by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
On April 29, 1952, in Kannapolis, North Carolina, NASCAR racing legend Ralph Dale Earnhardt was born to Martha and Ralph Earnhardt. The elder Ralph was a stock car driver, and Dale spent a lot of time in the garage with his father learning about stock cars and engines. Ralph never became the star that his son would become, but, undoubtedly, he provided the foundation for Dale’s 76 career wins and induction to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Dale knew that he wanted to be a racecar driver at a young age. At 16, he dropped out of school to pursue his passion, and within three years he had built his own stock car. Though many recognize Earnhardt as the driver of a No. 3 black Chevrolet Monte Carlo, his first car was a hot pink 1956 Ford that his neighbors had given him. Amusingly, Dale couldn’t afford to repaint his hot pink hot rod, so the man later known as “The Intimidator” was forced to race his hot pink Ford on dirt tracks in southern North Carolina. His first car may have been unattractive, but his driving more than made up for it. He quickly earned the reputation for being a talented and often aggressive driver.
The Cabarrus County native was offered a chance to drive for NASCAR when he was 28 years old. He quickly made a name for himself, winning the Rookie of the Year award after his first year and the NASCAR Winston Cup championship after his second. To date, he is the only NASCAR driver to accomplish this.
Earnhardt was fined several times over the course of his career for reckless driving and bump drafting, a style of driving that remained with him long after he retired his hot pink 1956 Ford. Off the track, however, Earnhardt befriended many drivers, and most described him as easy-going. When he wasn’t racing, he could be found hunting, fishing, and working on his North Carolina farm.
Earnhardt was celebrated for his blue-collar image and his fearless driving style. For many, he was a hero. But, in 2001, he would be taken early from his beloved sport in the last lap of the Daytona 500 when his car crashed into a wall. Dale Earnhardt’s death, at only 49 years old, came as a shock to the racing world and devastated his loyal North Carolina fan base. Following his death, NASCAR increased its safety regulations, including the use of harnesses to protect drivers from high-impact collisions like the one that killed Dale.
Despite a career that had been cut short by his tragic death, Dale Earnhardt is still regarded as one of the most successful racecar drivers of all time. He won 76 Winston Cup races (including the Daytona 500) and a record-tying seven NASCAR Winston Cup Championships in just 21 years on the circuit. He remains the all-time leader at the Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt left his mark on the world of NASCAR. His legacy would influence drivers for years to come, not the least of whom was his son, famed racecar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR reporter Matt Crossman observed that Dale Earnhardt “was the unquestioned leader among drivers and unofficial spokesman for them when issues arose between competitors and the sport’s governing body. No driver has filled that role in anything close to the same way since.” The No. 3 remains unused by NASCAR today as a tribute to “The Intimidator.”
“I wanted to race,” he once said, “that’s all I ever wanted to do. I didn’t care about work or school or anything. All I wanted to do was to work on race cars and then drive race cars. It was always my dream, and I was just fortunate enough to be able to live out that dream.”
And we were fortunate enough to see that dream unfold in North Carolina.