Childress still keeping his promise
WELCOME, N.C. -- It was Tuesday afternoon and his best friend had been dead for nearly two days. His world was upside down, and he was ready to throw away the racing empire he'd spent a lifetime building and call it quits as he stood alone on a dock on the property of former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.
Then he remembered a hunting trip.
And everything fell into perspective.
If you want to know what kept Richard Childress going after the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt, the legendary Richard Childress Racing driver, this is it.
Childress was reluctant to talk about it in detail at first, simply calling it a hunting story that brought him peace during one of the darkest days of his life. Pressed to share, he finally conceded, with emotion burning in his face before the words began to flow.
"Gosh, y'all are asking these tough questions," Childress said.
Then Childress began telling the story about a hunting trip in New Mexico in which he and Earnhardt found themselves climbing a mountain, each holding onto the tail of his horse as you do under extreme conditions.
"We get up this thing and Dale's horse starts slipping on this big chunk of ice and starts rearing up and coming back on me," Childress recalled. "I had to come off the mountain, and when I jumped the horse flipped behind me. The trees caught us before we went real bad. Dale and I always call it the Great Horse Wreck."
Funny, strange, how one wreck gave Childress the strength to carry on after Earnhardt's fatal wreck on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
Let Childress continue with the story.
"We got back to camp that night, and naturally Dale blamed me for pulling his horse off the mountain, like I could physically," Childress said with a smile. "We were having a cocktail by the fireplace. I told him, 'You know, Dale, if I had gotten killed on that mountain today, you would have had to race Phoenix.' We looked at each other [and he said], 'If it ever happens to me, you better race.'
"That helped make it a lot easier."
So Childress made up his mind in the wake of Earnhardt's death that he would continue on with Kevin Harvick stepping into the Goodwrench car, only the number would be a 29 instead of a 3 and the color of the car would be white and not black.
Those close to Childress always knew he would carry on.
"We knew he wasn't going to quit," said Childress' son-in-law, Mike Dillon. "That's just not him."
Perhaps, but for nearly two days after Earnhardt's death, quitting was at the front of Childress' thoughts.
"Sunday night, definitely my wife and I talked about it," Childress said. "Monday, I talked about it. I thought about a lot of things. Some thoughts came back from an old hunting trip. I knew I had to then."
Childress knew there would be times heading into the 10th anniversary of Earnhardt's Feb. 18, 2001, death that he would have to relive the pain it took so long to bury. Some questions he doesn't mind answering, understanding that few have the insight that he does because of his incredibly close relationship with the driver with whom he won six championships.
"I'd rather not comment on that," Childress said in a soft tone. "Thank you, though."
Childress is handling this anniversary with great poise, although some stories, such as the hunting trip, still bring tears to his eyes. But a smile comes across his face as he remembers the late-night calls from Earnhardt, who would tell him to grab a bottle of wine and "let's talk for a while."
In a way it was as if Childress were having one of those talks on this cold, wet day at Richard Childress Racing. There was conviction in his voice as he recalled the decision to put Harvick, a relatively unknown driver who had been testing Earnhardt's car, into such a tough position.
So many people knew Dale as Dale Earnhardt the racer, but they also knew him as a person. You'd see him working on his car, throwing hay to his cattle. He worked every day and he enjoyed it. That's what the fans loved about him.” -- Richard Childress
"I don't know of many veterans or many people that could have stepped in that car and been mentally capable of doing what he did as a young man, as he was in those days," Childress said.
There was great passion in Childress' voice as he reminded the world why Earnhardt was so loved by the common man.
"So many people knew Dale as Dale Earnhardt the racer, but they also knew him as a person," he said. "You'd see him working on his car, throwing hay to his cattle. He worked every day and he enjoyed it. That's what the fans loved about him.
"I'd call and say, 'Where you at?' He would say, 'I'm up here in the chicken house. Where are you at? I'll call you back.' He was a working man."
There was pain in Childress' voice when asked about details of the moments surrounding the fatal Turn 4 crash.
"I try to totally block that out of my mind," Childress said. "When I get asked a question it deserves an answer, and I answer it as well as I can. What gets me through is all the great times and fun times I had with Dale Earnhardt.
"But I try to block as much of that out of my mind unless somebody asks me."
Then Childress is reminded of that hunting trip that kept him going and other memories that made Earnhardt the legend he remains today. Childress will keep sharing those moments as long and often as it takes to make sure that legend isn't forgotten, understanding many of NASCAR's new fans never knew "The Intimidator" and what he stood for.
"It doesn't matter where I go, somewhere I get questions about Dale Earnhardt," Childress said. "They want a story. Or how was it? What are you going to do with the 3? All of these different questions you get.
"His legacy will live a long time in the sport."
For that we are thankful.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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The 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is on the horizon, with a new racing surface greeting competitors heading into a new season of hope. It all begins Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway.