The Intimidator was unforgettable
"Dale, with us always."
That sign outside Daytona International Speedway speaks of the continuing love affair stock car racing has with Dale Earnhardt.
He was killed Sunday, one fateful corner away from another great afternoon at his favorite racetrack, dying from head injuries in a wreck on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500.
The Intimidator won 34 times on Daytona's 2½-mile oval, although it wasn't always easy.
For the first 19 years that he came to the sprawling track built by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., he won nearly everything -- the July Winston Cup race, qualifying races, Busch and IROC races.
Everything but the Daytona 500 -- losing once when he blew a tire after dominating the race for 499 miles.
That finally changed in 1998, when Earnhardt gleefully took the checkered flag in NASCAR's Super Bowl -- punching his left fist out the window of his famed black No. 3 Chevrolet in triumph and spinning through the grass in a personal victory celebration.
As he drove slowly down pit lane toward Victory Circle, his smile gleaming beneath his bushy mustache, rival crews lined his path, slapping his palm and giving him thumbs up for what might have been the most awaited victory in NASCAR history.
Afterward, he showed a soft side that few knew he possessed.
"This one meant the world to me," Earnhardt said, his eyes shining. "People may think I'm tough and I don't care -- and I am tough -- but I'm human, too. I want to win every time I go out there, but there's some races that mean more than others. This is one of them."
Fans were rarely ambivalent about Earnhardt. Millions loved the dashing, cowboylike figure. Millions more vilified "The Man in Black."
Even more than his record-tying seven Winston Cup championships and his 76 victories -- sixth all-time and the most among current drivers -- Earnhardt's legacy is the role he played in NASCAR's rise to the mainstream of American culture.
His father, Ralph, was a rough and tumble stock car pioneer, never afraid of a fight -- on or off the track.
The elder Earnhardt died of a heart attack while working on a race car in the garage of his North Carolina home. The 1956 NASCAR Sportsman division champion was 45.
Dale, 22 at the time, desperately wanted to follow his father into racing but had few resources. With only a ninth-grade education, he was working in a textile factory and twice divorced with three children by the age of 25.
What he had in abundance was an aggressive confidence that eventually translated to rides and racing victories.
Once he reached the top level of NASCAR for good, Earnhardt was an instant success, winning the Rookie of the Year title in 1979 and the first of his championships in 1980.
His racing prowess earned him millions of dollars on the track and many millions more from souvenir and memorabilia sales that dwarf those of his racing rivals.
"Image is everything," said Don Hawk, Earnhardt's former business manager. "People perceived Dale Earnhardt in different ways, good and bad. But they are always aware of him and care what he does, and they want a piece of him."
The success brought Earnhardt a lush, if hectic, lifestyle.
He flew to races, personal appearances and hunting and fishing trips in a private jet, occasionally relaxed aboard a 100-foot yacht, aptly christened "Sunday Money," and loved working around his 400-acre North Carolina farm, keeping an eye on the black Angus cattle, commercial chicken houses and quarterhorses when he had the chance.
He married Teresa Hunter in 1982, and added daughter Taylor to a family that already included daughter Kelly and sons Kerry and Dale Jr. from his previous marriages.
"He wasn't around a whole lot when I was growing up because he was off racing most of the time," Dale Jr. said. "But I always knew he cared about me and the other kids. He let us know in his way."
He owned a Chevrolet dealership and, although he continued to drive for longtime friend Richard Childress, Earnhardt decided to start his own team, Dale Earnhardt Inc.
After starting with a Busch series program and a few Winston Cup races in 1997, the team moved Steve Park into NASCAR's top series in 1998, brought Dale Jr. in as his teammate in 2000 and added Michael Waltrip, the Daytona winner, as a third driver this season.
Earnhardt also was helping Kerry get his racing career into gear. But the arrival as a star of Dale Jr. -- who won two straight Busch championships then two Winston Cup races as a rookie -- particularly delighted him.
Dale Jr.'s success coincided with his father's resurgence as a title contender after a dry spell that had some wondering if his racing skills had declined.
At an age when most drivers talk about their accomplishments, the 49-tear-old Earnhardt was confident he could win a record eighth title.
"Racing has been pretty much my whole life," Earnhardt said in a recent interview. "We're building something here, and my boys are here.
"I'm going to be racing for a while yet, but when the time comes, this is going to be what I do, run this team and stay involved in the sport."
It's true he's gone now. But his legacy won't leave any time soon.
Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press