News & Media

Caraviello: Earnhardt crash left RCR an organization forever changed

February 16, 2011, David Caraviello,

In the immediate aftermath, Richard Childress thought about quitting. He had been in the business forever, first as a driver and then as a car owner, and it was the only way of life he had ever known. Now his best friend was gone, killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, and one of the closest relationships in the NASCAR garage area had been severed without either man getting the chance to say goodbye. Carry on without Dale Earnhardt? As he stood on the dock behind Bill France Jr.'s house in Daytona Beach on the Tuesday after the crash, the very idea seemed unthinkable.

And then he remembered New Mexico. They had been off hunting, of course, traversing some high desert ridgeline on horseback, the man behind holding the tail of the horse in front of him, as they had been taught to do in such situations. Earnhardt's horse stepped on a patch of ice, slipped, reared up. Childress, holding the startled animal's tail, was pulled off his mount. Fortunately, trees broke his fall. He had been lucky. "It could have been bad," the car owner recalled.

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

But it wasn't, and they laughed about it and called it the great horse wreck, and cracked open a few adult beverages around the campfire that night. Still, the incident stuck with Childress. "Dale, you know if I'd have gotten killed on that mountain today, you'd have to race Phoenix," he told his friend, referring to the next event on the schedule. They looked at each other. "If it ever happens to me," Earnhardt responded, "you better race." There was something about the tone, a steeliness to it, that would resonate with the car owner even years later. And suddenly, there was only one real option.

Move forward. "That helped make it a lot easier," Childress said.

Earnhardt's death, which occurred a decade ago Friday, reverberated all across the country, from the hearts of clock-punching race fans to the walls of NASCAR's executive offices. For the race team he owned, Dale Earnhardt Inc., it left a void that would never be filled. But perhaps nowhere was his loss more acutely felt than within Richard Childress Racing, a homey operation located off the beaten path in Welcome, N.C., where the man in black had won six championships and evolved into an icon. Earnhardt and his No. 3 car had come to define RCR, and when they both veered into the fourth-turn wall on that terrible day in Daytona, one of the sport's most storied and successful organizations was suddenly cast adrift. Childress would carry on, but his team would be forever changed.

The recovery would be long and painful, full of moments where RCR employees had to put their heads down and work just to get through, where they used racing as a way to get past the sadness, where they did what had to be done so the organization would survive. There would be severe aftereffects -- the years immediately following were lean ones for RCR, as Childress shuffled his driver lineup and even brought on an outside investor to help shore up the company. Without Earnhardt the team endured a roller-coaster existence, promising highs followed by deflating lows, until reestablishing itself as a championship contender behind flagship driver Kevin Harvick last season.

In those first few hours afterward, though, it all seemed too much to take on. But those who knew Childress, who knew that he'd show up in the shop even on weekends to just check his mail, knew quitting was never really an option. "You knew that wasn't going to happen," said Mike Dillon, as former RCR driver who is now the organization's general manager. "We had to come do our job. Richard would have you in there doing your work. We'd be in there doing our jobs ready to go racing, and just be there whenever he needed something, whatever direction he wanted to head. We knew he wasn't going to [quit]. That's just not him. He's not a quitter. He's never going to quit."

And yet, to say the rebuilding was a wearying endeavor is an understatement. The Wednesday after Earnhardt's crash, Childress made the decision to put Harvick behind the wheel of the Intimidator's old car, which would be renumbered as No. 29. Later Childress would be asked why he didn't choose something with more symbolism -- say, a 37, combining Earnhardt's old car number with his number of titles -- but in the rush to get to the next race in Rockingham, N.C., he had simply taken the first number available on NASCAR's list. Harvick was an up-and-comer, with three wins on the Busch Series the season before, and was slated to drive seven Cup events that season in a No. 30 car backed by America Online. He had also been the primary test driver for Earnhardt's No. 3. To Childress, he was the natural selection.

For Harvick, it all unfolded so fast. He found out Wednesday of that week he would be Earnhardt's successor. The next day was the public funeral at Calvary Church in Charlotte. Friday he was in the car at Rockingham, and he finished 14th in the rain-delayed event. As soon as it ended he left for Las Vegas, where he married his fiancé, DeLana. There he earned his first top-10 finish, and a week later at Atlanta earned his first victory in a performance that left members of his crew weeping.

"There wasn't really a whole lot of time to reflect on things that were happening or were going on or anything like that," Harvick remembered. "They kept me so guarded and so busy in that first year, and really all I had to do was show up and get in the car. Everybody else was confused and devastated, whatever word you want to put on that. It was just such a confusing time for everyone emotionally that you just had to go out and try to do your thing."

Harvick knew Earnhardt, to be certain, but they weren't exactly close. "Christmas parties, at the track briefly, here and there," is how he characterized his relationship with the Intimidator. Still, the aftermath of Earnhardt's death was as trying for Harvick as for anyone, albeit for different reasons. Nothing about the way Earnhardt drove or liked his car set up meshed with what Harvick wanted, and the adaptation process could be a frustrating one for both the old No. 3 crew and their new driver. Then there was the whole issue of replacing an icon, of Harvick feeling the pressure to be something he wasn't. For years he lobbied Childress to change the sponsor and the car color -- which the next year would become more silver than black -- to create some space between him and the man he had succeeded.

"In the beginning, I just really didn't understand it all, and it was just a defense more than it was not wanting to have to live up to those same rules," Harvick said. "You didn't want to have to be that person. I was always myself, and always wanted to be who I was and handle things the way I thought were right. And that's how I grew up, with things being handled the way I wanted to handle them, and you learn from your mistakes and you move on. This particular situation, you get in and it's supposed to be this way, and everyone wanted it to be like it was. I didn't, and I didn't like that. I just didn't feel comfortable."

It was a situation where he did what he had to do for the sake of the company. Through time, though, Harvick's own identity began to break through. He won twice that first season, proving he had the chops to race at NASCAR's highest level. Eventually the colors of Goodwrench, Earnhardt's longtime sponsor, would be replaced by the bright yellow of Shell/Pennzoil, further distancing Harvick from his predecessor. In 2007 he won the Daytona 500, after which he finally began to feel secure about his own accomplishments. In the heat of last year's championship race, when so many of the old Earnhardt fans emerged to cheer for him, he at last fully embraced his connection to the driver he had replaced. He's comfortable enough now that with new sponsor Budweiser, his car is once again painted black.

Richard Childress and Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane at Chicago, 2002

'More comfortable'

Kevin Harvick reflects on the past 10 years of filling one of the biggest seats in NASCAR.

"I just feel like the grounds that we've laid out for ourselves, DeLana and I, and at RCR, we've kind of done it our way," said Harvick, who also owns his own race team that's successful on the Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits. "... Comparisons are compliments to things you've been able to accomplish on and off the race track, as a driver and as an owner. Ironically enough, there are a lot of similarities [to Earnhardt] as to the way that things have all laid out, with owning the race teams and the car, but we're fortunate to have had the success to back up our own name and do things out own way."

But that 2001 season, where Harvick won twice and compiled 16 top-10s despite stepping into an unfamiliar car amid such crushing circumstances, remain an achievement unto itself. "I don't know of many veterans, or many people who could have stepped into that car and been mentally capable of doing what he did as a young man, as he was in those days," Childress said.

Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. was impressed. "He came into that deal with an incredible attitude, and he couldn't have handled it any better than he did," he said of Harvick. "He was successful in his right, because his own personality, which was awesome under the circumstances. ... I think he exceeded -- I know he did for me -- I think he exceeded everyone's expectations of him as a driver in his career. Especially being thrown into that situation, how would he handle it, and cope, and grow."

For RCR, it was the first step down the path toward the new normal, one that no longer would include Earnhardt, but would always feature memories of him. Childress' race team, which placed all three of its drivers in the year-end playoff last season, is once again successful and vying for championships, although the organization is still seeking its first on the Cup level since Earnhardt's last in 1994. Childress, with a stable expanded to four cars and two grandsons getting into the business, seems as energized as ever. Clearly, moving on after Earnhardt's accident was the right thing to do.

But there are still times when it can be difficult, when the painful memories try to elbow their way in. Whenever he drives into Daytona International Speedway, Childress looks over to Turn 4, where he lost not only Earnhardt but friend Neil Bonnett. Sometimes he says a prayer. He tries to block the events of Feb. 18, 2001, out of his mind as much as possible. He's enough of a gentleman that if you ask him a question about that day, he'll give you an answer. But otherwise, he tries not to dwell on it.

"What gets me through," he said, "is remembering all the good times and the great times and the fun times I had with Dale Earnhardt."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.