It was something I could have never anticipated. I had scheduled an interview with 1980 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt during the post season.
Earnhardt was kind enough to grant the interview but only if I left Roanoke – where I was with the Roanoke Times – and come to his home in Doolie, N.C., on the shores of Lake Norman.
“Come on down and we’ll make a party out of it,” Earnhardt said. “We’ll cook out and you can stay overnight at my house.”
Fine, I replied. I asked him if he thought he could spare enough time for an interview.
At first he was unresponsive. It was like he was searching for an answer.
After a couple of moments he replied in somewhat somber tones, “Yes we’ll find the time. You have no idea of how this championship has changed me and my life.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. But I would find out.
I went to North Carolina, met Earnhardt at his house and almost immediately we drove to the home of the late Joe Whitlock, Earnhardt’s PR man.
Whitlock was a master of his profession. He also knew how to have a good time. When Earnhardt and I arrived at his home it was already crowded with friends and associates, among them my buddy Tom Higgins of the Charlotte Observer.
While there I wished I had brought a notebook and pencil (no digital recorders back then). I would have been able to record many hilarious anecdotes and tall tales.
Also while there, I got the shock of my life.
“Waid,” Earnhardt said, “you are going to drive me in the Concord Christmas Parade tomorrow.”
“Say what?” I stammered.
Earnhardt went on to explain that as the 1980 champion whose hometown was Kannapolis, N.C. – adjacent to Concord – he was a natural choice to be the parade’s Grand Marshal.
“Means I have come pretty far, doesn’t it?” he said.
I said I would be happy to drive the Grand Marshal’s car in the parade.
Before we went to Concord, however, Earnhardt suggested we do the interview at his house.
He was at ease. The words flowed out of him. He talked about his love of racing, nurtured by his father, NASCAR champion Ralph Earnhardt.
He talked about his hardships. He wanted to race but he married at an early age. That meant he had to work. Finding jobs was not easy for him, especially since he didn’t have a high school degree.
He took jobs from one end of North Carolina to the other. All the while he raced – in anything he could get his hands on.
He was never sure if he would be able to race for a living.
“I got my break with Rod Osterlund,” Earnhardt said of the California businessman and fledgling team owner. “He appreciated my potential. He literally took me in. That house I live in at the lake? It’s his. He gave it to me.”
Osterlund’s faith in Earnhardt was rewarded. In 1979 Earnhardt won his first race and was named Rookie of the Year.
Then, in 1980, he won the championship. It was a whirlwind of achievement and Earnhardt remains the only driver to win rookie honors and a title in successive seasons.
“It almost overwhelms you,” Earnhardt said. “I mean, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. But now I’m the champion. And that means I can’t just race for myself.
“I’ve got responsibilities to NASCAR and the other teams and drivers. I am supposed to be a leader now. I mean it really changes your life.”
I never expected such profound sentiments.
After he changed into jeans, a shirt and vest – all supplied by his new sponsor Wrangler – Earnhardt and I traveled to the parade staging area in Concord.
We met Higgins there. He was going to sit in the back seat and be the bartender. Earnhardt was partial to Jack Daniels and Sun Drop.
Earnhardt was natural and at ease. He chatted with many folks who were part of the parade, including a group of ladies from the local bank who were to ride on a float. They couldn’t take their eyes off him. They were charmed.
To negotiate the parade route was simple. It was directly on Concord’s historic Union Street and all I had to do was to drive slowly and make sure I didn’t overtake the vehicle ahead of me.
Earnhardt sat atop our Grand Prix, smiled and waved to the crowd.
Repeatedly kids would dash up to our car to shake Earnhardt’s hand or ask for an autograph. I always stopped the car.
“Dammit, Waid, don’t stop,” Earnhardt said. “You keep doing that and we’ll never get through this.”
I did as I was told.
When the parade was over he thanked me. He wanted me to come back to his house but I said I had to get back to Roanoke and my family.
And I had to organize my thoughts. I knew that if I did it properly, I could provide a great story.
My thoughts always returned to something that happened during the parade. I had stopped so that a youngster could shake Earnhardt’s hand.
The kid said: “Dale Earnhardt! Dale Earnhardt! You really got it made, don’t you?”
It took a while, but yes, he had it made.
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