Born on April 29, 1952 in the town of Kannapolis (Cabarrus County), North Carolina, Ralph Dale Earnhardt, like other racing oriented families such as the Pettys and the Labontes, was the son of a NASCAR driver. Dale’s father, Ralph Earnhardt, was achieved superstar status like his son, but the elder laid the foundation and provided the guidance that helped develop one of the best stock car racers of all time. Known by his fans as “Ironheart”, Ralph Earnhardt raced as many as three times a week to support his family of five. Dale, who was constantly in the garage observing his father, learned quickly about stock cars and engine building.
The allure of auto car racing captivated a young Dale, who opted for a racing career before finishing school. In 1967, the sixteen-year-old Earnhardt dropped out of school in the ninth grade to pursue his passion. When asked about why he quit school, Earnhardt said, “I wanted to race — 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.” Three years after Dale had left school, he had built his own stock car and he was racing constantly on dirt tracks around southern North Carolina. Earning the nickname “Ironhead,” Dale gained a reputation for holding off competing drivers and for driving aggressively.
After learning the basics of driving on dirt tracks, Earnhardt, a twenty-eight-year-old, was finally offered a chance to drive for NASCAR in 1979. “Ironhead” proved to be a successful NASCAR driver, winning the Rookie of the Year award his first year in professional stock car racing. A year later, Earnhardt won the NASCAR Winston Cup championship.
The Kannapolis native soon became known as “the Intimidator.” Earnhardt believed that NASCAR was a rigorous sport that required strong drivers, and he did almost anything to win, particularly bump drafting. Although Earnhardt dismissed charges of carelessness, NASCAR fined him several times for reckless driving. In 1987, Earnhardt had instigated five bumping incidents at the All-Star Race in Charlotte, North Carolina. Despite the controversy, Earnhardt won three championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Off the track, Earnhardt was polite and easy-going and befriended many drivers. He was an avid hunter and fisherman, and he enjoyed working on his North Carolina farm during the off-season. Earnhardt’s appeal lay in a blue-collar image and in his driving ability and style. For many, the Intimidator was a hero. Earnhardt’s death arrived at a young forty-nine years of age. In the inaugural race of the 2001 season, Earnhardt crashed into a wall at the Daytona track. It was the last lap. The racing world was stunned to learn of his death. Afterward, NASCAR made major changes in safety regulations, and new harnesses protect drivers from high impact collisions.
Earnhardt left a massive racing legacy. His son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., has achieved great success on the NASCAR tracks. The Intimidator influenced others, including Michael Waltrip, Ken Schrader, and Kevin Harvick. Earnhardt’s legendary number #3 stock car remains unused by NASCAR, and Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), located in Mooresville, North Carolina, continues the Intimidator’s legacy. NASCAR reporter, Matt Crossman reported that Earnhardt “was the unquestioned leader among drivers and unofficial spokesman for them when issues arose between competitors and the sanctioning body. No driver has filled that role in anything close to the same way since.”
Earnhardt holds the distinction as the only driver to win rookie of the year followed by a series championship. In addition, the Intimidator, with 29 wins in three different NASCAR divisions, remains the all-time leader at the Daytona International Speedway. At the end of his career, Earnhardt had won 76 races, led over 25,000 laps, and amassed over $41 million in winnings. Despite his success in NASCAR, Earnhardt could never finish first at the Daytona International Speedway. However, in 1998, the Intimidator was finally able to overcome the challenge and win the Daytona 500.