500 field. The sport is also eminently safer, with head-and-neck restraining devices, full helmets, impact-absorbent walls and next-generation vehicles the standard.

Earnhardt's legacy lives every time a driver walks away from a crash, a fact that is inarguable given how his death spurred needed safety improvements throughout the sport. And yet, in a broader sense, time has changed him into a more mythical figure, and one not quite as easily defined. So many of today's competitors, both in the race cars and the garage area, never even knew him, much less experienced the stomach-tightening sensation of seeing that black Goodwrench car looming in the rearview mirror. So many fans, even in a sport that struggles to draw younger demographics, remember him only from television. There aren't as many No. 3 caps in the grandstand, aren't as many people around the Earnhardt souvenir hauler that still makes the trek to race weekends. There aren't as many who can separate the myth from the man, and truly appreciate the contributions of the latter.

"Richard Petty is in the garage area, and he's the one who put NASCAR racing on the map. But I don't think people grasp all he did for the sport sometimes, and that's sad," said Michael Waltrip, who won that 2001 Daytona 500 driving for Earnhardt's race team. "Dale's the same way. That's just nature. People just move on."

It's enough to make you wonder if, outside the safety arena, the Intimidator's influence has somehow faded with time, if 10 years have eroded the Earnhardt legacy like waves beating against a shoreline. And then you realize that 185,000 fans visit the Dale Earnhardt Inc. shop each year even though it doesn't field an active race team anymore. And then you realize that there are still people in both the technical and business sides of NASCAR who use the lessons they learned from Earnhardt every day. And then you realize that some of the young drivers coming up in the sport saw Earnhardt as a hero, and learned lessons from old No. 3 even if they never had the chance to compete against him. And then you meet those who knew him, and hear the stories that are passed down from one generation to another, and realize that even in the afterlife, Earnhardt is alive and well.

Ten years have passed. Much has changed since that sunny afternoon when Earnhardt's car bobbled and veered off on that dreadful tangent toward the fourth-turn wall at Daytona. And yet, in many ways, much has remained the same.

It's the week before opening practice at Daytona International Speedway, and Rex Garrett has the throttle down even though he doesn't drive a race car. Dale Earnhardt Inc. hasn't fielded an active race team out of its primary shop since 2007, but inside the "Garage Mahal," the organization's remaining employees are still at work, providing parts and research and development for other teams that can't do so on their own. And that work is being done as if Earnhardt were still there to oversee it himself.

You hear stories about how he loved the place, about how back in DEI's heyday employees would arrive before 6 a.m. and discover the Intimidator already in his office, wondering where everyone else was. As gatekeeper to the late driver's legacy program, DEI is the curator of all things Earnhardt, from his likeness to his official fan club to the events that honor him today. But Earnhardt's legacy still lives and breathes over in the old race shop, where men he hired carry on work the way he would have wanted it done.

"The way that Dale wanted us departmental leaders, and I'm not the only one, to handle our departments, we still do to this very day," said Garrett, director of the entity now known as Earnhardt Technologies Group, and hired by the man himself 13 years ago. "And maybe that's a testimony to why this particular department, along with some others here, have become a valuable asset to NASCAR teams."

It's easy to see the Earnhardt influence in men like Garrett, originally brought on board to run DEI's powertrain division. There's also engineering head Dave Charpentier, parts department head Randy Earnhardt, and machine center head Gaston Shealy -- all of whom were Earnhardt hires. It's easy to see Earnhardt's attention to detail in his insistence that everything possible be made in-house, lessening the emphasis on vendors, and allowing him to assert a greater degree of quality control. That's standard operating procedure now for top teams that vie for the Sprint Cup title. But more than a decade ago, it wasn't.

It's easy to see Earnhardt's predilection for horsepower in the powertrain dynamometer that he had installed in his shop. It was a large and costly machine, and something few teams had in-house at the time. But just as Earnhardt foreshadowed the era of super shops by opening DEI's glass and granite palace, he was ahead of his time in placing so many pieces of equipment under one roof. "It was a large expense to Dale, but he wanted to make sure that our equipment was top-notch, the best you could get," Garrett remembered of the dynamometer, which the Technologies Group still uses today. "That's just one of many tools that, when we were building up DEI, Dale wanted to make sure we had."

Earnhardt's love of strong engines, so evident in the way both he and his DEI cars excelled on big tracks that put a premium on horsepower, lives on in the unsurpassed power plants turned out by Earnhardt-Childress Engines, a collaboration of the team he owned and the one he once drove for. And yet, his influence is felt beyond just the race track. For someone who dropped out of high school to follow his father into racing, Earnhardt was a shrewd businessman who made decisions that belied his relative lack of formal education.

Earnhardt was among the first drivers to consolidate his own merchandising, modernizing an effort where T-shirts were once sold in the grandstand out of cardboard boxes, and prompting others to follow suit. The race team he built from the ground up, beginning with a single Busch Series car, became one of the sport's giants partly thanks to sponsors attracted by Earnhardt's tremendous commercial appeal. Even now, a decade later, his merchandise still moves, although not at the rate it once did. In NASCAR.COM Superstore sales, Earnhardt ranked seventh in 2010 driver sales. As recently as 2004, he was third.

"No disrespect to anybody else, but there was nobody as powerful in the licensing and marketing world as Dale Earnhardt, except perhaps for his son, stepping in there and filling the gap," said Don Hawk, president of DEI from 1993-2000, and now vice president of business affairs at Speedway Motorsports Inc.

"I was just in a meeting the other day with leading driver representatives, NASCAR, and another company, and they were at an impasse in their discussion about what to do or not to do on this particular business deal. I am telling you that one of the key players in that room looked at me -- and it was John Bickford, Jeff Gordon's stepfather -- who said, 'This is one of those times, Hawk, where I would pick up the phone and call you and say, what would Dale Earnhardt do?' He turned to his left, and I was sitting right there and said, 'What do you think Dale would do?' I gave him what I thought Dale would do. ... He impacts business today."

And if he were around today? If he had survived that crash at Daytona and completed his career? Would he be restless outside of the car, perhaps micromanaging every small corner of his empire, still holding his people to the same stringent standards to which he always held himself? Would the dynamism and cachet of Earnhardt the driver have translated into retirement? One man has no doubt.

"He would be what [Rick] Hendrick is to the sport," said Ty Norris, former vice president at DEI, and now vice president and general manager at Michael Waltrip Racing. "I feel strongly he would be that champion owner, champion driver. He would have that No. 1 spot."

Over at DEI that has to be something of a wistful notion, given what the organization was under Earnhardt, and what remains of it today. The team struggled to find sponsorship, and then endured a painful contraction after its on-track efforts were merged with Chip Ganassi Racing at the height of the recession. Now, only about 100 employees still work under the DEI banner. Yet they do so with a clear direction from their founder, who may not be in the office before 6 a.m. anymore, but continues to provide their guiding principles.

"We all try to operate and handle ourselves in a fashion that Dale would be proud of," Garrett said. "I'd like to think that if Dale dropped in today, he wouldn't be mad at what we've done."

As a mentor, Dale Earnhardt could be a stern taskmaster. There was no diplomacy in his instruction, only frank criticism and abrupt recommendations for improvement. Former DEI driver Steve Park once went to his boss for advice after qualifying 32nd at Bristol Motor Speedway and nearly missing the race. In return he received an earful, but also the guidance he needed to get better.

"He told Dale, 'I can't get around this place.' I was in Dale's office when he was explaining this stuff to Steve," Norris remembered. "He told him, 'There's a mark on the wall, you do this. When you get to the bottom, you hit the gas. When you hit a little bump, you go half-throttle, and as soon as that car lands you hit the throttle again.' He said, 'You can't just stab it.' He drew it on the map. We went back for a race at Bristol and Steve Park was on the pole. I was like, that was impressive."

And yet not completely surprising, given Earnhardt's prowess as a driver. He won races and championships, but he also left behind a legacy of how to ply his trade -- whether in the benefits (or price) of strategically-timed aggressiveness on the race track, or tactics on restrictor-plate venues that are still in use today. The swagger, cockiness and bravado Earnhardt displayed each time he slipped into his firesuit are carried on by current drivers who aren't shy about using their front fender. The moves he used to barrel to the front at places like Daytona and Talladega have since become standard.

"Taking nothing away from the talent of today, but nobody could handle a car on a restrictor-plate track like that man. Just nobody," said Don Hawk.

"You watch restrictor-plate racing before Earnhardt did this, they used to go two-wide. He found a hole the year Tony Stewart was a rookie down the middle, and all of the sudden everybody decided the middle was either the place to be, or the place to get the shaft and get moved all the way to the back. But Earnhardt found that. You can watch videos of the races from '92, '91, '90, nobody was flirting with the middle. That year Tony Stewart was a rookie, and Dale and Tony Stewart hooked up down the middle, I'm telling you, Tony thought it was crazy. Dale said, 'Jump along.'

"You know what he found? He found new air. Many times coming through the tri-oval, he would drop his race car down and lift it back up again. It was side air. He got that push, which he found out in the wind tunnel you could get. You can look at it from the bottom to the top, he looked like he was squeezing you, but he never touched you. The thing is, he could hear the air in the race car. By how the air was in the race car rushing around, he could tell if the car behind him was on his right, his left, or in the middle. I can't go to the race track without thinking of him, and I've got news for you -- I don't think many of the competitors who raced against him can, either."

And yet, times are changing. The starting field in last season's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway featured only 12 drivers who had ever competed against Earnhardt at the Cup level, a number that will surely drop this year. The sport is getting younger, and many drivers in NASCAR's national levels never even met Earnhardt, much less raced against him. "Some of them in their back of their minds have to think, 'I wish I had the chance to race against that guy,'" Hawk said. "They'd like to have had that feel of, 'That's Earnhardt on my bumper -- what do I do with it?'"

But that dilution of first-hand knowledge hasn't necessary diluted Earnhardt's influence on starting fields. Younger drivers in NASCAR today may not have known the Intimidator as a fellow competitor, but they did know him as a racing hero, someone they watched on television, or -- if they were very lucky -- once got to meet. Earnhardt is as alive in their memories as he is in the minds of the men who raced directly against him, even if he's perceived in a different way.

"I grew up a huge, huge Dale Earnhardt fan. Huge," said Aric Almirola, who was 16 when Earnhardt died, and now drives for the JR Motorsports Nationwide team owned by his children Dale Jr. and Kelley. "When I watched the races on Sunday, I used to jump up and down on the couch and root for that black No. 3. I felt like a huge fan, and through all of that, I built my own impressions of who I thought he was as man and as a race car driver. And now to be here and have worked with the teams that I have and been a part of the Earnhardt [history] with Dale Jr. and Kelley, and to learn more about Dale Jr. and Kelley, it lives up to all my expectations on who he was."

Almirola raced briefly at DEI before his No. 8 car -- which had once been Dale Jr.'s -- was shuttered due to sponsorship shortages. More recently, he's gotten to know old Earnhardt family friends like Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr., who both work at JR Motorsports. "The stories you hear about him are so cool," he said. And the lessons still apply, even if Earnhardt isn't around to deliver them in his own brusque style. "He could take a 10th-place car and win with it," Almirola added. "He would find a way to be successful, and that's the one thing I try to take from him."

So many have Earnhardt memories, even if they didn't know Earnhardt at all. Reigning Nationwide Series rookie of the year Ricky Stenhouse Jr. met Earnhardt at an appearance when he was about a year old, and his mother has the photo of the Intimidator holding her baby boy. Growing up in Mississippi, Stenhouse was more a Jeff Gordon fan -- the four-time champ came from sprint cars, which Stenhouse raced -- but his father was an Earnhardt admirer, and eventually Ricky Jr. wound up with posters of that menacing No. 3 car on his wall, too.

"As far as a race car driver and a businessman, I think he's one of the best," said Stenhouse, 13 at the time of Earnhardt's fatal accident. "He built DEI up and turned it into a top-notch organization. He was always one that you had to beat, and I think everybody wants to be that guy. Everybody wants to be the Intimidator. When people see you coming, you want them to feel that way. Obviously, I never raced with him, but from what I can tell, he always made thing go his way, and I thought that was kind of cool. If things weren't going quite like he wanted, I felt like he could change it and make it go the way he wanted."

Justin Allgaier, who won his first race on the Nationwide tour last year, had a few inside sources. His father supplied tires to ARCA teams, so a young Justin attended some NASCAR races with his dad during the Hoosier-Goodyear tire wars of the late 1980s and early '90s. The Illinois native met Earnhardt once, though it was a very brief encounter. "Unfortunately it was kind of in passing, and it wasn't the meeting I would have liked to have had," said Allgaier, 14 when Earnhardt died. "At the same time, as a kid to meet him -- how cool is that?"

Allgaier's family is also friends with Ken Schrader, a contemporary of Earnhardt's on the Cup circuit. "Ken Schrader was a good friend of my family's and also a good friend of Dale's, so I got to listen to some of the stories and to hear some of his thoughts," Allgaier said. "I give Ken a lot of respect for his opinion, and I like to listen to what he has to say, and I trust in him in a lot of things. So to hear his recollections of Dale, and even during the time Dale was around, to hear some of his thoughts ... I'm a huge fan, and I always will be, of Dale's."

Mike Dillon's boys are, too. The RCR vice president -- and son-in-law of Richard Childress -- has two sons in racing, 20-year-old Camping World Truck Series driver Austin and 18-year-old ARCA pilot Ty, and Earnhardt has been a part of their lives since the beginning. The Dillon family has memories of their little boys with the Intimidator in Victory Lane. They may have been too young to understand his influence then, but they know now. They've heard the Earnhardt stories from their dad and grandfather so many times, that they know them by heart. Like many other young drivers, they've become guardians of the Earnhardt legacy despite never having competed against the man.

"It's funny, Austin's favorite movie star is John Wayne. He knows all the movies, knows the characters by what they're wearing," Mike Dillon said. "Dale was the same way. That's who he is. He's very influential."

The garage area is full of Dale Earnhardt stories, and few people tell a better one than Felix Sabates. The minority owner of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing remembers that former series chairman Bill France Jr. had such respect for Earnhardt, that France had a radio connected straight into the No. 3 car. Since he knew others were listening, France didn't use his real name. When he spoke to the Intimidator while the cars were circling the race track, he used the strangest of pseudonyms -- Captain Jack.

"When a driver would say, 'What about debris in Turn 3?' Bill would pick up the radio and say, 'Is there anything in Turn 3?' 'No, Captain Jack, there isn't,'" Sabates said Earnhardt would respond. "I had that channel, and [Earnhardt] never once took advantage of that situation. He always told Bill the truth. If he was two laps down, they'd start talking about fishing. Bill and Dale had a relationship. They had a bond between those two, and they trusted and believed in each other. That doesn't exist today with the new drivers. It just doesn't happen."

Such was the weight that Earnhardt carried in his sport, something that hasn't been seen since that dark day at Daytona 10 years ago. "No one equaled his respect from the other drivers, from NASCAR, from the track operators. If Dale said X, then X happened," Ty Norris said. "Today when Jeff Gordon says X, they take it into consideration. There's a big difference. ... When Dale was firm about something, they would listen and react."

Those days are gone, carried away into the hereafter along with the No. 3 car and the figure in the Gargoyle sunglasses. That void remains unfilled -- partly because the sport has changed too much to allow one driver to wield the same level of influence, partly because so few have been willing to try. What's left behind is something approaching a myth, descriptions that combine reality and fable, an ethereal collection of tales and remembrances that can make Earnhardt seem larger than life. And that he is, particularly to so many in the garage who knew him only by name and reputation. But not to others who knew him as a man.

These are the true protectors of the Earnhardt legacy, those former confidants and colleagues who knew him not as the Intimidator but simply as Dale, people who pass that knowledge down to others who viewed him only as a figure on a screen or a name in a record book. Ten years after his death, Earnhardt remains relevant in NASCAR because he spurred a wave of safety advances, because he inspired a generation of younger drivers, because he served as a model for so many of his contemporaries -- and because he personally touched so many people whose memories still bring him alive today.

"I remember telling Dale Inman, 'Man, there's people at this race track who never saw Richard Petty drive.' He came back with, 'There's people at this race track who never saw Dale Earnhardt drive,'" said Steve Hmiel, a former DEI employee who is now competition director at Earnhardt Ganassi. "And that surprised me, because I think I'll be 18 for the rest of my life and things go on forever. But there has been so much about Dale Earnhardt. They've made him almost godlike in his death, and that's not who he was. He was a hardcore race car driver who liked to have fun. He was a great guy to be around."

So many of them have a story, individual brushstrokes that together provide a fuller portrait of the real man. Current NASCAR chairman Brian France remembers Earnhardt practicing his public speaking, something he once did not like to do, before an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington. Sabates remembers Earnhardt calling him after winning his last championship in 1994 and saying he wanted to buy a "picture" -- it took Sabates a few minutes before he realized Earnhardt meant a painting by a famous artist to hang in his home. Rick Hendrick remembers the way Earnhardt often handled confrontation on the race track. "He's the only guy I've ever seen who could wreck somebody and then go put his arm around him and make him feel good about it," he said. "That's an amazing talent right there."

Michael Waltrip remembers how Earnhardt once snapped at him when the former DEI driver broached the idea of running a Winston West event when the circuit was in Las Vegas. "You don't need to be running that crap. You need to be focusing on your Cup car," Earnhardt groused, only to relent later on. He also remembers how tender Earnhardt was after Waltrip's father Leroy died in 2000. "He calls me and said, 'I'll be at your house in five minutes, where's your mom?' I said, 'She's here,'" Waltrip said. "It was the day Dad died. He drove out all the way to Sherrill's Ford [N.C.] to hold her hand and tell her that he loved my dad and that he was a special man to put up with [brother] Darrell."

Don Hawk remembers that Earnhardt was strong not from lifting weights but from working on his farm, and how he always valued a full day's labor. "That's what tore him up with Junior in the early days," Hawk said. "He'd be, 'Junior, it's time to get out of bed, you're missing the best hours of the day, let's go!' We'd ride in that black pickup truck over to Junior's doublewide and go, 'Let's go. time to get to work.' [Junior would] say, 'What are we going to do?' [Dale would] say, 'I don't know, find something to do, get out of bed!' Those were some of the most fun days."

The man and the legend have become intertwined, but some can still identify the genuine article. "I think he was personified a lot, just like Tony [Stewart] is," added Bobby Hutchens, a longtime RCR employee who now is competition director at Stewart-Haas. "They're a lot alike -- big heart inside, would do anything for anybody, but it's all about winning that trophy and bringing it home on Sunday, whatever it takes. A lot of people misconstrue that and think he's not a good person, but in reality he was one of the best people I've ever met in my life."

Many drivers in NASCAR today never had the opportunity to get to know that Earnhardt. Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt's successor in a vehicle that now bears the No. 29, thinks they need to find a way to do it. In fact, given the lasting impact Earnhardt had on a sport that ascended to new levels of popularity after his passing, RCR's current flagship driver sees that kind of in-depth knowledge as a prerequisite for understanding the series as a whole.

"I think there are definitely some guys who have come in who don't understand not only Dale Earnhardt, but don't understand a lot of things about this sport and how it functions," Harvick said. "It's, 'Jump in, this is great, I'm a star, I have all this money.' It's 50-50. Half the guys understand the history of the sport and are racers. And maybe they didn't have those personal interactions with Dale, but they know the sport. Some of them need to take the time to learn a little bit more about the sport and understand it, because that's a very big part of the sport that needs to be understood by all. Because he's probably the biggest reason this sport is at the level that it is today. ... I think when you get to this level, it's a responsibility have some understanding of the history of the sport. And he's a big part of it."

And he will be, as long as there are fans who still keep an Earnhardt cap on the top shelf of the closet, as long as there are young drivers who once cheered for him on television, as long as there are former colleagues still active in the sport who keep him in their hearts and minds. Dale Earnhardt is gone, lost to the world in a tragic crash a decade ago. And yet, in so many ways Dale Earnhardt continues to live on, more real than even the statue of the Intimidator that stands in his hometown.

"It doesn't matter where I go, somewhere I get questions about Dale Earnhardt," Childress said. "They want a story, or, 'How was it with Dale,' or, 'What are you going to do with the 3?' All of these different questions you get. I think his legacy will live a long time in this sport. I'm going to do all I can while I'm here to make sure it does live."