It's been a long journey, but we are familyBy: SundayMoney
(February 18, 2002)
On this day I
would like to share something I wrote in a few moments before the race yesterday. In
essence it is about my long journey from one year ago today.
There I sat at
my computer frantically surfing racing sites to find any information I could on his
condition. But I already knew the answer when I heard DW, saw the slow moving ambulance
and then saw the look and tone of Kenny Schrader in a short interview. Then I clicked on
the site that gave me the information I didnt want to read or believe. It felt like
a defibrillator had just shocked me and my heart stopped. I am not a person that shows
emotion very often and especially in front of my family, but I openly cried that night. I
lost a person who was part of my life ever since I was a child. Some people have told me
since then that they could not understand how so many people could be affected by a person
who was not a member of their family. Well, that is what they do not understand. Dale is,
was and forever will be family.
It all started
for me as a child, growing up in a family that was at the racetrack every weekend, since I
could remember. I remember watching my father race down the track and thinking that was
the coolest thing in the world. You have to understand that Dale reminded me a lot of my
father in many ways. I believe Dale brought many fathers and sons closer over the years,
by spending countless hours watching him perform his magic on the track and giving us
something to talk about each week. NASCAR is unlike many other sports, because the drivers
have always been quite accessible and over the years you get to know them personally, it
is unlike any sport in the world. Dale was in my house every week for many years and I
have shared his ups and downs, but in the end I could always count on that smile, that
patented grin that let me know everything was alright. On February 18, 2001 I lost a part
of my life, it didnt matter where I went wearing a hat, shirt or jacket of
Dales, because someone would always start up a conversation. They may not have been
a fan of Dales, however those were often the best conversations; it was like
sticking up for family. Dale was family, a part of my family as he was for many folks. He
represented a hard work ethic and a passion for what he did. He didnt just go
through the motions when he hit the big time. Dale always remembered where he came from
and for that I will always be grateful that I got a chance to experience what he brought
to the table each weekend.
following Daytona were rough; they are part of a long never-ending journey. Racing was the furthest thing from my mind and I
did not want to watch it, but I knew Dale would want me to move on and I wanted to support
DEI and RCR because Dale was still very much a part of their lives. Rockingham was a blur and Steve Park getting the
win could not have been more fitting, but I was not really ready to enjoy it. When Atlanta
rolled around I took my family and mother back to the track. My mother had not seen a race
her entire life until I took her to the Cracker Barrel 500 in 2000. She got to see Dale
win in the first live race she had ever been to, how great is that? What makes seeing that
race more special is the fact today (Feb. 18th) is my mothers birthday. Her birthday
has a new meaning none of us wanted and least of all her.
I will call her and no doubt she will want to talk about the win Dale gave her in
the spring of 2000. After last February, we
were not sure we wanted to go back to Atlanta in 2001, but felt obligated to go and
support DEI and RCR. Who could have imagined what was going to happen? Those last few laps
were amazingly similar to the previous year when Dale held off Bobby Labonte for the win.
Everyone was on their feet and simply caught up in the moment. What an unbelievable
feeling of raw emotion. I saw many people with tears in the eyes, not quite sure what to
say or do after Harvick won. Kevin would state later that the team had similar feelings,
they felt good but we still were feeling a great sense of loss. Each week would pass and I
just did not have the passion for watching the races anymore. More and more I would watch
bits and parts and go do something else, because it just didnt feel right.
Then the IRL came to town and I won tickets to the
race and garage passes, so I thought it would be a great way to get away from NASCAR for a
weekend and just enjoy time with my family. Eddie Cheever was
the first driver we went to see after qualifying because I had something special I wanted
him to sign. I had matted and framed some pictures from the IROC race in Daytona 2001.
When I took the pictures up to Cheever, he was stunned, speechless at first. The pictures
I have are of Dale and Cheever before the race standing by the cars, during the race when
Cheever knocked him in the grass, and Dale holding Cheever around the neck with his arm
and that big ole grin after the race with many reporters around - a memory that
personified Dales personality.
God was the first thing he said.
Then he kept asking me where I got the pictures and if
he could get some. I told him I could bring him some the night after the race. He kept
pointing to the one picture in particular of when Cheever knocked Dale into the grass. Eddie kept pointing at it saying I want that
picture, I have to have it. After
studying the pictures for a few minutes being silent, he smiled and signed the matting
"He was the BEST! Regards, Eddie/01. Then he smiled, shook my hand and patted
me on the arm. Cheever also asked me as I was walking off, "Hey, were you pissed off
at me for that when it happened? I mean a lot of people were." I told him, I was a
little upset until the backstretch of the cool down lap (that's when Dale punted him). He
laughed and said, "thanks". You
could tell losing Dale was hard on him as well. The next night I handed his PR manager a
duplicate set of pictures and I got the sense that Cheever was really shaken by the loss
of Dale. Some might ask, why? Its not like they were best friends or hung out all
the time. Simply put Dale was family.
Next we went through the line for
Sam Hornish Jr. and I got a racing post card and told him good luck, blah, blah, blah.
Then my son walked up to Sam. He had all his Dale gear on shirt, hat, and jacket.
Sam stopped everything had him come over to him and knelt down and asked his name. Of
course he told him and then Sam said, who's your favorite driver? My son said
"Dale". It kind of choked me up a bit. Sam then pointed to his assistant to get him a hat. He
told him, "I know your favorite driver will always be Dale, he was all of ours, but
maybe this will help." He then got a brand new team hat, signed the bill and handed
it to my little racing buddy. My son immediately took his #3 hat off and had me put on
Sam's hat. He didn't want to take it off to go to bed when we got home that night. Sam
just got a couple of fans for life and we were lucky to see him the year he won his first
IRL title. Just another example that Dale was family.
Later in the year the NHRA was in
my backyard and I decided to take my son to the track like my father had done with me
many, many times over the years. I also thought this might help get me away from the
feeling of emptiness when trying to watch a Cup race as I still was not finding much
enjoyment. We went to an autograph session and Tony Schumacher, top fuel driver and past
champion, saw my sons Earnhardt shirt and
he said, "That's cool! Make sure you keep that for him when he gets older, he'll
appreciate it. Dale still is THE MAN!" Dale was not a drag racer, yet everywhere we
went I could feel Dales impact on their lives. Number threes where everywhere
to be found. They were on almost every car, truck, or bike raced that weekend in honor of
Dale and what he meant to not only the sport of racing, but the way of life associated
with racing. During race weekend we able to see many competitors but a couple stand out in
my mind. My son and I went to get Angelle
Savoies autograph and stood in line quite a while. I definitely wanted her autograph
and had a picture of her racing with the #3 on the front fender of her bike. She was very
nice and I took a couple of pictures of her with my son. Once she finished signing our
things, I put the things away and as she began signing for other people I told her,
"Hey Angelle, thanks for putting the #3 on your bike, it means a lot." She
immediately stopped what she was doing looked up and smiled real big, gave me a thumb up
and said, "You're welcome". You could tell it kind of got to her, when I told
her thanks as she had difficulty getting the words out. But again, Dale was family.
We then went to go see John Force.
We had couple diecast that we wanted signed. Well it was hotter than a two dollar pistol
and people were crowding Force's pit area. I happened to look behind me and Larry Dixon
was signing so we just walked over took a couple photos and got an autograph. I noticed on
the inside of his car he had a huge #3 that made me smile. He didnt have it where a
whole lot of people could see it, but he saw it every time he stepped in that car - that
was special. We went right back to Force's pit. The crowd kept chanting "We want
John!" He finally came out with that big ole smile on his face. He began to
sign at our end but when he got it down to about 2 people in front he began to move around
the half circle away from us. I pulled the cars out and handed my son his car. I told him
to grip it tight and when he saw a hole to stick his arms in there. John started coming
back and I told him, "ok stick your hands in that hole". All of a sudden John
said, "Wooahhhh, hold it!" and he pushed 2 big guys back and grabbed his little
arms and pulled him through. He said, come on up here partner. He had the
biggest smile on his face, well both of them did. Force signed mine next and of course we
told him thanks. Force started signing more things for others and I yelled out to him,
"Hey John thanks for wearing that shirt at Gainesville, it meant a lot" (he wore
an Earnhardt shirt under his firesuit and won that day).
He was facing the other way at the time, but he stopped what he was doing turned
around and winked big time, put his thumb up and said, "You bet, he was my hero
too." You see Dale meant a lot to a lot of folks and it sure was nice to see them
show how much he meant. Like I have stated before, you could tell Dale was family. Going
to that event with my son and watching him eat a hot dog and get mustard all over his face
was one of the best days Ive ever had. That is what it is all about. Going back to
the track has put the passion back in racing for me. It made me realize why I liked the
sport in the first place and now I dont want to miss out on any more moments of
family, so each weekend I will be watching with a renewed passion.
Ive been an Earnhardt fan
since as long as I remember. I watched races ever since I was born, but I didnt
become the avid fan until 1984, the same year Dale went to Richard Childress racing.
Again, I honestly think I chose him as my favorite driver because he reminds me a lot of
my father. Id like to share a few things on this day that I remember about Dale,
happy times, good times. Some of my fondest
memories come from meeting him at autograph sessions.
You really could not comprehend the following he had until you experienced one of
his autograph sessions. Ive never seen that many people before in my life that come
from all over just to get a glimpse of their hero. One such event really sticks out in my
mind. I took my family to South Carolina in 99 just after his win at Bristol. I
walked up and told Dale, You did one thing wrong Saturday night Dale. He
stopped signing my autograph , looked up and said with a cautious tone, Yeah buddy,
what was that? I was sporting a big grin on my face and said, You should have
asked those smug reporters in victory lane for a glass of milk cause those Corn
Flakes sure are crunchy! That patented grin showed up on his face and he laughed.
Ill never forget making the Intimidator laugh. As most of you know by now I love
nothing more than to bring a smile to someones face with a joke, or a bit of
sarcasm. Life is too short to not enjoy it and what better way to enjoy life than to
laugh. I get no more pleasure in life than bring a smile to someones face. Ill
cherish that memory for the rest of my life.
Ill also remember the time I
stood in line in Cincinnati in 96, just a day after foot surgery. It was an
extremely cold day in January. I thought I would get there early by going in the Auto show
when it opened. But I found out they had opened the doors 2 hours early because people
were standing outside in subzero temps. When I got to the ballroom there were fans that
wrapped the inside main room in a double loop and down the hallway in triple and quadruple
loops. I simply could not believe it. I looked at my wife and 8-month-old son and said no
way was this happening. We live in Ohio for Petes sake! I got in line
and stood from 12pm until Dale showed up a half hour early for the event at 5:30pm. He
immediately had his personnel go to the end of the line and told them If you stay in
line you will get a signature. Well I looked at my wife and told her, we shall see, but I dont believe any
man alive can do it. Sure enough he got it done. He started early and stayed late.
When I finally got up on the stage to see him, he had this big grin on his face upon
seeing my son. You could really tell he loves the kids. Every time we saw him over the
years, Dale would take a few extra moments and try to get my son to talk to him. His eyes
just lit up and that patented grin was as wide as ever at the sight of a child. As you can
see, Dale touched many lives across all walks of life. Dale you were a great inspiration
to me and brought me many special times in my life and for that I thank you immensely.
I could go on
forever with the accomplishments he made on the track, and the great enjoyment at watching
the Michelangelo of the racing world paint on the asphalt canvas each Sunday,
but I liked him even more for the man he was, not just the driver. Nothing can or will
replace Dale, but I sure am glad I have the memories to hold dear for the rest of my days
walking this earth. I know some of you folks out there still cannot bear the thought of
watching a Winston Cup race without him. For those I suggest you try doing what I did. Go
back to your roots and forget about Cup racing for a while. Take a trip to the local short
track or the drag strip and take your family. It has been a long road and we have not
completed the journey, but we are family. I think most of you will agree Dale is, was, and
will forever be family. In closing I would like to thank Dale, thanks for the memories
they were many and they were great - may God bless. You will ALWAYS be my Champion.
T h e E a r n h a r d t C o n n
e c t i o n
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