Dale Earnhardtsits on a sofa in his office, softly singing a line from a country rock song:"I'm in a hurry, and I don't know why." At a nearby airport, a Learjetawaits his daily dash to somewhere, while across from Earnhardt in thefax-and-FedEx-cluttered office, his agent is making what sounds like a deal aminute on the horn, and in an outer office secretaries are answering the phonewith, "Good afternoon. Dale Earnhardt Incorporated."
The 43-year-oldman on the sofa bears only a vague resemblance to the ninth-grade dropout fromthe textile mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., who in his hard youth would wreckother dirt-trackers for grocery money. But the words he is singing hit home,for Earnhardt—not just the driver but the man—has always seemed to be in ahurry without knowing why. Now, though, his status has at last caught up withhis manner.
He is surroundedby stacks of picture postcards and cases of trading cards—today's shipment tofulfill mailed-in requests. No, yesterday's. "I'm this many behind," hesays. His right hand is a blur, autographing at perhaps three times the rate ofRichard Petty, the gentler man whom Earnhardt has replaced as the supremefigure of the NASCAR cult.
He sings somemore: "I don't know where I'm goin'...."
Sitting there onthe desk of the agent with the perfect name, Don Hawk, are 308 new requests forpersonal appearances, and only the ones for 1996 and beyond have a prayer.Filed in the outer office are thousands of charity requests—fulfilled, yet tobe fulfilled, unfulfillable, even bizarre. Take the widow "who wanted me todrive the hearse for her husband's funeral," Earnhardt says. Did he do it?A prolonged expletive serves as a no. Earnhardt doesn't go to funerals.Period.
Such has been thedeluge upon these offices since last October, when Earnhardt clinched hisseventh NASCAR Winston Cup season championship, tying Petty's lifetime record.Only a few years ago that mark was widely considered unapproachable. NowEarnhardt is expected—even by Petty, who retired in 1992—to break and thenobliterate the record with an eighth, a ninth, maybe a 10th championship. Theircurrent tie is no tie, really. NASCAR has a new kind of king.
Earnhardt'sbad-boy mystique has thrown a shadow as dark as his racing colors over the oldfolk heroism of the patient, easygoing King Richard. Gone from the teeminginfields of the racetracks are the red-and-blue flags bearing the sport'sformerly most popular number, Petty's 43. Now there are seas of black flagsemblazoned with Earnhardt's fiercely forward-thrust 3.
Earnhardt builthis reputation as a predator during the mid-and late '80s, when he left otherdrivers wrecked and outraged in his wake. And though he has since mellowed onthe track, he still rides the image: the Intimidator, he is widely called, orthe Man in Black.
The public isbuying the image. Earnhardt is raking in the bucks at a rate Petty neverimagined. The $ 1.77 million in bonuses Earnhardt received for winning the '94Winston Cup is almost paltry next to the income of his grassroots empire, DaleEarnhardt Inc., and its partner companies, which in 1993 grossed an estimated$42 million in souvenir sales alone. Earnhardt's numbers for '94 aren't all in,and anyway, he and Hawk—a nondenominational minister who, as vice president andgeneral manager of Dale Earnhardt Inc., negotiates Earnhardt's contracts—aren'ttelling. But it's reasonable to guess that in the driver's record-tying season,his souvenir sales surpassed $50 million.
More than 10,000General Motors dealerships nationwide sell Earnhardt items in their "proshops." Over the course of a year, various all-Earnhardt catalogs list 749different items. In a recent QVC appearance, Earnhardt sold $900,000 worth ofmerchandise in less than two hours. That almost matched his base salary of abit more than $1 million from his team, Richard Childress Racing, whose primarysponsor is GM Goodwrench.
Hawk hawks hishot commodity as "the Michael Jordan of his sport," and endorsementseekers want Earnhardt's name on everything from hunting knives to privatejets. "We've got what we think is the hottest property in motor sports inthe world," Hawk says. Agent hype or not, Hawk may be right, consideringthe death last May of Formula One's worldwide idol, Ayrton Senna.
Forbes magazinerecently estimated Earnhardt's personal income at $5.5 million a year, but thatseems low. Considering his salary, bonuses, 50% share of winnings (his careertotal winnings are $23 million, a world motor-sports record) and an average 25%of wholesale souvenir sales, Earnhardt's income might be more reasonablyestimated at $14 million a year. That puts him in the league of the top FormulaOne drivers. And if you throw in endorsements, revenues from poultry farmingand cattle ranching and income from a Chevrolet dealership, Earnhardt's annualtake could be as high as $20 million.
For fans, theprice of living vicariously through Earnhardt varies. You can buy a piece ofhis intimidating life for anywhere from $1 (a bumper sticker) to $5,500 (acustom leather jacket). In between, says Hawk, are "the different T-shirts,earrings, belts, belt buckles, suspenders, socks, sweatshirts, jackets, hats,plaques, pictures, postcards, toy cars, clocks, watches, key chains.... Man,we've got it all covered. And the fans want a little bit ofeverything."
The $5,500 jacketis only temporarily the high-end item, Hawk adds. Soon, certified race-wornEarnhardt helmets and driving uniforms will go on sale, and there's so littlefeel for what the market will bear that Earnhardt's contract with Scorecard, amajor marketer of memorabilia, does not yet specify their price. The only gaugefor projection is that Earnhardt uniforms have been sold at charity auctionsfor as much as $10,000.
Such memorabiliaprices aren't out of line with those commanded by Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, JoeMontana and Troy Aikman, names that Hawk always drops into conversations aboutEarnhardt. But this is not the NFL or the NBA. This is NASCAR—not a small-timeendeavor, but one relegated by the general public and the mainstream media tothe boondocks of the big time. So, whence cometh this avalanche of spending onall sorts of black stuff?
Identificationwith Earnhardt may be based on something as simple as the anger on the nation'sexpressways. This is the opinion of Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A.(Humpy) Wheeler, the savviest promoter in stock car racing, who built hissuccess on his ability to read the psyches of NASCAR fans, both hard-core andfringe. "I think everybody in the country is angry about having to drive inurban areas," says Wheeler. "They hate the traffic with a passion.Earnhardt drives through traffic too. And he won't put up with anything. He'sgoing to get through. And that's what they want to do—but they can't. SoEarnhardt is playing out their fantasies."
Then there's thegeneral surliness of our society, a public with an attitude that mirrorsEarnhardt's attitude. Whereas Petty was always out among his fans, mingling,signing autographs, talking amiably with anyone who approached him, Earnhardtrarely shows his face at a racetrack for longer than it takes to walk hurriedlyfrom his private motor coach to his race car. He displays a testy reluctance todo interviews or make unpaid promotional appearances. And even that, Wheelerbelieves, has made him popular, particularly in the South.
"Earnhardt isthe resurrected Confederate soldier," says Wheeler. "Where Petty wasalways compliant, Earnhardt will stand his ground and say, 'I'm not going to dothat.' And the people who love him are the people who are told, every day, whatto do and what not to do, and they've got all those rules and regulations to goby. That just draws them closer to him."
Close might notbe the right word. When Atlanta Motor Speedway general manager Ed Clark threw arelatively small cocktail party for Earnhardt in 1993, "Earnhardt sat onone side of the room and the fans sat on the other, and they just sort oflooked at each other," Clark recalls. "Even the ones bold enough to goover and get their pictures taken with Earnhardt would pose with him quicklyand then move on—as if they were all afraid he was going to punch them orsomething."
During his ownreign, Petty says, "everybody felt at ease with me—the president of theUnited States, the drunkest cat at the racetrack and everybody in between....With Earnhardt, there's a love-hate relationship." But, Petty adds,"destiny is a funny thing. The right people come along at the righttimes."
Earnhardt hasbeen a hard man, a man of and for harsh times, since the ninth grade—when, ashe once put it, he "couldn't hang, man, couldn't hang." He was alwaysin a hurry, never knowing why. "Never dreamed much," he says.
He came up farharder than Petty, who stepped into a well-established racing team with hisfamous father, Lee. Earnhardt, too, was from a racing family, but his father,Ralph, a maestro of the Carolina short tracks, died of a heart attack in 1973,leaving Dale to race on his own at age 22.
By 1975, whenPetty was in his prime, Earnhardt and his young family "probably shouldhave been on welfare," he once said. "We didn't have money to buygroceries." By the age of 24 he was with his second wife and had threechildren. He'd married first at 17, had a son, Kerry, then divorced, thenallowed his ex-wife and her new husband to adopt Kerry because, he said, "Icouldn't afford to make the child-support payments."
Then, hecontinued, "racing cost me my second marriage because of the things I tookaway from my family." He and his second wife, Brenda, had a daughter,Kelly, and a son, Dale Jr., but the race car always came first. "For ourfamily cars, we drove old junk Chevelles—anything you could get for $200,"Earnhardt said. He would borrow a few hundred dollars on Thursday to buy racingtires and parts, gambling that he would win enough money on Friday and Saturdaynights to repay the loan on Monday.
Typical was oneFriday-night dirt-track duel for third place with Stick Elliott. "Goinginto the last lap," Earnhardt said, "I got right up on old Stick'sbumper and caught hold of him just right and spun him around just as pretty asyou'll ever see. After the race, I was getting out of my car when somebody camerunning and told me [an enraged mechanic] was coming with a pistol. I ran outof the racetrack, jumped over the wall and took off.
"The nextFriday night, at the drivers' meeting, here comes Stick with his boys, and Ithink, Oh, hell. Stick walks up and stands beside me. He folds his arms andgrins and says, 'You know, you just might make a driver yet.' "
Wrecking otherdrivers wasn't gratuitous mischief—it was what Earnhardt felt he had to do toget by. And the instinct stuck with him. During his first nine years in theWinston Cup Series, beginning in 1979, when he was Rookie of the Year, hisreputation for wildness on the track grew. "With Earnhardt," saidarchrival Darrell Waltrip, "every lap is a controlled crash."
In 1987 Earnhardtwon 11 races and his third Winston Cup, but he wrecked so many other driversalong the way, inclining so many of his furious peers to payback, that even themild-mannered Petty predicted, "There'll come a Sunday when there won't beenough wreckers to pick up the pieces of his car."
Earnhardtshrugged and smirked and accused all the other drivers of crying. "Theyain't ever seen the kind of rough racing I've had to do in my life just tosurvive," he said. "They don't want to mess with this ol' boy."There it was: the direct tug on the heartstrings of an angry, hard-knockssegment of workaday America. Earnhardt's words could have come straight from aHank Williams Jr. song.
The War of'87—Earnhardt versus all the rest—ended after Earnhardt was called on thecarpet by NASCAR president Bill France Jr., who gave him a private warning thatmust have gotten through: Since then Earnhardt has steadily cleaned up hisdriving act. But the bad-boy image abides and looms, because every fan andevery NAS,CAR driver knows that Earnhardt can still win a fender scuffle shouldthe need arise.
He is "a puredriver," says Petty, who quickly adds, "I never claimed to be a greatdriver. All I wanted to be known as was a winner." Petty won bycalculation, finesse and superior financing. He turned out victories likemanufactured products—200 during his career, still a NASCAR record. Earnhardthas only 63 Winston Cup victories and will almost certainly never approachPetty in that department. During Petty's first 14 seasons, 1958 through 71, theNASCAR schedule included 40, 50, even 60 races a year. The current Winston Cupschedule has only 29 to 32 races a year. So Earnhardt will never have thestatistical opportunities Petty had. "He might have won three hundredraces," Petty says, "if he'd come along when I did."
Petty usuallymade a spectacle of a NASCAR race only at the end: He ran conservatively,waited for attrition, then made his move in the final few miles. Earnhardtmakes it a show all the way. Whether he actually wins a race is almostirrelevant to the spectators, whose pulses he makes pound all afternoon.Earnhardt turns a black Chevrolet into 3,500 pounds of virtual athlete,catching the draft with seat-of-the pants instinct, with pure feci for theturbulent air around him and the cars brushing his. He finds grooves wheretraction seems nonexistent, and he regularly gets in and out of jams no otherdriver could escape.
Some sayEarnhardt is the best there has ever been in NASCAR. But, says Petty,"there's never the best. There's always a faster gun." What is clear isthat Earnhardt is head and shoulders above the rest of the current NASCARdrivers.
"I had abetter supporting cast," says Petty. "I had [David] Pearson." Theretired Pearson remains second to Petty on the alltime wins list, with 105."About half a tick behind Pearson were [Calc] Yarborough [83 career wins]and [Bobby] Allison [84 wins]." Earnhardt's lack of stellar competition"is not his fault," adds Petty. "It's just thecircumstances."
Because of graveattrition over the past six years, Earnhardt is the only bona fide NASCAR starleft standing. Tim Richmond was billed as an onrushing peer of Earnhardt'sbefore he died of AIDS in 1989. Alan Kulwicki, the only driver to breakEarnhardt's string of championships in the '90s (Kulwicki won the Winston Cupin 1992), died in the crash of a private plane in April 1993. Davey Allison,who stood his ground with Earnhardt on the tracks and accused other NASCARdrivers of letting themselves be intimidated by his rival, died of injuriessuffered in a helicopter crash in July 1993. Ernie Irvan, who was rapidlygaining on Earnhardt during the first half of the '94 season, suffered severehead injuries at Michigan International Speedway last August, and the prognosisfor his return is uncertain.
Among thesurvivors. Bill Elliott, a prime rival of Earnhardt's through the mid-and late'80s, has languished in a slump recently. Elliott is a pure speed merchant,more suited to superspeedways—smooth but without much taste or instinct forbeating and banging on the short tracks. And Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt's currenttop competitor, suffers from chronic inconsistency. He won eight races in '94to Earnhardt's four. But Earnhardt finished races consistently high—the key toamassing Winston Cup points—while Wallace periodically did not finish, due tomechanical failures.
So here sitsEarnhardt, alone at the pinnacle of his sport, rolling in money...and stillhungry after all these years. Still in a hurry without knowing why.
With a flick ofhis hand he dismisses his deluge of wealth. It's simply what "makes me beable to afford to turn a wheel...craaaaank on that steering wheel. That's theonly thing important. I still want to race."
How much money isenough?
"Ain'tcounting money," he grouses. "Ain't counting it by the dollar. I'mcounting it by what's the next race. I want to win the next race. The next raceis the Daytona 500 [the '95 season opener, scheduled for Feb. 19]. I've neverwon it. I've won 24 races at the Daytona Speedway. More races there thananybody else, ever. But I've never won the Daytona 500."
The greatestoddity in NASCAR racing is that its best driver has never won its biggest race.But just after indicating that this sticks in his craw, Earnhardt snaps,"It bothers y'all [the media]. It don't bother me. I'm still confident thatI've got several shots to win it."
In recent yearsEarnhardt has been the dominant force of Daytona Speed Week each February,running away with various preliminary races and then dominating the 500itself—until the final laps. In 1990, his nearest miss, he commanded the racefor almost exactly 499 miles and then ran over debris that cut one of his tiresand allowed then unknown Derrike Cope to slip past him and win. (And even atthat moment of dumbfounding defeat, Earnhardt was spectacular, saving hisfishtailing car from what appeared to the passing Cope to be a certaincrash.)
Since then, everyDaytona 500 has been the same song, different verse. Last year Earnhardt'slate-breaking problem was that his car just didn't handle well. Being soconsistently strong at Daytona, controlling everything that can be controlled,"you gotta win it sometime," Earnhardt says. "Or severaltimes." And so, at least in his quest to win the biggest stock car racethere is, he has a reason to remain in a hurry.
Back in hisoffice, in a corner of his 400-acre farm near Mooresville, N.C., Earnhardtwonders aloud if there'll be time to pack a bag for wherever the Lear is aboutto take him today. (His leatherbound datebook says it's Atlanta.) He continuesto turn out the lightning autographs, concentrating now on the trading cards,and suddenly he sends one flying out of the stack and onto the coffee table,saying, "Hey, Don!"
Hawk examines it."That's a bootleg card," he says.
Earnhardt hascontracts with six different trading-card companies, and he autographs cards bythe "thousands and thousands and thousands," he says. But this lean,mean signing machine has a laser eye for one little unlicensed card in a boxwith hundreds of licensed ones.
"If youendorse it. you're saying it's legal." says Hawk. "Somebody got Dale tosign one of these [he holds up a picture postcard] at a racetrack, put it on alaser machine, made a copy, and now they've turned it into a trading card.There's no contract, no agreement with anybody."
"Fans sendthat stuff in to get it signed, and I can't sign it, and they get mad,"says Earnhardt.
In rushes acourier from Sports Image Inc., the major distributor of Earnhardt souvenirs,with a bootleg poster the company's scouts have caught. "You can sue thosepeople," Earnhardt tells the man. "You gotta get those guys. SportsImage sells our posters. It's Sports Image's damn responsibility to pursue thatsum-bitch. If I'm gonna have to pursue it, I'm gonna start doing those postersmyself!" (This is no idle threat. In the coming weeks Earnhardt would buyout Sports Image and make himself CEO.)
"They justwanted you to see it," says the courier.
"Seeing ain'tgonna fix it," Earnhardt snaps. "Ask Hawk. I don't want to talk aboutit."
Jeez. Pulling inas much money as Earnhardt and Hawk do, why are they so upset about one littlecounterfeit trading card and one bootleg poster?
"The blackmarket in NASCAR," says Hawk, "has got to be worth several milliondollars a quarter—in pictures, plaques, die-cast cars, collectibles."
Still—stacked upagainst $42 million?
"They must becountin' up all that bootleg——," Earnhardt says irritably, trying todismiss the big number.
Done at last withthe day's autographing, Earnhardt drops a worn-out felt-tip pen and says,"I'm out of time, but I'll keep talking." He stretches out on the sofa,resigning himself to a few more minutes of interview.
To have known himsince 1979 is to sense right now that "Earnhardt is antsy," as the lateJoe Whitlock often put it. Whitlock was Earnhardt's original image maker,aide-de-camp, adviser, handler, nurturer, even coddler. The brattish youngdriver was restless, idiosyncratic, unpolished, bewildered by his suddentransition from small time to big time. Whitlock babied him, became almost hissurrogate father, and he created an image for Earnhardt in the media—evenlanded him on the front page of The New York Times sports section in 1980, whenthat realm was virtually unreachable for NASCAR.
"Earnhardt'santsy—let's go," Whitlock would command the driver's entourage when hesensed that Earnhardt was in a hurry without knowing why. So it went for adecade, until Whitlock, a hard-drinking, old-school NASCAR star maker, could nolonger keep pace with the Earnhardt phenomenon and its new corporatehandlers.
To have knownEarnhardt and his circle since 1979, to have seen the way it was then and theway it is now, is to feel compelled to ask, "Do you ever think ofWhitlock?"
Earnhardt closeshis eyes. "All the time," he says.
The more Whitlockfelt passed by—by what even Earnhardt says "sometimes feels like a runawaytrain"—the more he drank. The more he drank, the more the corporatesponsors cut him off from Earnhardt. Just before Christmas of 1989, Whitlockwas shuffled off the Earnhardt/Goodwrench team, leaving him without a solidsource of income.
"Joe held tohis belief that once Dale knew of this, he would straighten it out—let them allknow that Joe would indeed be involved, as he had been from the beginning,"says Whitlock's widow, Hud. But "there wasn't much contact" withEarnhardt after Whitlock was shut out, she says. "So many others wereinvolved, and communications were channeled through so many directions.... Joetook it so personal.... The business loss bothered him, because we were infinancial trouble, but not as much as the loss of Dale himself."
"We werestill friends," says Earnhardt. "Just not close enough friends. Not asclose as we had been, in our time."
One of theirfinal contacts, Hud recalls, was late in 1990, when Earnhardt phoned and askedWhitlock to meet him. But Whitlock came home from the meeting unexpectedlyearly, she says. "He said, 'Well, we said a few things.' But he said Daleseemed to be in a real hurry."
On May 6, 1991,left behind at age 55, flat broke, Whitlock sat alone in his Lake Norman, N.C.,house, on which he had received a foreclosure notice. The rest of the NASCARtraveling circus was at Talladega, Ala. Sometime during the live telecast of arace in which Earnhardt and Waltrip—another driver whose early image Whitlockhad helped mold—were battling for the lead, Whitlock walked out to his sideyard with a 12-gauge shotgun, knelt down and blew off the back of his head.
Earnhardt liesthere on the sofa with his eyes closed. He says, "Ralph Earnhardt, JoeWhitlock, Neil Bonnett [Dale's closest friend among drivers, killed in a crashat Daytona last February]. That's the toughest part of my mental life. You loseyour dad. whom you idolized, who taught you everything you know. Then you losea close friend who you weren't close enough to, who helped you so much in yourlife. Then you lose a close friend who shared so much with you. It's reallybeen tough. Those are the three toughies in my...in the life of DaleEarnhardt."
He sighs, sitsup. "Them kids still don't understand," he says of Mark and MargaretWhitlock, Joe's adult children from the first of his four marriages. "Theydon't think I cared about their daddy." Earnhardt did not attend thefuneral; instead he spent that day roaming his farm alone. He summoned Mark andMargaret to the farm and asked them to retrieve from Joe's house what hebelieved to be material for a book about him. "I said, 'Joe Whitlock wasgonna write a book on me.' I said, 'You need that for you. And for Joe.' Theythought that that was all 1 cared about," Earnhardt says.
But didn'tWhitlock know things about Earnhardt that others didn't?
"Well,yeah," Earnhardt says. "He was the only one who could write it. I'djust as soon [Mark and Margaret] got it and destroyed it, rather than it goingto the wrong person, or letting her [Hud, whom Earnhardt dislikes] sellit."
Earnhardt surveysthe piles of autographed items around him. "Godamighty," he says."Unbelievable."
He gets up andwalks to an outer office and has a secretary-pull open the file drawers full ofcharity requests. "I don't have time for family life," he says somberlyof his third wife, Teresa, and their six-year-old daughter. Taylor. He returnsto the sofa and sits, though he gives a sense that it's almost time to go.
Does he even feellike the same person anymore?
With a slightchuckle he says, "Sometimes I do. Sometimes you wonder. It isunnnn-believable, though."
It seems amillion years, he is told, since that November afternoon at Atlanta in 1978,when an unknown kid got a one-shot ride with Osterlund Racing and during therace was slammed broadside-to-broadside by veteran Dave Marcis, whereupon heslammed Marcis back without so much as a serious swerve, attracting theattention of Joe Whitlock.
"Damn! Lookat Earnhardt's kid!" Whitlock boomed up in the press box, identifying Dalein the only way anyone else would recognize: as the son of the old dirt-trackerRalph Earnhardt. Whitlock took Earnhardt's kid under his wing and made himEarnhardt, "taught me that there's more to racing than driving a car,"as Dale said, and got him organized for the stardom that Whitlock swore wouldcome. Dale Earnhardt Inc. was created in
1979. And the rest is....
"Don't youwish you had all that stuff Joe Whitlock wrote?" Earnhardt says. He sighsand half-smiles. "All my rowdy friends," he says, "have rowdied ondown."
But there's notime to dwell on that. Gotta go. Still in a hurry. At least the Lear and theleather datebook give him reasons why. "I'm going home," he says, butjust long enough "to pack my clothes."
He travels light,the only extra baggage being those "three toughies," the ghosts in thelife of Dale Earnhardt.