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Martha Earnhardt, racing family matriarch, dies at 91

Martha Earnhardt, matriarch of the famed racing family, has died. She was 91.

Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Dale Earnhardt Jr., two of her grandchildren, confirmed her Christmas Day passing in a statement released Sunday morning.

Martha Earnhardt was married to Ralph Earnhardt from 1947 until his death in 1973 at age 45. The couple had five children – daughters Kaye and Cathy and sons Dale, Randy and Danny. Dale Earnhardt followed his father’s legacy as a driver to become one of just three seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champions. Youngest son Danny Earnhardt died earlier this month, aged 66 on Dec. 10.

Martha Earnhardt — “Mamaw” to her grandchildren — was a calming influence who contrasted with  Dale Earnhardt’s on-track Intimidator persona, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted during his grandmother’s 2019 appearance on the Dale Jr. Download podcast. “She mellowed him,” Earnhardt Jr. said as the two shared memories from Dale Earnhardt’s rise to iconic status in the world of stock-car racing.

“On behalf of the France Family and all of NASCAR, we extend our condolences to the family and friends of Martha Earnhardt,” said Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy in an official NASCAR statement. “Martha was not only the matriarch of a legendary NASCAR family, but a beloved and respected figure within our industry and throughout the fanbase. We will dearly miss her grace, compassion and welcoming demeanor. To her grandchildren, she was ‘Mamaw.’ To millions of NASCAR fans, she was a treasure.”

Martha Earnhardt remained a fixture at the family’s modest home in mill-town Kannapolis, North Carolina. She frequently and gently rebuffed her oldest son’s questions about moving her to a larger house, preferring to stay at the corner of V-8 and Sedan Avenue in the “Car Hill” community, where her memories lived with the old auto shop out back.

“He was always here during holidays, and you’d never know when he would drop in,” Martha Earnhardt told the Orlando Sentinel in 2011, mentioning Dale’s visits for a hug or a slice of “secret cake,” a family favorite. “He’d drop by and visit for a little bit. I never knew when he was coming. I just took whatever I could get in his spare time. He was a good son. He did a lot for me. I have four other children who did, too.”

Martha Earnhardt said she tried her hand at racing just once, in a “powder puff derby” race for women at Hickory Speedway. She crashed, lamenting the lack of practice before the event. “That was my one and only,” she said. “… It didn’t work. I just wasn’t meant to be a race-car driver.”

She worked as a waitress and a clerk at a children’s store. In an interview with The Charlotte Observer for Mother’s Day in 2000, she recounted a special Christmas at the family home in 1998, the same year that Dale had won the Daytona 500. “We were real fortunate that year,” Martha Earnhardt said. “We had everybody in the family there, so it was a real houseful.”

By her count, the holiday crowd totaled 34 — all five children, 11 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and various plus-ones.

When asked her advice on raising a family, Earnhardt told The Observer: “The main thing is to have a good Christian home. Teach them morals and always be there for them.”

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the next generation of the family to reach NASCAR’s national stage, Martha Earnhardt admitted that she had initial doubts. “I didn’t think he was ready,” she told the Associated Press in 1998, not long after his full-time promotion from Late Models to what is now called the Xfinity Series. “But boy, he’s proved me wrong. He’s really something special.” She became one of her grandson’s biggest advocates, comparing his breakthrough that season to his father’s long-awaited Daytona triumph.

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When that day came on Feb. 15, 1998, Dale Earnhardt called his mother from Victory Lane.

“I was home watching, and I was cheering and crying at home just like I would if I had been there,” she told the Observer’s David Poole later that year. “Dale called me from winner’s circle and that made me feel real good. He said, “Mom! I finally won the Daytona 500! I said, ‘Yeah, son, I saw you did!’ For the last 10 laps, I walked the floor. I would sit down, I’d get up, I’d sit down. … I couldn’t stay sitting down until I knew he had won it. It was just a really great feeling because I knew how hard and how long he has tried to win and how close he has come.”

In her later years, Martha Earnhardt was a welcoming presence in Kannapolis, frequently meeting visitors at the statue in her eldest son’s likeness in the cozy downtown. She waved a ceremonial green flag at the tribute plaza’s groundbreaking in 2002. She also welcomed guests into her home for travelers on the “Dale Trail” of racing landmarks around Cabarrus County.

“She lets people into her home constantly,” Kelley Earnhardt Miller told USA Today Sports in 2014, calling the lasting connection with race fans “therapeutic” for her. “If you tell her you are the biggest Dale Earnhardt fan ever, she will let you in and sit on the couch, and she will share stories with you for as long as you’ll listen. And she’s always been that way. I can think of fans she now considers friends that come down from Canada and different places in the United States that always stop by to visit her and have for years.”