Ralph Dale Earnhardt, Sr. (April 29, 1951 – February 18, 2001) was an American race car driver, best known for his career driving stock cars in NASCAR's top division. Earnhardt had four children, Kerry, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, Dale Jr., and Taylor Earnhardt. His widow, Teresa Earnhardt (whom he married in 1982) is the owner of Dale Earnhardt, Inc., the race team and merchandising corporation Earnhardt founded with her in February 1980.
Dale Earnhardt is known for his success in the Winston Cup Series, now known as the Sprint Cup Series. He won seventy-six races (including his only Daytona 500 victory in 1998), and his seven championships are tied for most all-time with Richard Petty. His highly aggressive driving style made him a fan favorite and earned him the nicknames "Ironhead", "Mr. Restrictor Plate", "The Man in Black" and most famously, "The Intimidator."
Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500, the fourth NASCAR driver to die in a nine month period that began with the death of Adam Petty in May 2000. Due in large part to overwhelming fan outcry, NASCAR began an intensive focus on safety that has seen the organization begin to require the use of head-and-neck restraints such as the HANS device, oversee the installation of SAFER barriers at all oval tracks, set rigorous new rules for seat-belt and seat inspection, develop a roof-hatch escape system (used briefly, but later eliminated), and develop a next-generation race car built with extra driver safety in mind, dubbed the Car of Tomorrow.
When he was 17, he married his first wife, Latane Key, in 1968. Key gave birth to Earnhardt's first son, Kerry, in 1969. They were subsequently divorced in 1970. In 1971, Earnhardt married his second wife, Brenda Gee (the daughter of NASCAR car builder Robert Gee), who gave birth to a daughter, Kelley, in 1972, and a son, Dale Jr., in 1974. Not long after his second son was born Dale and Brenda divorced. Dale then married his last wife, Teresa.
In his rookie season, Earnhardt won four poles (one race at Bristol), had 11 Top 5 finishes, 17 Top 10 finishes, and finished 7th in the points standings, in spite of missing four races because of a broken collarbone, winning Rookie of the Year honors.
In his sophomore season, Earnhardt, now with 20-year old Doug Richert as his crew chief, began the season winning the Busch Clash. With wins at Atlanta, Bristol, Nashville, Martinsville, and Charlotte, Earnhardt won his first Winston Cup championship. To this day, Earnhardt is the only driver in NASCAR Winston Cup history to win Rookie of the Year honors, and the following season win the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship.
In 1981, after Osterlund sold his team to J. D. Stacy during the season, Earnhardt left for Richard Childress Racing, and finished the season 7th in the points standings, despite not winning any races. The following year, at Childress' suggestion, he joined car owner Bud Moore for the 1982 and 1983 seasons driving the #15 Wrangler Jeans Ford Thunderbird (Earnhardt's only full-time Ford ride in his career). During the 1982 season, Earnhardt struggled. Although he won at Darlington, he failed to finish 15 races, and completed the season 12th in the points standings, for his career worst finish. In 1983, Earnhardt rebounded and won his first of 12 Twin 125 Daytona 500 qualifying races. Earnhardt won at Nashville and at Talladega, and finished eighth in the points standings.
The 1986 season saw Earnhardt win his second career Winston Cup Championship and the first owner's championship for RCR. He won five races and had ten Top 5 and sixteen Top 10 finishes. Earnhardt successfully defended his championship the following year, visiting victory lane eleven times and winning the championship by 489 points over "Awesome" Bill Elliott. In the process, Earnhardt set a NASCAR modern era record of four consecutive wins and won five of the first seven races. In the 1987 season Earnhardt earned his nickname "The Intimidator" after spinning out Elliott in the final segment of "The Winston", a non-points event now known as the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
The 1988 season saw Earnhardt racing with a new sponsor, GM Goodwrench, which replaced Wrangler Jeans. During this season Earnhardt garnered a second nickname, "The Man in Black", owing to the black paint scheme in which the #3 car was painted. He was also called "Darth Vader" more than once because of the black uniform and car, adding to his notoriety as a driver who would wreck you if he couldn't pass you. He won three times in 1988, finishing third in the points standings behind Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace. The following year, Earnhardt won five times, but a late spin out at North Wilkesboro arguably cost him the 1989 championship, as Rusty Wallace edged out Earnhardt for the championship.
The 1990 season started with heartbreak at Daytona. Speed Week started auspiciously with victories in the Busch Clash and his heat of the Gatorade Twin 125's. Near the end of the 500, he had a 4 second lead when the final caution flag came out with a handful of laps to go. When the green flag waved, Earnhardt was leading Derrike Cope. On the final lap, Earnhardt ran over a piece of metal in the final turn, cutting a tire. Cope, in an upset, won the race while Earnhardt finished 5th. The #3 Goodwrench Chevy team took the flat tire that cost them the win and hung it on the shop wall. Apparently, this strategy to inspire worked, because Earnhardt won nine races. He also won his 4th Winston Cup title, beating out Mark Martin by just 26 points. Earnhardt also won The Winston, his second, the first to win two.
The 1991 season saw Earnhardt win his 5th Winston Cup championship. He scored just 4 wins, but took the title by 195 points over Ricky Rudd. One of the biggest highlights of the season for Earnhardt was scoring the win at North Wilkesboro. Harry Gant, who had tied Earnhardt's mark of 4 consecutive wins and was going for a 5th, lost the brakes late in the race, giving Earnhardt the chance he needed to make the pass for the win.
After winning his second set of consecutive titles, Dale Earnhardt was determined to make it 3 in a row, but Ford's new engine and aerodynamic package for the Thunderbird dominated, winning 13 consecutive races from the end of the 1991 season into the first nine races of 1992. Earnhardt's only win in 1992 came at Charlotte, in the prestigious Coca-Cola 600, ending the 13-race win streak for the Ford teams. Earnhardt finished a career-low 12th in the points for the second time in his career, and the only time he had finished that low since joining RCR. At the end of the year, longtime crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine left to become a driver. Andy Petree took over as crew chief.
Hiring Petree turned out to be beneficial, as the #3 GM Goodwrench Chevy returned to the front in 1993. Earnhardt once again came close to a win at the Daytona 500, and dominated Speedweeks before finishing 2nd to Dale Jarrett on a last-lap pass. Earnhardt scored 6 wins en route to his 6th Winston Cup title, including wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and The Winston at Charlotte, and the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Earnhardt beat Rusty Wallace for the championship by 80 points.
In 1994, Earnhardt achieved a feat that he himself had believed to be impossible - he scored his seventh Winston Cup championship, tying the legendary Richard Petty. Earnhardt was very consistent, scoring 4 wins, and winning the title by over 400 points over Mark Martin. Earnhardt sealed the deal at Rockingham by winning the race over Rick Mast. Although Earnhardt continued to dominate in the seasons ahead, this proved to be the last Winston Cup title of his career.
Earnhardt started off the 1995 season by finishing second in the Daytona 500 to Sterling Marlin. He won 5 races in 1995, including his first road course victory at Sears Point. He also won the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a win he called the biggest of his career. But in the end, Earnhardt lost the championship to Jeff Gordon by just 34 points.
Earnhardt began 1996 with a repeat of 1993 - he dominated Speedweeks only to finish second in the Daytona 500 to Dale Jarrett for a second time. Earnhardt won early in the year, scoring consecutive victories at Rockingham and Atlanta. In late July in the DieHard 500 at Talladega, he was in the points lead and looking for his eighth title despite the departure of crew chief Andy Petree. Late in the race, Ernie Irvan lost control of his #28 Havoline Ford Thunderbird, igniting a frightening crash that saw Earnhardt's #3 Chevrolet hit the tri-oval wall nearly head-on at almost 200 miles per hour. After hitting the wall, Earnhardt's car flipped and slid across the track, in front of race-traffic. His car was hit in the roof and windshield, and the accident led NASCAR to mandate the "Earnhardt Bar", a metal brace located in the center of the windshield that reinforces the roof in case of a similar crash.
Rain-delays had canceled the live telecast of the race and most fans first learned of the accident during the night's sports newscasts. Video of the crash showed what appeared to be a fatal incident, but once medical workers arrived at the car, Earnhardt climbed out and waved to the crowd, refusing to be loaded onto a stretcher despite a broken collarbone, sternum, and shoulder blade. Many thought the incident would end his season early, but Earnhardt refused to give up. The next week at Indianapolis, he started the race but exited the car on the first pit stop, allowing Mike Skinner to take the wheel. When asked, Earnhardt said that vacating the #3 car was the hardest thing he'd ever done. The following weekend at Watkins Glen, he drove the #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet to the fastest time in qualifying, earning the "True Grit" pole. T-shirts emblazoned with Earnhardt's face were quickly printed up, brandishing the caption, "It Hurt So Good." Earnhardt led most of the race and looked to have victory in hand, but fatigue finally took its toll and Earnhardt ended up 6th, behind race winner Geoff Bodine. Earnhardt did not win again in 1996, but still finished 4th in the standings behind Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett. David Smith departed as crew chief of the #3 team and RCR at the end of the year for personal reasons, and was replaced by Larry McReynolds.
In the 1997 season, Earnhardt went winless for only the second time in his career. The only (non-points) win came during Speedweeks at Daytona in the Twin 125-mile qualifying race, his record 8th straight win in the event. Once again in the hunt for the Daytona 500 with 10 laps to go, Earnhardt was taken out of the Daytona 500 by a late crash which sent his car upside down on the backstretch. Earnhardt hit the low point of his year when he blacked out early in the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington, causing him to hit the wall. Afterward, he was disoriented and it took several laps before he could find his pit stall. When asked, Earnhardt complained of double vision which made it difficult to pit. Mike Dillon was brought in to relieve Earnhardt for the remainder of the race. Earnhardt was evaluated at a hospital and cleared to race the very next week, but the cause of the blackout and double vision was never determined. Despite no wins (all of Chevrolet's wins were by Hendrick Motorsports – Pontiac won one race, Ford won every other race in 1997) the RCR team finished the season 5th in the final standings, with no DNF's.
After 20 years of disappointment in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt finally won the race in 1998. He started Speedweeks by winning his Twin 125-mile qualifier race for the ninth straight year. On race day, Dale showed himself to be a contender early. Halfway through the race, however, it seemed that Jeff Gordon had the upper hand. But by lap 138, Earnhardt had taken the lead, and thanks to a push by teammate Mike Skinner, he was able to maintain it. Earnhardt beat Bobby Labonte to the checkered flag in the race. Afterwards, there was a large show of respect for Earnhardt, in which every crew member of every team lined pit road to shake his hand as he made his way to Victory Lane. Earnhardt then drove his #3 into the infield grass, starting a trend of post-race celebrations. He spun the car twice, throwing grass and leaving tire tracks in the shape of a #3 in the grass. Earnhardt then spoke about the victory, saying "I have had a lot of great fans and people behind me all through the years and I just can't thank them enough. The Daytona 500 is ours. We won it! We won it! We won it!" Unfortunately, the rest of the season did not go as well. He slipped to 12th in the standings halfway through the season, and Richard Childress decided to make a crew chief change, taking Mike Skinner's crew chief Kevin Hamlin and putting him with Earnhardt while giving Skinner Larry McReynolds. Earnhardt was able to climb back to 8th in the final standings.
Before the 1999 season, fans began discussing Earnhardt's age and speculating that with his son, Dale Jr, getting into racing Earnhardt might be contemplating retirement. Earnhardt swept both races for the year at Talladega, leading most observers to conclude that Earnhardt's talent had become limited to the restrictor plate tracks, which require a unique skill set and an exceptionally powerful car to win. But halfway through the year, Earnhardt began to show some of the old spark. In the August race at Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt led laps late in the race and nearly pulled off his first win on a non-restrictor plate track since 1996.
One week later, he provided the sport with one of its most controversial moments.
At the August Bristol race, Earnhardt found himself in contention to win his first short track race since Martinsville in 1995. When a caution came out with 15 laps to go, leader Terry Labonte got hit from behind by the lapped car of Darrell Waltrip. His spin put Earnhardt in the lead with 5 cars between him and Labonte with 5 laps to go. Labonte had four fresh tires and Earnhardt was driving on old tires, which made Earnhardt's car considerably slower. Labonte caught Earnhardt and passed him coming to the white flag, but Earnhardt drove hard into turn two, bumping Labonte and spinning him around. Dale went on to collect the win while spectators booed and made obscene gestures. "I didn't try to turn him around, I just wanted to rattle his cage", Earnhardt said of the incident. Earnhardt finished 7th in the standings that year, and looked like a contender again.
In the 2000 season, Earnhardt had a resurgence, which some attributed to neck surgery he underwent to correct a lingering injury from his 1996 Talladega crash. He scored what many considered the 2 most exciting wins of the year - winning by .006 seconds over Bobby Labonte at Atlanta, then gaining seventeen positions in the final four laps to win at Talladega, claiming his only No Bull million dollar bonus. Earnhardt also enjoyed strong second-place runs at Richmond and Martinsville, tracks where he'd struggled through the late '90s. On the strength of these performances, Earnhardt took the No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo to 2nd in the standings. However, poor performances at the road course of Watkins Glen, where he wrecked coming out of the innerloop, and mid-pack runs at intermediate tracks like Lowe's and Dover, denied Earnhardt the coveted eighth championship title.
Despite the early start, Speedweeks was a disappointment for Earnhardt, who had a long-running tradition of winning at least one race during the two-week season kick-off. Earnhardt finished second to Tony Stewart in the Budweiser Shootout. He was also denied victory in the Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying race in which he participated. Earnhardt had won every Twin 125 event he competed in during the 1990s, and was in 3rd place on the final lap in 2001 when Sterling Marlin pulled off a slingshot pass going down the backstretch.
Taking it in stride, Earnhardt appeared relaxed and confident in television interviews on the morning of the 2001 Daytona 500. When the Daytona 500 started, Earnhardt showed early promise, leading the race and running up front for most of the event.
A multi-car wreck late in the race eliminated several cars in spectacular fashion. Tony Stewart, who had beaten Earnhardt in the Budweiser Shootout, found his car tumbling wildly down the backstretch. As it tumbled, Earnhardt managed to weave his way through wrecked cars and come out unscathed. The race was stalled to facilitate cleanup of the track, and when the race resumed, it was Earnhardt and DEI drivers Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip who were running up front. As the laps wound down, Waltrip was leading Earnhardt Jr. and Earnhardt.
On the front stretch coming to 3 laps to go, Sterling Marlin made contact with Earnhardt's left rear fender. Earnhardt's car wiggled but Dale kept control and he remained in third position. Marlin was known for having a fast car throughout the race, and Earnhardt repeatedly blocked his attempts at passing during the last few laps. With less than two laps remaining, Darrell Waltrip commented that "Sterling has beat the front end off of that old Dodge (Marlin's car) trying to get around Dale (Earnhardt)".
Heading into Turn 3 on the last lap, Earnhardt was racing three wide with Marlin to his left and Schrader to his right. In the corner, Earnhardt's left rear fender made slight contact with Marlin's front bumper.
Earnhardt’s car slid off the track's steep banking, onto the flat apron, and then turned sharply up the track toward the outside retaining wall. As the #3 car came up the track it collided with the #36 Pontiac driven by Ken Schrader. Schrader's car hit Earnhardt's car just behind the passenger door, causing both cars to run nose-first into the wall. Earnhardt's #3 hit at a critical angle at nearly 150 miles per hour. The right-rear wheel assembly broke off the car on impact. The hood pins severed and the hood flapped open, slamming against the windshield as the car slid slowly down the track. To most observers, the crash looked minor, and certainly not as dramatic as his famous 1996 wreck at Talladega, when Earnhardt's car was pelted several times in the roof and windshield as it rolled across the track.
While Michael Waltrip raced toward the checkered flag to claim his first victory, with Earnhardt Jr. close behind, the cars of Earnhardt and Schrader slid off the track's asphalt banking toward the infield grass just inside of turn four. After climbing from his car, Schrader peered into Earnhardt's car, only to jump back and signal for EMTs. As medical crews converged upon the crash scene, NASCAR on FOX reporter Jeanne Zelasko asked Schrader about Earnhardt's condition. "I'm not a doctor, but I got the heck out of the way as soon as they got there," Schrader said solemnly. Earnhardt was taken to Halifax Medical Center by ambulance after being removed from his car. Hours later, at a press conference, NASCAR President Mike Helton made the formal announcement to the world saying, "Undoubtedly this is one of the toughest announcements I've personally had to make. After the accident in Turn 4 at the end of the Daytona 500, we've lost Dale Earnhardt.
Several press conferences were held in the days following Earnhardt's death. Some fans wrote threatening letters to Sterling Marlin, blaming him for causing the wreck. Quickly thereafter, Earnhardt's son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., publicly and adamantly absolved Marlin of any responsibility.
Earnhardt's #3 car was immediately retired by team owner Richard Childress, who made a public pledge that the number would never again adorn the side of a black car sponsored by GM Goodwrench, the color scheme and sponsor Earnhardt had driven since 1988. Earnhardt's team was re-christened as the #29 team, with the same sponsor but with a new look (a reversed color scheme with white with black numerals and a black stripe on the bottom) for the following races at Rockingham and Las Vegas. For Atlanta, a new GM Goodwrench scheme was introduced, with angled red stripes and a thin blue pinstripe, resembling the Childress AC Delco Chevrolets driven in the Busch Series.
Childress' second-year Busch Series driver Kevin Harvick was named as Earnhardt's replacement driver, beginning with the race following Earnhardt's death held at the North Carolina Speedway. Special hats bearing the #3 were distributed to everyone at the track to honor Earnhardt, and the Childress team wore blank uniforms out of respect, something which disappeared quickly and was replaced by the wearing of the GM Goodwrench Service Plus uniforms.
Fans took it upon themselves to begin honoring Earnhardt by holding three fingers aloft on the third lap of every NASCAR Cup race, and the television coverage of FOX and NBC went silent for each third lap from Rockingham through to the next Daytona 500 in honor of Earnhardt (and, after 9/11, in remembrance of those who perished that day). For the first three weeks after Earnhardt's death, on-track incidents brought out the caution flag on lap three. Three weeks after Earnhardt's death, Harvick scored his first career Cup win at Atlanta driving a car that had been prepared for Earnhardt. In the final lap of the 2001 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500, Harvick beat Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds, and the images of Earnhardt's longtime fueler, Danny "Chocolate" Myers, crying after the victory, Harvick's tire-smoking burnout on the frontstretch with three fingers held aloft outside the driver's window, and the electrifying FOX television call by Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, and Darrell Waltrip, concluding with "Gordon got loose, it's Harvick! Harvick by inches!" are memorable to many NASCAR fans. The win was also considered cathartic for a sport whose epicenter had been ripped away.
Other notable events include:
In 2002, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., drove a Chevrolet Monte Carlo in the Busch Grand National series race at Daytona. The car featured Oreo Cookies as a primary sponsor, and carried the trademarked #3 on the doors and roof. He went on to win the race. As of 2006, he hasn't driven the #3 again (in fact, no other team in any of the major NASCAR series has used it since Earnhardt's death), however in interviews he has stated that he would "probably finish his career driving the #3 car".
A common misconception is that Richard Childress Racing "owns the rights" to the #3 (fueled by the fact that Kevin Harvick's car has a little #3 as an homage to Earnhardt), but in fact no team owns the rights to this or any other number: NASCAR decides who uses which number. However, according to established NASCAR procedures, RCR would have priority over other teams if and when the time came to reuse the number. RCR and the Earnhardt estate do own the rights to various black and red #3 logos used during Earnhardt's lifetime; however these rights would not prevent a future racing team from using a different #3 design. (Also, a new #3 team would, in any case, need to create logos which fit with their sponsor's logos.)
It is generally believed that current NASCAR owners have agreed never to use the #3 in Sprint Cup competition again, although this is not official NASCAR policy.
Only the former International Race of Champions has actually retired the #3, which they did in a rule change effective in 2004. Anyone wishing to use the #3 again has to use #03 instead.
In 2004, ESPN released a made-for-TV movie entitled 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story which used a new (but similarly colored) #3 logo. Even though the movie was a sympathetic portrayal of Earnhardt's life, the producers did get sued for using the #3 logo. In December 2006, the ESPN lawsuit was settled, but details were not released to the public.
In 2008, Andy Santerre Motorsports will use the #3, in its trademark stylised RCR design, in the Camping World Series East with Austin Dillon driving; Dillon is the grandson of Childress.
Earnhardt kept his personal life relatively private. He enjoyed the company of his family, being outdoors, hunting and fishing, and actively working on his farm in Mooresville. In contrast with his image as a hardnosed competitor on the track, off the track he was known to his friends as someone who was charitable and generous, but usually kept that side of himself hidden from the rest of the world.
Earnhardt has a street in his hometown of Kannapolis named after him. Dale Earnhardt Boulevard (originally Earnhardt Road) is marked as Exit 60 off Interstate 85, northeast of Charlotte. Dale Earnhardt Boulevard is also the start of The Dale Trail, a self-guided driving tour of landmarks in the lives of Dale and his family. A road between Kannapolis and Mooresville, near the headquarters of DEI, has been given the designation State Highway 3 by the North Carolina Department of Transportation. In addition, Exit 73 off Interstate 35W, one of the entrances to Texas Motor Speedway, is named "Dale Earnhardt Way".
Recording artist Jason Swain's song "Victory Lane" was among many songs released in tribute to Dale Earnhardt posthumously.
Atlanta Braves assistant coach Ned Yost was a friend of Earnhardt, and Richard Childress. When Yost was named Milwaukee Brewers manager, he changed jersey numbers, from #5 to #3 in Earnhardt's honor. (#3 is retired by the Braves in honor of outfielder Dale Murphy, so Yost could not make the change while in Atlanta.)
Between the 2004 and 2005 JGTC (subsequently renamed Super GT from 2005) season, Hasemi Sport competed in the series with a sole black G'Zox sponsored Nissan 350Z with the same number and letterset as Earnhardt on the roof.
During the April 29, 2006 - May 1, 2006 NASCAR weekend races at Talladega Superspeedway, the Dale Earnhardt Inc cars competed in identical special black paint schemes on Dale Earnhardt Day, held annually on his birthday, April 29th. Martin Truex Jr won the Aaron's 312 in the black car, painted to reflect Earnhardt's Intimidating Black #3 Winston Cup Car. In the Nextel Cup race on May 1st, #8 Dale Earnhardt Jr., #1 Martin Truex Jr., and #15 Paul Menard competed in cars with the same type of paint scheme.
On June 18 2006 at Michigan for the 3M Performance 400 Dale Earnhardt Jr ran a special vintage Budweiser car to honor his father and his grandfather Ralph Earnhardt. He finished 3rd after rain caused the race to be cut short. The car was painted to resemble Ralph's 1956 dirt cars, and carried 1956-era Budweiser logos to complete the throwback look.
In the summer of 2007, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) with the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, announced it will fund an annual undergraduate scholarship at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina for students interested in motorsports and automotive engineering. Scholarship winners are also eligible to work at DEI in internships. The first winner was William Bostic, a senior at Clemson majoring in mechanical engineering.
"Earnhardt Tower", a seating section at Daytona International Speedway, the track where Earnhardt was killed, was named in his honor.
In 2008, DEI and RCR teamed up to make a special COT sporting Earnhardt's 1998 Daytona 500 paint scheme to honor the tenth anniversary of his Daytona 500 victory. The throwback car featured the authentic 1998-era design on a current-era car, a concept similar to modern throwback jerseys in other sports. The car was later sold in 1:64 and 1:24 scale models.
In 2007, a documentary-style movie, entitled Dale, was released in theatres and, according to the movie website, includes original, never-before-seen footage of Earnhardt's racing career and personal life, as well as family photos and historical interviews with the seven-time champion that give the viewer an unprecedented look at the man Earnhardt truly was. Dale Movie Dale The Movie was released in early 2007 showing only in major NASCAR markets. The film is a collaboration between NASCAR Media and CMT, and was released on DVD in December 2007