Christmas morning in Victory Lane
Daryl Wolfe, now a senior executive with International Speedway Corp. and NASCAR, was the track’s director of public relations at the time. It was his job to shepherd Earnhardt from the TV and radio interviews in Victory Lane, to the trophy presentation, to an interview with TV affiliates via satellite, to the press box. All of this was supposed to happen on a strict timeline.
Earnhardt hadn’t even arrived in Victory Lane before Wolfe started to think the schedule — carefully crafted weeks before race day — would be unfollowable. Everything took longer than it was supposed to, but for good reason: Nobody could have envisioned a celebration this big.
Earnhardt was “late” getting to Victory Lane because he had given high-fives to every crew member on every team and turned donuts in the infield grass. When he finally pulled into Victory Lane, photographers, crew members and NASCAR officials pinballed against Bill France Jr., Richard Childress and Teresa Earnhardt. Fans climbed over the fence to try to get close. “Victory Lane is always chaotic,” Wolfe thought to himself. “But this is going to be chaotic times 100.”
Amid that chaos, McReynolds saw pure joy on the faces of Dale and Teresa Earnhardt and Richard and Judy Childress. Earnhardt and Childress had forged one of the most successful partnerships in NASCAR history. The “yeah but” that haunted them was gone. “Watching the four of them, how much it meant to them, it almost reminded me of a proud parent taking a step back on Christmas morning and watching your kids unwrap their presents,” McReynolds said.
At the trophy ceremony, Graham handed the Harley J. Earl trophy to Earnhardt. Graham stuck out his hand to shake Earnhardt’s, even though Earnhardt was now holding the 54-pound trophy. Earnhardt instinctively reached out to grasp Graham’s hand and nearly dropped the trophy he had spent his whole career chasing. “Somebody may get hurt here,” Ken Squier joked on live TV.
Around this time, someone in Wolfe’s earpiece told him to speed it up, that he needed to tell Earnhardt, the man world famous for going fast around the track trying to win the biggest race in the world, that he was going too slow now that he had done so. And so Wolfe faced a conundrum. He was young and ambitious and wanted to go places in his career, and that required doing his job well, which meant he needed to tell Earnhardt to get moving. On the other hand, Wolfe was a fan of the sport, had grown up in Daytona Beach, so he knew that he was witnessing history and didn’t want to intrude on the Intimidator’s revelry.
Wolfe somehow worked up the courage to tell Earnhardt that it was time to go.
That did not go over well.
Wolfe laughs as he tells the story now. It was not quite so funny then. His role in one of the greatest moments in the history of NASCAR was to get dressed down by one of the greatest drivers in the history of NASCAR. He stresses that he deserved it and that he should have let the moment unfold organically instead of trying to force order on such jubilation. “If I could put myself back into my shoes 20 years ago I would have handled it differently, but I didn’t know how to handle it because I didn’t have the experience to handle it,” he says.
“He took his driver’s glove off, stuck his fist out, and fist-bumped me, before he even acknowledged anybody else in Victory Lane.”
Neither did anybody else, because this celebration was unprecedented. As painful as that was at the time for Wolfe, it’s a fabulous memory for him now because of what happened the next year. After winning his qualifying race in 1999, Earnhardt pulled into Victory Lane again, where Wolfe again was in charge of making sure everything happened on time.
“He puts down the window net and points at me, motions me to come over. I’m thinking, oh my gosh, what’s he going to do? He took his driver’s glove off, stuck his fist out, and fist-bumped me, before he even acknowledged anybody else in Victory Lane,” Wolfe says. “It was such a cool moment. He didn’t say a word to me. That was his way of saying, You were just doing your job last year. I probably said something I shouldn’t have said. That kind of put a bow on that story for me.”
A hug between NASCAR giants
Earnhardt eventually was persuaded that he had to move to the next phase of the celebration: the hat dance, a ubiquitous post-race moment in which the winning driver and his owner, crew chief, crew and family pose for photo after photo, each one while wearing a different sponsor’s hat. Hold up the No. 1 sign, smile, take hat off, put new hat on, do it all over again.
“I see all of the photographers in front of us like an army. Off to the left, sitting all by himself, smoking his Winston, staring at us with a smirk on his face was Bill France Jr.,” Hawk said. “I walked out of the photo shoot, walked over to him, and he looked at me said, ‘Pal, this is a good day for motorsports.’ I said, ‘Come on, I’m going to take you up there.’ He said, ‘No, please don’t say anything yet. Just let me soak this in.’ ”
Hawk went back to the photo shoot. In keeping with France’s desires, he didn’t point NASCAR’s chairman out to Earnhardt, even though he knew about their friendship. A few minutes later, Earnhardt saw France sitting over there.
Sunday Money left the trophy and Teresa and Childress and Chocolate and Hawk and the celebration and walked over to Captain Jack. They were friends, fishing buddies and occasional combatants on opposite sides of NASCAR controversies. They were the two men arguably most responsible for NASCAR’s increasing place in the American sports world’s consciousness. They shared a big hug.
“Everybody respected that moment and just left them alone,” Hawk said.
‘A profound thing in my life’
A van drove Earnhardt out of the infield to the frontstretch grandstands, where he would attend a news conference upstairs in the press box. On the way into the building, a fan gave a stuffed monkey to J.R. Rhodes, Earnhardt’s PR man. Earnhardt put the monkey into the back of his fire suit. When he walked in to the press box, he pulled it out, threw it on the floor and said he finally got the monkey off his back.
Earnhardt was sometimes criticized for not wanting to talk to the media. On this day, he wouldn’t stop talking. He reveled in reliving his big moment. In those days, after the race, the winner visited the NASCAR suite overlooking the track. Usually it took half an hour for the winner to take care of all of his responsibilities before visiting the suite. This year it took three-and-a-half hours.
Graham was surprised at how many fans were still in the grandstands celebrating the win hours later. Childress smiled at the fans grabbing chunks of torn up grass to take home as souvenirs. McReynolds looked out at the design Earnhardt’s burnout had created on the grass. It almost looked like a 3.
Hawk had wanted to be prepared for the celebration, in case Earnhardt ever won the race. Years earlier, he bought a box of cigars and put them in the motorcoach, ready to be smoked when the time came. The time didn’t come, so he had to keep recycling the old cigars out. Finally, on this day, he got to hand out the victory cigars.
After the suite visit, Earnhardt returned downstairs for TV interviews. With the cigar in one hand and a glass of Dom Perignon in the other, Earnhardt met ESPN personality Kenny Mayne for an interview on “SportsCenter.” Before the interview started, Earnhardt hid his drink and smoke from view. When “SportsCenter” broke for commercial, he grabbed the cigar, took a puff, grabbed the drink, took a swig, and then hid them both again before the broadcast resumed.
Hawk says he never saw Earnhardt so happy, not even when he won his seventh championship to tie Richard Petty for the most ever. While fans partied at the track, in the infield, at local bars, at non-local bars, etc., Earnhardt returned to his yacht. A stream of the biggest names in the sport — France, Sabates, Penske, Helton — stopped by to congratulate him, a sign of the respect they had for him.
Not everybody got to party. McReynolds was exhausted after a long day of racing and celebrating and almost cussing out the CEO of NASCAR. He walked through a downpour to his motorcoach at about 11 p.m. “I sat down on the seat right inside to take my shoes off. That’s when it hit me. Son of a gun: We just won the Daytona 500 with Dale Earnhardt. It didn’t sink in what had happened until I slowed down enough to realize.”
The crew members on the No. 3 team had to get back to Charlotte that night so they could be at work the next morning to get ready for the next weekend’s race at Rockingham. Myers was responsible for towing the team’s third car back to RCR headquarters. The elongated celebration at the track meant he got a late start on his 536-mile drive. He made it as far as Jacksonville, Florida, before he decided to stop and sleep. He pulled into a Holiday Inn. He walked in, greeted the clerk, and said he had just won the Daytona 500.
“I sat down on the seat right inside to take my shoes off. That’s when it hit me. Son of a gun: We just won the Daytona 500 with Dale Earnhardt.”
It was the first time that those words had come out of his mouth, and they sounded beautiful.
Berggren probably was already back at his home near Boston by then after dashing from the track to catch a flight. He knew he had witnessed a singular event in NASCAR history. In terms of individual wins, only Petty’s 200th, in 1984 in the July race at Daytona, carries the same significance as this one.
“That was a profound thing in my life. There’s days when you look back and say, was it worth it? Should you have done this or done that, or done something else with your life? When I see that day, and I see what happened and I see the privilege I was afforded to be there, and to tell America what was going on with Don Hawk, what was going on with Larry Mac, what was going on with the strategy, when I could do all that stuff, and I actually did it, (I know) how fortunate I was. I can’t afford to be depressed or pissed off or bummed out about anything, because look what life afforded me.”
Not a dream
Richard Childress couldn’t sleep, again. It was early in the morning the day after the 1998 Daytona 500, and instead of worrying about all the things that could go wrong, he exulted that none of them had. 2018 is Childress’ 49th year in NASCAR, and he said Earnhardt’s win in the 1998 Daytona 500 remains the highlight of his career.
Childress, Earnhardt and McReynolds returned to Daytona to meet with the media for breakfast on Monday. That’s a tradition that coincides with the race-winning car being put on display at Daytona 500 Experience, a museum on the track grounds.
The Man in Black spent much of the day wearing a black leather jacket with “Daytona 500” on the back. It had a red, white and blue design, with a checkered flag weaved in, simultaneously garish and beautiful, like a stock car’s livery. He preened around in it like a peacock, half-turning to show people the back, as if they might not know where he got it and he wanted to be asked about it.
Graham, the track president, greeted him and apologized for causing him to nearly drop the trophy in the celebration. “He smiled real big, and he said, ‘You could have broken my leg with it, and it would have been fine. I was just so glad to get it. I was beginning to wonder if I ever would.’ He was still experiencing that euphoria into the next day.”
Later Monday, Earnhardt, Rhodes and Graham climbed into a NASCAR plane to fly to New York. Earnhardt was scheduled to be on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” where he delivered that night’s top 10 list: Reasons It Took Me 20 Years to Win the Daytona 500.
Shortly after they boarded the plane, Earnhardt produced a copy of the previous day’s Daytona 500. He popped the tape in and watched himself win the biggest race of his career.
And not for the last time.
The next weekend at Rockingham, Hawk stopped by to see Earnhardt.
“I walk in the motorcoach, and he’s laying on the sofa. He’s got his cowboy boots on the floor. He’s got his Wrangler jeans on. He’s got his shirt tail hanging out. He’s got a big old pillow behind his head. I look at the TV screen, and he’s watching the Daytona 500,” Hawk said. “I said, ‘Champ, you already won. What are you doing?’ He goes, ‘I just wanted to make sure.’ ”