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Monday, February 7, 2011
Riding with Earnhardt was knowing him

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

This is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel, written the night Dale Earnhardt died. Used with permission of the Orlando Sentinel, copyright 2001.

Riding with him. Always riding with him. Those are the times that come back so clearly now, riding passenger with him driving. Those were the only times when you could really see him, really hear him, really know him …

It's 1987 again: raining so hard you can't see Interstate 40, somewhere deep in North Carolina on an April day. Teresa and the kids are with us in the station wagon, and Dale is kicked back at the wheel, virtually reclined, no seat belt, steering with his left forefinger, thumping 12-year-old Dale Jr. on the ears with his right.

Maybe 50 yards ahead, out of nowhere in the fog and rain, both lanes of traffic are stopped dead still. Nowhere to go, I mean nowhere for a mortal man to steer that station wagon safely. No point in hitting the brakes, either. That would be useless.

The left forefinger flicks toward the right. Now we're on top of the center white line, maybe 60 mph, headed up the bumpers of both lanes of traffic. No, we've slipped between both lanes of traffic. There's a gap, flick left. Another gap, flick right. Back on the center line again, between two more cars, never slowing, flick left, flick right, and just as suddenly we come to a stop, safely, in the righthand lane.

He grins at Dale Jr., thumps him on the ear again, winks at Teresa as if he were just havin' a little fun with her. But he turns, glances at me and winces mightily for a moment, to let me know he knows just how close to disaster all of us came.

Running 105 mph -- that's where the pickup's speedometer pegs all the way over -- down a country highway, coming back from deer hunting, neither of us wearing a seat belt, and he says to me:

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt came up the hard way on North Carolina dirt tracks, and he never forgot it.

"Hold on."

"What?"

"Hold on."

Before I can ask why, he throws the pickup into a bootlegger turn, a 180 spin at 105 mph, and the entire world goes up in tire smoke as I'm flung across the cab -- across him with my head hanging out the driver's side window as we come to a stop.

He shoves me hard: "Git offa me! I tol' you to hold on!"

I gather myself, and I am raging, livid, the first cusswords on the tip of my tongue, and I look at him and he's grinning: "Next time I tell you to hold on, I bet you'll do it."

Riding down another "North C'lina" (his pronunciation) highway, talking about the good times, talking about the hard times. Nobody had it harder coming up in racing than Dale. His father died in 1973, and after that he was on his own, runnin' dirt for grocery money.

"I'd borrow money on 90-day notes from the bank just to race, and try to pay it back the next week. Family [the second one, with Dale Jr. and daughter Kelley and second wife Brenda] didn't have groceries, and my wife would stand in the doorway with them kids and cry when I'd back out of the driveway haulin' that ol' dirt car.

"We prob'ly ought to have been on welfare. People kept tellin' me, 'Boy, you better git you a real job and quit that ol' racin'.' "

One night at Cherokee Speedway in South Carolina, third place paid enough for grocery money. "So ol' Stick Elliott's runnin' third and I'm fourth, and I ease on up behind him and hook his back bumper and turn him around just as pretty as you please. He spins out, and I go on and finish third. Got back in the pits, getting out of the car, somebody come runnin', told me Tommy [one of Elliott's crew] was comin' with a pistol.

"I took off runnin' out of the pits, ran across the track, jumped over the fence and ran off. Next Friday night at the drivers meetin', I'm standing there and here comes ol' Stick right up beside me and here come his boys with him, and I'm thinkin', Ohhhhhhhh, hell …

"And Stick turns to me and grins and he says, 'You know what, boy? You just might make a driver yet.'

"No, sir. All these people [other drivers] screamin', cryin', hollerin' about me [wrecking them], hell, they ain't ever seen the kind of hard racin' I've had to do in my lifetime, just to survive."

Riding in a four-wheel-drive truck through mud on his property and down onto a dirt road into the woods, to a clearing where four or five hardscrabble farmers, his neighbors, are standing. The land all around them has been washed and rutted by the recent North C'lina floods, and the men have those hollow looks on their faces that farmers get when their crops are devastated and they're distraught.

"Stay in the truck, Hinton."

He wants to talk with them quietly. He doesn't want to embarrass them, doesn't want them to think I hear the conversation. But I hear snippets.

Their crops have been washed away.

"Y'all be ready to plant when I get that seed to you," he says.

They mumble some sort of protest.

"Don't worry about it!" he growls. "Just don't ask no questions. Just y'all have them damn tractors ready to roll when that seed gets here."

Later, I will learn that the seed he sends them, at his expense, is measured in tons of tons.

Downtown Kannapolis, N.C., high noon in his hometown, headed eventually for a barbecue joint, but for now just cruisin'.

"So I tried the ninth grade twice and quit. Couldn't hang, man. Couldn't hang."

He drives on, in the shadows of the mammoth Cannon Mills towel factory, pondering a life spent running textile looms had it not been for the dirt tracks.

"I'm not proud of that. Now, position I'm in, when I try to write a business letter, I have to get down the dictionary to spell some words."

Pontiac Firebird, in the snow, Rockingham, N.C., race canceled, nothing to do but ride around.

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt was always ready to go fast, on or off the track.

" 'Bout two inches of snow like this is just about ideal for cuttin' up -- a lot like runnin' dirt."

We are sideways leaving the Sheraton, and we stay completely sideways for more than a mile, until we get to the Holiday Inn. "Just gotta go see Bonnett a minute, and we'll go right back."

In the breezeway of the Holiday Inn stands Neil Bonnett, shivering, and just as he notices the Firebird, Earnhardt does a 360 in the snow, then straightens up and drives off. In his mirror, he sees Bonnett, applauding.

And Earnhardt grins. That's all.

Back toward the Sheraton, another rental car pulls up on the right side of us and bumps us. It's a PR guy, showing off, playing racer.

"Look at ol' Wes. He thinks he's hot. I'll let him get a little ahead, and then I'll turn him."

Sure enough, a gentle tap on the left-rear quarter panel of the other rental car sends it looping.

Four-wheel-drive again, another country highway, 70 mph at least, whoom! Hard right turn onto a rutted dirt road.

"Earnhardt, what the -- ?"

"Gotta go see Schrader, man."

It's sometime in the '80s, and Kenny Schrader, from the hard-bitten dirt tracks of Missouri, is hanging on by his fingernails in NASCAR. The truck pulls up by a mobile home sitting out in a field in North C'lina, with several old, beat-up dirt-track cars occupying what passes for a yard. Earnhardt sits in a folding chair and just hangs, letting the driver know Earnhardt is there if he's needed.

Earnhardt always helps the strugglers. Soon he'll give an unknown California vagabond named Ernie Irvan a car and enough money to outfit it for his first Winston Cup race.

Earnhardt never lets a struggler fall by the wayside. He came up too hard himself. He has never forgotten.

And he will never forget. Right up until the day he dies, on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, he will never forget.

Even as he dies instantly against the Turn 4 wall, another driver up ahead, Michael Waltrip -- a hard-luck guy all his life, suddenly with a break, in a Dale Earnhardt-owned race car, the first great ride of his career -- is taking the checkered flag.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.