matriarch takes racing in stride
threatened to leave her husband over it, attempted to talk her son into picking another
career and then tried to put the brakes on her grandson's rise through the ranks.
The Charlotte Observer
(September 27, 1998)
It's fair to say Martha Earnhardt was slow to embrace auto racing as her family's
business. That doesn't mean, however, she's not proud of what the men in her life have
accomplished on the track.
Martha Earnhardt was the late Ralph Earnhardt's wife. She's Dale Earnhardt's mother and
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s grandmother. That's three generations of celebrating victories and
sharing disappointments, not to mention decades of watching cars disappear into clouds of
smoke hoping her flesh and blood came out on the other side.
``I think it gets worse instead of better,'' she said. ``When you get older, your nerves
are not quite as strong. When Ralph started I was only like 19 years old and I really
didn't have sense enough to worry.
``When Dale got in a race car, that was just all together different from Ralph. I grew up
with Ralph racing and I knew he knew what he was doing. When Dale got in it, that was part
of me getting in that car and it was just a different story.''
The upcoming week will be a special one for the Earnhardts. Charlotte Motor Speedway, the
site of next weekend's All Pro 300 Grand National and UAW-GM 500 Winston Cup races, is
close enough to their hometown of Kannapolis to make it feel like the back yard.
The track is honoring the family with its commemorative pole night ticket for Wednesday
night's admission. The ticket, bearing artist Sam Bass' rendering of Ralph, Dale and Dale
Jr., has been a hot seller.
Racing has been the Earnhardt family's way to make a living ever since Ralph decided
that's what he wanted to do -- over his wife's objections.
``When he first told me he wanted to race, I thought, `Well, he's lost his mind,' ''
Martha Earnhardt said. ``I threatened to leave and he just kept talking. So I decided if I
couldn't beat him I guess I would have to join him. I didn't want to leave him, really.
``He promised me when he started if he couldn't make a living for the family without
taking away from the family he would quit, that he wouldn't do it. He always kept me and
the five kids up without me having to work. I couldn't say too much.''
She also tried to talk Dale out of racing, and while she was baby-sitting Dale Jr. and
watching him line up toy cars on his little race track, she tried to steer him out from
behind the wheel, too. When Dale told her of his plans to put Dale Jr. in the family-owned
Grand National car this season, she advised against that, too.
``I guess, evidently, I was wrong, but at the time I really didn't think he was ready,''
she said of her grandson's meteoric rise this year. '' I just thought he needed a lot more
experience in the smaller divisions. But he has proved me wrong.''
Dale Jr. is leading the Grand National points race and has six wins this season. He
recently signed a lucrative six-year deal with Budweiser that provides him strong backing
for his move to full-time Winston Cup competition, which is planned for the year 2000.
Before the days of private jets and $750,000 motor homes in which families could stay at
the track, Martha Earnhardt mostly stayed in Kannapolis -- in the house she still lives in
-- watching five kids. Ralph hauled his cars up and down the Eastern seaboard, racing four
or five nights a week.
``One time Ralph had went to Daytona one year and I didn't get to go,'' Martha recalled.
``I was home with the kids and the boys, Dale and Randy and Danny, were just trying my
nerves to see how bad they could really upset me. I just grabbed a belt and starting
swinging, I didn't care who I was going to hit. Dale hollered at Randy and Danny and said,
`Boys, y'all run. Mom's gone crazy!' ''
Martha stayed home from Daytona again this February when her son finally won the sport's
``I was home watching, and I was cheering and crying at home just like I would if I had
been there,'' she said. ``Dale called me from winner's circle and that made me feel real
good. He said, `Mom! I finally won the Daytona 500!' I said, `Yeah, son, I saw you did!'
``For the last 10 laps I walked the floor. I would sit down, I'd get up, I'd sit down. ...
I couldn't stay sitting down until I knew he had won it. It was just a really great
feeling because I knew how hard and how long he has tried to win and how close he has
She's proud of her son, the seven-time Winston Cup champion, but admits it's sometimes a
little different to grasp how wide his celebrity has grown.
``I am proud Dale has got to do what he has always wanted to do, and has really done well
at it,'' Martha said. ``He has been able to come as far and accomplish what he has, and I
am just proud of him as a person, the person he has become.
``It's really amazing when you go in the grocery store and there's your kid's picture on a
cereal box or a Sun-drop bottle, or you see him on a billboard on the side of the road.
It's really hard to realize that's really your child.''
She's proud to see her grandson's star rising, but worries a little bit that the sun might
be starting to set on her son.
``I want Dale to do what makes him happy,'' Martha said. ``I just think it is going to be
really, really hard for him to get out of that race car. As long as he can be competitive,
I think he will continue to drive.
``I don't want to see him struggle like he has been here lately. I want to seem him win
Even if it does still make her nervous.