Among motorsports fans, the name Dale Earnhardt will call to mind a specific image. During his time on the track, the North Carolina native earned his Intimidator nickname. For better or worse, he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope or, if nothing else, shoot an icy glare at someone he didn’t like. Away from the track, though, things were a bit different.
Dr. Jerry Punch saw that reality firsthand after Earnhardt underwent neck surgery. On that occasions, the Intimidator set concerns about his own image aside to make a dying fan’s wish come true.
Dale Earnhardt had an intimidating image on the NASCAR scene
In popular culture, there’s a certain appeal to whoever’s playing the villain. During his time on the NASCAR scene, Earnhardt filled that role to a tee.
While Earnhardt possessed plenty of natural talent behind the wheel, he also knew how to push the envelope. Whether he was pulling off the Pass in the Grass, throwing a verbal barb at a rival, or trading paint on the way to the finish line, the Intimidator had no problem doing whatever it took to succeed.
Even when he wasn’t in the car, Earnhardt wasn’t exactly warm and cuddly. When someone poached a deer on his land, for example, the NASCAR star broke his hand punching the man. He also pulled out his pistol to prove a point on at least two separate occasions, although he fired it at cars rather than human beings.
The Intimidator set his image aside to help a dying fan
As documented by the Orlando Sentinel, Earnhardt had neck surgery in December 1999 to remove a ruptured disk and fuse two vertebrae. While the procedure went off without a hitch, the Intimidator still had to recover.
Around the same time, a terminally ill boy told his father that his wish was to meet Earnhardt. While the man wasn’t sure how he could make it happen, a local minister intervened. He called another pastor, and word eventually reached Dr. Jerry Punch, who brought word to the Intimidator himself.
There was still a problem, though. “Dale said, ‘I can’t go anywhere,'” Punch recalled on The Dale Jr. Download. “I can’t drive. I can’t be in a car until this heals, and I don’t want anyone to see me with this collar on. I need some time.” Time, however, was of the essence since no one knew how long the boy had to live.
In somewhat of a compromise, the boy was transported down from his mountain home to a private parking lot. There, Earnhardt met him at daybreak, neck brace and all.
“Dale kneels down beside him with that collar on,” Punch continued. “I get emotional just thinking about it. And they take a picture together. To my knowledge, that’s probably the only picture he ever allowed anyone to ever take with him wearing that collar after his surgery. But that’s just the kind of guy he was.”
Dale Earnhardt also showed his softer side to a few other people
While Earnhardt didn’t want anyone to see him wearing a neck brace, he did make an exception to grant a dying boy’s wish. That wasn’t the only time the Intimidator showed his softer side, though.
After Dale Jarrett won the 1999 Cup Series title, he borrowed the Intimidator’s plane to fly up to New York. While he kept asking for a bill, Earnhardt never provided one. When he eventually handed over an invoice, it included a note of congratulations and no charge.
On another occasion, a man passed by Dale Earnhardt Industries looking for the Intimidator. He explained that he had been a drunk the last time he saw Earnhardt and since turned his life around. He had apparently changed his ways and become a preacher at a small church.
During the conversation, he mentioned that the church lacked a parking lot. That apparently didn’t sit well with Earnhardt. The NASCAR star excused himself and returned with a bag of cash. “Turn that grass into a parking lot, and don’t tell anyone I gave it to you,” he instructed.
For an intimidating guy, Earnhardt certainly knew how to be kind.