left.gif (848 bytes) main.gif (882 bytes)
News The Earnhardt Connection
Text links are located at the bottom of the page.

Earnhardt matriarch takes racing in stride
David Poole
The Charlotte Observer
(September 27, 1998)

She 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.

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 biggest race.

``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 came.''

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 races again.''

Even if it does still make her nervous.