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On Earnhardt's birthday, a look back

April 29, 2013, Holly Cain,

On 'The Intimidator's' birthday, a look back

In honor of the late seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt’s April 29 birthday, here are excerpts from a small group interview with “The Intimidator” on Oct. 11, 1997 -- the afternoon before the annual Talladega Superspeedway fall Cup race and four months before his one and only victory in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt’s 13 Cup wins  -- including 10 at Talladega -- earned him the reputation as the most proficient restrictor-plate racer of his era. He showed up in Alabama that weekend fresh off three consecutive top-three finishes -- including a pair of runner-ups at Dover (Del.) and Martinsville (Va.) -- hopeful that his usual fine form on the Talladega high banks would return him to Victory Lane for the first time that season.

Unfortunately for Earnhardt, he finished 29th in that race and 1997 turned out to be only the second winless season of his full-time Cup career (the other was in 1981).  He finished fifth in the standings while a young driver named Jeff Gordon hoisted his second Cup championship trophy.


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In this interview session -- before the days of Twitter and live internet news feeds -- Earnhardt speaks candidly to a small number of beat reporters on a variety of subjects -- from his love-hate of restrictor-plate racing to the what was, at the time, a new trend of multi-car teams getting booed at driver introductions.

Here are excerpts from that vintage interview, where he touches on topics still so relevant today as NASCAR heads to Talladega again this weekend.

On restrictor plate racing:

Dale Earnhardt: “I wish we could race without restrictor plates. We’ve worked on these cars and the technical side of making a car run here has gotten more technical because of the restrictor plate. … As they put more spoiler on you and they do things like that, we come up with things to get around it or make the car work different. The speeds stay similar or the same.

“If you’ve got a race track where you can hold the throttle down all the way around it what to you want? What do you expect?

“It’s tougher to win because of the restrictor plates. You don’t see guys passing each other now without help. We ran second to Mark (Martin) here in the spring race. We just had to sit there. We couldn’t do nothing. I couldn’t pull out either way because the car wouldn’t go forward. If you call that racing, OK. So be it. We’ll just sit in line. … They could take the restrictor plate off and we’ll see who’ll hold it wide open around here.”

On the growing trend toward multi-car teams:

DE: “We’ve learned a lot of things (because of it). Like the restrictor-plate races, we’ve learned more because of the two-car team. It needs to work better yet. Hendrick has three (cars). Roush has who knows how many. Every week the numbers come up. They’re winning and qualifying in the top. Yates has two. We should be able to do the same thing.

“It’s frustrating to Richard (Childress) because the other team or us haven’t won a race. The other team (driver Mike Skinner) hasn’t been consistent and to not make the race at Charlotte (the previous week) was a tough setback for ‘em.’’

On getting that next win:

DE: “I want to win every race and it’s been a long time since I won (55 races at that point). It would be nice to win again. It’ll happen. And that eighth championship will happen too. We’ve had that opportunity a couple of times with a good race car and we didn’t end up in the right situation.’’

“You be leading the race on the last lap and let me behind you and see (how badly he still wants to win). As guys get older, they get smarter and they don’t forget nothing they’ve ever done. I don’t. I would hate to have me behind me on the last lap if I haven’t won a race all year.’’

On being more motivated than ever to compete, even at age 46:

“When I sit down in a race car, it’s like the first day I ever done it. There’s nothing else on my mind. I’m not sitting there while I’m racing pondering everything that’s going in my life. I’m focused on beating whoever is in front of me or behind me.

“Racing is fun. It gets hectic and busy sometimes. You come in late at night and wonder what about tomorrow. The next thing you know you’re up at 5 o’clock in the morning signing autographs for the race fans.  That’s part of it. …

“I couldn’t tell you how much it pays to win this race. I race to win. The money part of it, but I couldn’t tell you how much the purse is here (at Talladega). It’s probably not enough when you’re the car owner. When you’re the driver, you’re racing (because) you want to win.

On his children beginning a racing career:

DE: “I’m enjoying starting to see the kids race and do well. They can do what they want. They’re working to do it. I’m certainly not trying to make them race car drivers. If they want to go out and be a doctor, or whatever, they can do that. It’s their decision.’’

On NASCAR scrutiny of his team:

DE: “It feels good to go in the garage area and see ‘em cutting on your race car. Then you know you’re working hard in all the right areas.’’

On getting booed during driver introductions:

DE: “They’re going to be booing me some more before it’s over with. When they boo you, then you know you’re running too good. They (fans) are hard on all the guys who win right off. They were on Darrell (Waltrip), Cale (Yarborough), Bobby Allison. That’s life.

“I want to win. I want to win the Daytona 500 too.’’


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