Commentary

Hard work made the 3

Originally Published: February 17, 2014
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Mr. Austin Dillon
Drivers' Motor Coach Compound
Daytona International Speedway
1801 West International Speedway Boulevard
Daytona Beach, FL 32114

Dear Austin,

An open letter here to assure you, and the public, that you have every bit as much right to drive a car carrying a slanted 3 on the side as Dale Earnhardt did.

You see, Earnhardt didn't make the 3. Your Pop Pop, your grandfather, Richard Childress, did. He built it from nothing. He earned it. In fact, I know of no one who earned anything more, or harder, than R.C. earned the 3.

R.C. was what we called him in his younger days, when he was an "independent" driver -- a euphemism for barely sponsored or unsponsored.

Whatever booing you hear Sunday, when your car is rolled onto the pole on the grid for the Daytona 500, likely will come from NASCAR's hard-core audience, which skews heavily to white males over 45. Indeed, nearly half, according to analysis published recently in "The Atlantic" magazine, are over 55.

That's Earnhardt's audience. They lived vicariously through him, and so part of them died with him. I don't recall a single fan I've talked to who fits into that demographic who hasn't said, "It just hasn't been the same ... " since Earnhardt died in the Daytona 500 in 2001, and the 3 vanished from the Cup series from then until now.

Me, I'm 65. I go back farther than his cult does. I saw Earnhardt come into Cup, and I saw him, at first, get a reputation as a crasher and a villain more than as a winner and a hero.

And then I saw your Pop Pop make him.

(R.C. himself will bristle at that, because he believes Earnhardt made him. I don't believe Earnhardt would have made it to seven championships and 76 wins without your Pop Pop.)

All this happened long before 1990, when you were born.

Summer, 1979: Riding after midnight through the Arizona desert, air conditioning broken on a gasoline-powered truck -- R.C. couldn't even afford a diesel in those days -- towing a race car on a trailer.

[+] EnlargeRichard Childress
ISC Archives/Getty ImagesIn the early years, Richard Childress drove the truck carrying the No. 3 car he was going to race in Cup.

R.C. was driving his own rig -- he was so short on people that he even made me take stints driving that old C-300 on that trip that took us from Texas down into Mexico, out to California, back through Las Vegas and on up to Michigan, nearly three weeks all told.

In those wee hours in the desert he was talking, telling me not so much his dream as his plan -- your Pop Pop never was much of a dreamer, more of a doer who worked hard with a purpose.

Other "independent" drivers, he confided, sometimes diverted what little sponsorship money they got -- one bought cattle for his farm, another took his wife to Europe.

Not R.C. He was plowing everything back into that fledgling racing team.

He was only 34, but he was already planning to "get out of the car and put a younger driver in it, and build a team capable of winning."

Great expectations, wouldn't you say? But your Pop Pop was always something of a Dickensian character. When he was 5, his father died, leaving him to go through elementary school sweeping up the cafeteria to earn his lunch while the kids who could pay were out playing.

 

On weekends he earned money selling Cokes and popcorn in the grandstands at Bowman Gray Stadium, the race track in Winston-Salem, N.C., catching glimpses of Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner racing.

As a teenager he worked at an all-night gas station, and the moonshine runners, down with full loads from the Brushy Mountain stills, would park their cars there and walk off, around Winston-Salem to visit girlfriends and such.

Austin Dillon
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesAustin Dillon has won driving the No. 3 in both the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series.

Young Childress would then unload the cars and deliver the moonshine at the retail level, a couple of cases at a time, to the "drink houses," the unlicensed bars, mostly in the black neighborhoods.

About dawn one morning he walked in on a fight among customers. One pulled a sawed-off shotgun and made a mess of the other against a wall, and "that was the day I stepped out of the liquor business," he recalled decades later.

But he already had a little stake, and he began racing, largely hand-to-mouth. He already had a plan, to get into NASCAR, and he would get there whatever it took.

What it took to get his big break was racing as a replacement driver, during the notorious drivers' boycott of the inaugural race at Talladega, Ala., in 1969. He was paid $10,000 to join the motley field of drivers and cars scraped together just to run a race of some kind, after the likes of Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison had pulled out.

That was the most money he'd ever seen, or probably even thought about. I've been told there is a photograph somewhere of Richard Childress that Sunday night at Talladega with a glass of champagne in one hand and a bologna sandwich in the other. I've never seen it, but I'd love to. There could be no better portrait of your grandfather.

Back to that night in the desert in '79 ... R.C. was feeling pretty flush. He'd just finished sixth at Riverside, Calif., "pretty good for us, in that old s--- box of ours," he said. That was the term for a poor race car in those days.

NASCAR records show he won $5,500 at Riverside in that race. And we were just leaving Las Vegas, where he'd been down $5,000 at a craps table, then said to me and the only crewman traveling with us, "give me a few more minutes," and then walked out of that casino at Circus Circus up $5,000 -- a $10,000 swing in less than half an hour.

That crewman hated gambling, and Childress replied with what amounted to his mantra of the time: "You're gambling with your life every morning when you get out of bed."

And on this night there was an extra shot of adrenaline: Earlier that evening, we'd had a brush with death, coming down a mountain toward Hoover Dam. The brakes on that old truck, and on the trailer carrying "that old s--- box," began to slip, groan, threaten failure.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt was notoriously hard on equipment, so team owner Richard Childress made sure to build cars that would hold up under Earnhardt's driving style.

R.C. compensated with a lot of downshifting, and his voice sounded a little nervous as he kept on talking, telling a story he'd heard about a beautiful woman who'd come here after catastrophic losses in Vegas, and flung herself off the dam wearing nothing but a mink coat.

Finally reaching the bottom of the mountain, in the parking lot at Hoover Dam, Childress let out an enormous breath and said, "I didn't want to say nothin' back up there, but ... "

We'd come very close to careening down that mountain to our deaths and to the destruction of that old C-300 truck and "that old s--- box" on the trailer.

But R.C. never said another word about it. I mean, hell, you're gambling with your life every morning when you get out of bed. This was just another moment in that constant gamble.

"That old s--- box" had a number on the side, a slanted 3, at a sort of defiant angle. He'd had the number since 1976.

It was in honor of Junior Johnson, Childress' hero from Bowman Gray, who for a time had driven No. 3. By 1979, Johnson, now owner of a major race team, was Childress' benefactor, giving him car and engine parts, often experimental ones.

In R.C.'s late-night desert discourse about a younger driver in the 3 someday, Earnhardt's name never came up.

Earnhardt in '79 was a Cup rookie, dazzling but wild -- "With Earnhardt, every lap is a controlled crash," then-peaking star Darrell Waltrip said.

Earnhardt was driving the No. 2 that year, unsponsored, for California construction magnate Rod Osterlund. He might have gone winless that year, except that Osterlund hired veteran drifter crew chief Jake Elder, "Suitcase Jake," who said from the outset with Earnhardt that "a young driver don't even know what he wants in a race car 'til I show him."

Elder showed Earnhardt enough to make him rookie of the year in '79 and Winston Cup champion in '80. And all the while, R.C. was struggling, nursing "that s--- box" No. 3 as best he could.

By '81 the construction business went sour and Osterlund sold his team to a coal mining machinery man named J.D. Stacy.

By midseason Earnhardt couldn't stand Stacy's way of doing things, and wanted out of the 2 in the worst way. So, just two years after he'd told me his plan, here was R.C.'s younger driver. He seized the moment, and met with Earnhardt, R.J. Reynolds officials and Junior Johnson.

Childress would get out of his car and put Earnhardt in it; Johnson would supply high-quality parts; Earnhardt would bring sponsorship from Wrangler jeans with him.

R.C. thought he was in high cotton at that point. But at the end of that '81 season, even with the Wrangler sponsorship, Earnhardt's crashing had left R.C. $75,000 in the hole.

Rather than blame Earnhardt, Childress told him, "We're just not ready for a championship-caliber driver like you." Go somewhere else, Childress advised, and leave him to build the 3 team into something better for later on.

So Earnhardt went to drive the No. 15 Ford for storied owner Bud Moore, for the '82 and '83 seasons. He won some, crashed some more ...

Childress put Ricky Rudd in the 3 and got decent sponsorship from Piedmont Airlines. Rudd won two races in '83, and Richard Childress Racing was on its way.

But that fall, Childress was ready to bring Earnhardt back for the '84 season. Moore was happy to sign Earnhardt's release. On a hotel balcony at Riverside, Moore looked Childress in the eye and warned him:

"Boy, he'll break you."

Earnhardt was almost 33 and deemed by many to be past whatever chance for success he'd had.

"Dale Earnhardt will never win another race," one veteran NASCAR journalist in Virginia wrote.

Richard Childress
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesRichard Childress never got the 3 to Victory Lane as a driver, but he's seen it win plenty as an owner.

"A self-destructive loser," a savvy old Atlanta writer called him.

But, what the hell: You're gambling with your life every morning when you get out of bed. Childress put Earnhardt back in the 3.

Earnhardt won two races in '84, blew a lot of engines, wrecked some more. Boy, he'll break you.

Childress put more money on the table, developing better engines, harder for Earnhardt to break with his horrific style. Boy, he'll break you.

The 3 won four in '84, but Earnhardt's shoving around of other cars on the track sometimes damaged the 3 itself, right out of contention. Boy, he'll break you.

Raise the stakes: Reinforce the cars so the fenders wouldn't bend in, make them de facto bulldozers for Earnhardt's bulldozing style.

Five wins in '86, Earnhardt's second championship and the first of six your Pop Pop would send him to.

It was in '87 that Earnhardt made the 3 truly notorious, with 11 wins and another title, but only because your Pop Pop had learned to put cars underneath him that he couldn't run into the ground.

And so, Austin, Earnhardt made the 3 famous only because your Pop Pop made the 3.

One other thing about that three-week trip in '79. Your mother, Tina, R.C.'s only child, was only 10 or 11 then. She had asked for one present from that trip, a hand-tooled leather shoulder bag.

One night we parked that truck and trailer at a Holiday Inn in El Paso, and took a cab down into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico -- which wasn't as dangerous then as I hear it is now, but pretty dangerous even then.

[+] EnlargeRichard Childress and Austin Dillon
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesRichard Childress, left, and Austin Dillon have the 3 on the pole for the Daytona 500.

We had a good time -- shot some tequila, ate in a fabulous restaurant with white-jacketed waiters (your Pop Pop liked his escargot, even then, even on a shoestring budget).

But that night, he spent hours haggling with street vendors, trying to find exactly the right hand-tooled shoulder bag for Tina. He ended up with several of them.

That tells you something about how much this rambling, gambling racer loved his child above all else.

And that leads to why and how he loves you and your brother, Ty, so much. But you two have given him a great deal in return. Never, since Earnhardt died in the 3 in the last turn on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, have I seen R.C. this happy, this focused.

Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fine with your flying the 3. He pointed out that numbers aren't retired in NASCAR -- if any should have been, it's Richard Petty's 43, which is still running by the King's wishes -- and then Dale Jr. said of you, last summer, "He drove the No. 3 in dirt racing, and he drove the No. 3 in the Truck series and the Nationwide series ... . He has earned the right to run that number as long as he wants."

More, much more, your grandfather earned it. He owns it rightfully. He gave it to Earnhardt. Now he gives it to you, and that is his business and nobody else's.

So let 'em boo come Sunday. And know what they don't know: the full story.

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