Few figures in NASCAR’s long history hold the sentimental value that Dale Earnhardt Sr. holds in the heart of fans. Beloved at the top of his games, Earnhardt’s gutsy driving and down-home charm made him a hit with the racing community. Not only defined by his tragic ending, Earnhardt is an inspiration to people who may not have all the cards stacked in their favor but still want to taste success.
Keeping it in the family
When people think about the Earnhardt legacy, they are likely thinking of Dale Sr. and his son. However, the family’s love of racing goes back to another generation, as Ralph Earnhardt was a car-racing legend in his own right.
Ralph was legendary in the racing world not only for his ability to drive through dirt tracks but condition his cars in ways that are still used today. His use of tire staggering is still used when preparing cars for races today.
Ralph was a cotton mill worker out of North Carolina, and he used racing to get his family some extra money. In 1956, he was the NASCAR Sportsman Champion and placed second in the Grand National Race. While he was never the behemoth that his son was, it was he who laid the groundwork for the next generations of Earnhardts.
Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s rise to prominence
Ralph was a moderately successful racer in his own right during a time when drivers were not likely to achieve superstardom outside racing circles. As such, he didn’t have the privileged upbringing that so many other racers might have had with famous fathers. He had to work hard, go to school, and go through similar hurdles that many kids go through.
Born in Kannapolis, North Carolina in 1951, Dale had a blue-collar upbringing. As a student, he struggled to keep up with school work and dropped out after two attempts at eighth grade.
He began racing as a child, using a hot-pink Ford Sedan he got from his neighbors. He got married at 17 and had his first son a year later. That marriage only lasted two years, and within months he married again. That marriage lasted five years.
When Dale was 22, tragedy struck his family. Dale found his father dead under a car he was working on. It was a heart attack. From there, Earnhardt pursued a career in racing, and his mother gave him all his father’s cars to practice. This tragedy was Dale’s wake-up call that he needed to do something with his life to get out of his current situation.
Following in his father’s footsteps
Dale competed in his first professional race, the Winston Cup, in 1975. His ability to glide across the racetrack with precision and poise made him a favorite in the racing community. After making his way into the World 600 Cup, Earnhardt was on NASCAR’s map, and by 1979 he accepted the NASCAR Rookie of the year award.
Up until Jeff Gordon took the scene in the ’90s, Dale was the face of NASCAR. Although his dedication to the sport eventually split up his second marriage, it also made him quite successful.
As he climbed up the ladder, he turned his name into an international brand, with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. becoming a powerhouse within the sport. In 2000, a quarter of all NASCAR’s merchandising sales went to Earnhardt-related paraphernalia.
By 2001, Earnhardt had won 76 races, countless championships, and other accolades, and had broken into the mainstream as the face of the racing community. Entering his 50s, he was still getting it done on the racetrack when tragedy struck.
Trying to help his son, Dale Jr., get to the finish line, he sacrificed his car to play some defense. The result was deadly, and the racing world was never the same.
Earnhardt had to work hard to get where he was, and the tragedy of his story’s ending does not cancel out the triumph that came before it. His name is still among the most recognizable in the sport. Once unable to get through high school, Earnhardt used his skills to succeed on his terms, and the racing world will forever be thankful because of it.