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News The Earnhardt Connection
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Chocolate's Sundays
'99 News
By Joby Nahas, Staff Writer, News & Record

Chocolate Myers (facing forward, third from the left) celebrates with the crew on pit road after winning the 1998 Daytona 500 with Dale Earnhardt.

Lexington (July 23, 1999)
Hoisting a 90-pound gasoline tank over a knee-high wall is probably the best-known part of Danny "Chocolate" Myers' job: keeping NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt's No. 3 car ahead of the other guys.

"We don't want to do anything but win," Myers says. That mantra has become a way of life for the famed gas man, who knows firsthand what losing can mean.

The gruff mechanic, whose part-Cherokee complexion sparked his famous nickname, admits to a life filled with mistakes. His easy-going character and long-time visibility on Earnhardt's pit crew led race fans to recognize Myers all over the country. But for years, he used that recognition only to fill his life with booze, bar brawls and women.

"I thought he was a total jerk," his wife, Caron, recalls of their meeting.

But after years of booze and bad choices, this born-again Christian, 50, wants others to learn from his mistakes. Along with repairing race cars, traveling to races and spending time with loved ones, Myers still finds time on the road and at home in Lexington to further his spiritual beliefs and encourage others to do the same.

"It's really neat to have a life that has changed enough that you can share it with others," Myers says.

Growing up with NASCAR Myers' love for stock-car racing was inbred: His father and an uncle were pioneer racers in NASCAR. That exposure taught him early the dangers of racing. Myers' dad, Bobby, was killed at Darlington, S.C., in 1957 while driving for car owner Lee Petty, Richard's father.

But racing "was in my blood," Myers says, adding that his father's death "probably made me want to do it more." Myers finds comfort in knowing his dad died doing something he felt passionately about.

But Myers' first job in racing was farther from the action than he might have hoped. At about age 13, he and a friend, Richard Childress, began selling peanuts at NASCAR races then held at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, so they could get into the races for free.

Soon the two were racing their own cars on Saturday nights. Then in 1969, just out of high school, Childress qualified his Camaro for a Grand American Series race at Daytona.

"We were running really well in the race," Myers says. "Then something broke."

The two young men still clung to hopes of racing professionally. But after about three years, Myers, by then married and with a young daughter, realized that racing wasn't paying his bills.

Myers parted ways with Childress around 1973 and backed out of racing. He took up odd jobs from installing cable to fixing motor homes -- almost any job in which he could fiddle with something and get it working.

"It took a while to get around to making the commitment," he said of his decision to devote his life to racing.

Myers made that commitment one night in 1982 as he watched a race on TV and heard the announcers mention the names of friends with whom he'd once worked. "I said, 'That's what I want to do.'"

He called Childress, with whom he had kept in touch. By then, Childress owned a racing team, Richard Childress Racing, in the Davidson County community of Midway. Childress had NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd with him then -- Earnhardt would join the team later -- but he needed some help in the garage.

So Myers teamed back up with Childress in 1983 and began the NASCAR work he's known for today. Through the week and during the off-season, Myers helps the crew build and repair race cars. During the race, he lugs an 11-gallon gas can over the pit wall, dodges incoming cars, dumps the can's contents into Earnhardt's tank, reaches for a second can and repeats the operation.

Pit crew members -- two tire changers, two tire carriers, one jack operator, one gas catch-can man and Myers -- hope to have the car speeding away from the pit within 15 seconds.

Myers says the team thrives on competition on the track and in the pits.

"When you're down there in the pits, you want to beat these guys beside of you," Myers says. "You want to be No. 1 in all you do. So (maybe) you don't win on the race track, but you kick their butts in the pits."

Caron enters the race Myers' love for racing led to his meeting Caron Pappas, a journalist tantalized by the fast-paced sport. They met while she was covering the 1992 Daytona 500 for the Tampa Tribune. By then, Myers was no longer with his first wife.

Before the race, Myers was making a few last-minute checks on Earnhardt's car when Caron walked past. He was struck by how much she resembled his mother in her younger years.

"I remember her walking by, talking on that cell phone just as fast as she could," Myers says, the corners of his eyes crinkling at the memory.

Myers had planned to attend a party that evening at Childress' house in Spruce Creek, where the neighbors included actor John Travolta. He asked Pappas to join him; she accepted just to see the house.

It wasn't a dream date. For starters, Myers had invited Caron and another woman. And, as Myers recalls, "I kept the Jack Daniels coming."

The other woman didn't bother Caron, who danced with several other men that night herself. But she ended up driving Myers home because he was too drunk to drive himself. As she did, she told him: "You've got a different lifestyle than I care to lead."

Slouching in the passenger's seat, Myers vowed through slurred speech never to drink again.

And he never has, she now says proudly. "He gave up all of his vices for me, only I never asked him to."

After spending more time with Myers, Caron found herself attracted to the "real" him.

"I found that he reminded me of my grandfather, who was the love of my life," Caron recalls. Behind the rough exterior, Myers was a gentleman who opened doors for her and treated her with respect.

"He didn't even kiss me," she says, chuckling.

Romance sprang out of their friendship. And so did Myers' renewed faith in God.

Caron frequently attended church service at the races through Motor Racing Outreach, a nondenominational group that worships in the garage before races. Though raised Baptist, Myers had stopped attending church many years before. But when Caron asked him to join her, he agreed.

"She was so beautiful. She was just what I was looking for: someone where we could sit at home and enjoy things together," Myers recalls. Attending an occasional church service would be worth it, he figured.

With time, he attended more frequently. Deciding to rededicate himself to Christ during a Motor Racing Outreach service was a natural progression, he says.

"I can't tell you (the decision was) like a lightning bolt out of the sky," Myers says, adding he doesn't even remember which race he was at. "I just felt like changing my life."

Until then, Myers says, he had been known for his temper. If out drinking with friends, he might fight with anyone who crossed his path.

"I was bullying people and cussing them out for no reason," he says. "Now I wish I could tell them I'm sorry."

The transformation delighted Caron, and the two continued a long-distance romance, he in Winston-Salem and Caron in California, where she had taken a job editing Inside Racing, a trade publication.

About a year into the relationship, in April 1993, Myers decided to take the next step. After the couple had discussed marriage, he planned a surprise wedding.

Myers met Caron at Piedmont Triad International Airport one weekend carrying an armload of flowers. He swept her into his arms and told her they had an event to attend that night.

After a full day of work followed by hours on a crowded plane, she was exhausted. Still, Myers assured her this was not an occasion she wanted to miss.

On their way, Myers suggested they stop at Hayes Jewelers in Lexington to pick up a gift.

"There was a preacher waiting, my friends were there, a cake was there, even a marriage license. He got it all," Caron says, recalling the amazement and awe of their surprise wedding. "Ten minutes later we were married."

At home in Lexington

The couple since have built their life together in Lexington. They moved here five years ago from Winston-Salem so Myers could be closer to his work in Welcome.

But Lexington has become more than just a resting place; the couple have donated time and effort to the community.

The slow-paced life away from racing has let them indulge their hobby: buying and selling antiques. "It's our golf," Caron jokes, noting that during weekend race trips the two visit yard sales and flea markets. They've even opened their own antiques shop in Lexington, Timeless Traditions. Each has a favorite: Myers collects phonographs and Caron collects art.

For two years, the Myerses have held a weekly Motor Racing Outreach Bible study in their home for other racing-crew members and their families. They also host "Choc Talk," a syndicated call-in radio show broadcast on WLXN-1440.

And Myers finds time to talk with others about the importance of making good choices. Whenever he can, he visits schools, churches and organizations to deliver motivational speeches on making the most of life.

"I wasted a little bit of my life," Myers says. "You just got to let them know what (faith) has done for you."

His popularity and experiences make him an effective speaker, he says.

"I grew up in the garage. Every other word I knew was a cuss word," he says. Now when he hears someone letting swears fly, he talks about last week's church service, hoping that his comments might give the other person something to consider: "When you get a little notoriety, they have a tendency to listen a lot more.

"I never had the opportunity to hear people speak about what life has dealt them, about what's good, what's bad," he says.

These days, he dwells on the good.

"A lot of people think all the excitement is going to be gone from your life" after a religious conversion, he says. "I'm enjoying life more now."