To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's tragic death, SI.com's Bruce Martin and Brant James spoke to four people who knew the racing icon best. What follows are heartfelt responses from longtime Earnhardt team owner Richard Childress, gasman Danny "Chocolate" Myers and friends Punchy Whitaker and Humphy Wheeler, former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Of particular note is their memories of the day he died and why they think there'll never be another driver like him.
SI.com: What was your first interaction with Earnhardt like?
Childress: It wasn't the first, but the one that really stands out, in '75 or '76 I won a [local short track] race at Charlotte Metrolina Speedway and Dale ended up finishing second. I was on the back of the truck having a cool Budweiser and he walked up to me, shaggy hair and everything, just like I had, and he said, 'Next time I race you, I'm going to beat you.' I will never forget that. That wasn't the first time, but that was one of my favorite memories, of him coming over and having a cool beer there and talking about the race.
Whitaker (worked with Earnhardt at his first job at Punchy Whitaker's Tire): Dale was a tough old cookie. He was kind of head strong. He was a hustler. I remember a time or two he would drive a car up and down the road wide-open. He worked on cars that helped him down the road. He did tune-ups, wheel balancing and front end alignment. He didn't mind getting dirty.
Myers: I have to tell you the first time I really met Dale I knew who he was and had followed him a little bit. My dad was one of the early pioneers and his dad was one of the early pioneers. The first time I got to meet him he came to shop, but had shaved his mustache off. Was that him or was that his brother? That was the first time. But we tested a little bit in 1983 and went to Daytona in 1984 and met there and the rest is history.
Wheeler: He was just a little kid. He was in his dad's garage. Ralph Earnhardt was one of my dirt test drivers. Dale was always hanging around the garage. He looked like something you needed to sweep out because he was always dirty with stringy hair. He was a typical little kid in Kannapolis, North Carolina.
SI.com: What are your memories of the day he died?
Childress: What I've tried to do is block it out of my mind, that day. There's a lot of it you can't block, and especially 10 years later when people are asking you so many questions. Just so many things went on that day that I tried to forget, but there's some that just still stick in your mind.
Whitaker: We watched the race with some kids at a military home. I promised my kids that we would take them out in the development we were doing and ride in the mud a little bit. We didn't have a radio in the vehicle, so after the wreck nobody knew anything. The wreck didn't look that bad. We went to Subway afterward to get a sandwich and that is when we heard it on the news. I couldn't believe it. It was like somebody running over me with a car. It was terrible. The wreck he was in didn't look that bad; didn't look like that would happen. It was like losing a good friend.
Myers: I was on the pit crew that day. So many things happened that day that we've blocked out of our memory. Watched the race, watched the wreck, no big deal. Been in wrecks before. Turned the car over. It's Dale Earnhardt. He'll be OK. Then a little bit later on, when we were packing up, people were walking over saying, 'Hey, man. It's pretty bad.' Then, walking over to the infield care center and talking to Ken Schrader we realized what happened.
Wheeler: I had been in Daytona and halfway through the race we flew back. I was back in Lake Norman and the race had just gotten over when we had landed and they said Tony Stewart had been hurt but he was OK. So I dismissed the whole thing and went out for a run. My wife knew where I was and where I go to run, so she got in the car and found me and told me that they pronounced Dale Earnhardt dead. It was a shock because I had talked to him earlier in the day. He was in high cotton that day. He was real pumped up and I wished him good luck and left. He was with Teresa. He was hoping that Dale Jr. would win the race. That was his hope. That is the last time I saw him.
SI.com: Will there ever be another driver like him? If not, why not?
Childress: The thing that made him stand out was his connection with the fans. Here was a working guy, worked at day, raced on the side, didn't finish school and neither did I to that point, and I think that was one of the things why we had such a great relationship. He was a lot better race driver than I was, but we had a lot in common. I think how he connected to the race fans, he was the real deal.
He was what racing was about and what the race fans wanted to see and he wanted to give those race fans, every time he sat down in that car, he wanted to give them their money's worth and then when the popularity came and he started selling more t-shirts and diecasts, he wanted to make sure that they had the best quality products. I will never forget someone sent a t-shirt back that had faded a little and he wasn't very happy at all. I remember some conversations we had with the manufacturer over that. He wanted quality and he wanted to make sure his race fans got the best, on the race track or in his likeness.
Whitaker: I don't think so because anybody that started working as a mechanic, kinda low on funds and then worked their way up... it seems like now you have to know somebody to get in there. It is hard with how much money is involved to actually get in the sport. It seems to me that most drivers now are solely in it for the money. I believe he would have raced for free. I don't think you'd have to pay for him. They all make a lot of money and some of them would do it for free and he was one of the few of them. I haven't seen anyone as determined to win or as mad when they didn't. Back in those days I think it's more 75 percent car and 25 percent driver. I think back then before the computers and money it was 25 percent car and 75 percent driver. Earnhardt could take a 10th place car and finish second or third.
Myers: There will never be another Dale Earnhardt. Can anybody come close? We don't know, but why not? Dale Earnhardt was the last guy that raced out of the junkyard. He was a hero because he was a "Mill Hill" town guy. He came out of the cotton mills and worked at the tire store. He was a welder. He did all the things that we had to do. He was a kid who didn't have that silver spoon in his mouth. His Dad made him work. When he got the opportunity he made the best of it.
Wheeler: There probably won't be because unfortunately we've gone past the age of the working man's driver. These were guys that appealed to the truck driver and the backhoe operator, all that kind of thing. It's really unfortunate that things ended up that way. When Richard Petty retired, most of his fans jumped over to Bill Elliott. When Dale Earnhardt died, they didn't go anywhere. A lot of them didn't come back to races. They felt sorry for Jr. but he was a completely different sort. I think we lost a lot of fans that day because there was not a person that stepped forward with that kind of persona. Some of them could have done it -- guys with working man backgrounds -- but they didn't step forward and that was unfortunate. A guy that is driving an $800 old Ford F-150 truck has a hard time relating to a driver with a $1.5 million motorhome and jet.
SI.com: What inspired you most about him?
Childress: He did whatever it took to win. If you were a race fan and you loved him or hated him, you watched him. We'd walk out and we'd be pushing the car to the line. If they were booing or they were cheering, the cheers were always louder, but you got the boos when we were winning lot, and he said, "Boy, the day they quit hollering, we're in trouble." He loved those race fans.
Whitaker: The most was his will to win. You saw a scuffle or two and some bad blood. You didn't want to talk to Dale after a bad day if he got spun out or something. He wanted to win worse than anybody in racing.
Myers: The same thing as Richard Childress -- desire and determination. Those guys never, ever let anything personal get in the way of what they did professionally and I mean that in the highest compliment. If we went to test and we were tired or it rained, we would wait. Whatever it took to be the best that is what they did.
Wheeler: His damn determination. He was unbelievable. He didn't know what no meant. Somebody outrunning him was the worst thing that could happen to him. We were having a dull day at the speedway one day and I called Lawrence Taylor's agent and they had a strike going on then. I got an airplane that day and had Lawrence Taylor come down to the track to watch practice because we would get some publicity out of it. The first thing LT did when he got to the track was he wanted to see Earnhardt because he felt he was the 'Middle Linebacker of NASCAR.' When they met you could see a great deal of admiration between the two of them.
SI.com: What do you think was his greatest accomplishment?
Childress: He had so many. I think if you ask me for the truth, if you ask Dale Earnhardt, he'd probably say his family, because I know what a family man he was and what he thought about his family. On the race track, what meant so much to him was winning that '98 Daytona 500. I remember winning Indy. Winning a lot of races and championships, winning the first championship in '86 with us was so special because he didn't realize when he won the won in '80, he didn't realize what it was or what it took. He really appreciated that first one with us.
Whitaker: As far as racing it's the wins and the championships -- to come from nothing and get all that he has got. I think it's from where he started to where he ended up would be a dream for anybody. He was at the top of the heap. We knew he could drive, but to accomplish what he could accomplish, anybody that knew that was coming were fudging a bit. You'd be hard pressed to have anybody that knew he would be that good.
Myers: It's what he did for the sport in all aspects. The way he raced, and the way he presented himself. Everything that he did for the sport is his greatest accomplishment in my opinion.
Wheeler: Not so much the seven titles but the wins and the way he did it. I think that was his greatest accomplishment. I'm not real big on titles. He won some races that some guys would have never, ever had a chance and settled for second. If he smelled a win, he would do it and that is what the fans loved and why they bought the tickets to see it.
SI.com: What's one thing about Earnhardt that most people wouldn't know?
Childress: He got a little superstition, everything from peanuts to green and all that stuff, but I think one of the things the race fans wouldn't realize was how giving he was, and he didn't want people to know he was. He may buy some driver tires at a race track or do something with an engine financially, and for the fans, he thought the world of the kids. I can't tell you how many Make-A-Wish kids he made their dream come true by spending time with them. And it was more than just walking out and giving them an autograph. He always tried to make them feel special.
Whitaker: His generosity. He helped a lot of people and really didn't want people to know. He was really a bit of a teddy bear to be such a tough guy. In advertising, any time we wanted to use him we could. In the old days when Rusty Wallace and him were fighting so hard in races we could use them in advertising. He never asked for anything. He would call every now and them for his buddies that wanted tires because he knew we sold them to him cheap. He got a kick out of helping him buddies get better deals for tires. He liked that a lot.
Myers: Dale loved to pick and cut up but he did not like to take it. He could dish it out but he could not take it. He would do things to us but he sure didn't want us doing things back to him. That is how he was.
Wheeler: His really deep feeling for his friends and the people that helped him get where he was. He had a genuine feeling about that and it was really neat. He never forgot you. He would always say again and again he won't forget what you did. He would always say something if you were in the crowd.
SI.com: What's your fondest memory of him?
Childress: I've got a picture of him hanging outside my office, and every day I walk in I look at it and think about him. If I'm on a hunting trip I think about him, if I'm hunting in Africa, doing one of these exotic hunts I'm reminded that he wanted to do that when he retired. There's so, so many fond memories of Dale from fishing and hunting. I'm probably one of the more fortunate people to spend time with Dale doing things besides the racing. I wish I could say one, but it's hard to say it's just the one.
Whitaker: The fondest memories are back when we were at the old store and he would bring his buddies like Ken Schrader in and would tell them this is where they would buy their tires. He got a kick out of our old store. He liked the wooden floors and the old fashioned way we did things. He would come and visit us quite often and come and eat with us quite often, too. He would even help us change tires and put them on the truck.
Myers: I don't have just a fond memory. We spent so many years together, so many hours on the airplane. It was just a privilege and a pleasure to be a part of this race team and a part of his life for so many years. He was almost like a brother, but not like you think. We led our lives and he led his life. We met at the race track and we raced. At the end of the day we went home and he went home and met at the race track the next week. That is how we spent our time.
Wheeler: He had given me a bunch of hell about picking Dale Jr. in the All-Star Race. He said I was putting too much pressure on him. I said I wasn't putting pressure on him; he was going to win the race. He said B.S. and all that stuff and that he wished I hadn't done that. I shrugged it off. Of course, when he won the race it was a big deal. About three weeks later, Dale had me come up to the farm that day. I went up to the farm and spent most of the day with him and we got in his truck and ran around and showed me his Bulls and all that stuff. He had the only truck that was messed up worse than mine. It was a neat day. We talked about his dad and his mother and all those things and what he wanted to do. He was looking forward to the day when he didn't have to race any more that he could retire and not have to do anything but run the shop. But that was the Garage Maj Hal, not a race shop. I told him if he builds that big thing in the middle of a dairy farm and some drunk in Mooresville comes down and sees this thing he would swear the CIA has opened up an office and he will never have another drink the rest of his life.