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A Tiring Problem for Earnhardt?
'99 News
By Mike Willis of The Sportz News Service

Charlotte, N.C. (Sept. 2, 1999)
Radial-ply tires - and not business distractions, advancing age or lack of competitive fire - dimmed the luster of Winston Cup star Dale Earnhardt.

That's the opinion of a man who grew up near Kannapolis, N.C., with racing's "Intimidator" and has since become a friend over the years.

Hank Parker Sr., who owns the No. 53 Chevy driven by his son on the Busch Grand National Series, chose the course of professional fishing and now hosts his own TV series on The Nashville Network. Earnhardt, of course, gained his success in stock car racing, winning the Winston Cup Championship seven times.

"Earnhardt was a master at racing on bias-ply tires," Parker says. "The thing about bias tires is when you race on them, you can actually save your tires. They heat up and cool back down, then react like they are brand new. With these radial-ply tires they run today, they don't shrink back down. Earnhardt would run somebody hard from behind, because he knew how to save his tires and let them cool back down. It was a different driving style then."

It was that driving style that earned Earnhardt the nickname "the Intimidator." Parker said 1979 was a turning point for both.

"He was struggling with his career, and I was struggling with mine," recalls Parker. "That year, though, we both had great years."

Parker won the BassMasters Classic Championship and Earnhardt won the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

"He was a big-time deer hunter and fisherman," says Parker, a native of Denver, N.C., "and I liked to hunt and fish, so we got to know each other. We started hunting together a lot. In fact, that's how my son [Hank Parker Jr.] got started in racing - he became friends with Dale's son, Dale Jr. All four of us starting hanging around together. Dale Jr. gave Hank Jr. an old street stock car to race."

In his first nine years on the Winston Cup circuit, Earnhardt bagged a Rookie of the Year title, three driving titles, and an eighth and 12th-place finish in the points chase. All on bias-ply tires.

Radials have been the only tire on the Winston Cup circuit for more than 10 years because they are much faster than the more flexible bias-ply tires. But radials tend to demand one perfect line around each track, whereas bias-ply tires were more forgiving.

Earnhardt has won just 10 Winston Cup events over the past five years. Yes, he did managed to win the Winston Cup Championship four times over the past decade -- but it was mostly on the accumulated strength of top-10 finishes. His number of wins dwindled from nine in 1990 to zero in 1997, one in 1998 and two this season.

Now, Goodyear has developed a new racing tire that some think is close to the old bias-ply tires. Running on the new tires for the first time at Michigan Speedway a few weeks ago, Earnhardt put together a fifth-place finish -- one of only five top-five finishes this season.

"I think it's a good tire," says Kevin Hamlin, Earnhardt's crew chief. "We've just got to get our cars set up for it, because it's definitely a different tire than what we've had here in the past. ...When we started practice on race setup, it was like 'Whoa!' We've got to do a little more adjusting from what we had planned. It's supposed to let the tire think it's keeping the stagger in it, and not let the left-side tire grow and close the stagger up when the car is out running on the track."

In general then, the new compound is designed to keep more of the flat, belted tread on the asphalt all the way around the track. Just like the old bias-ply tires?

"I don't know if you could go so far as to say that yet," said Hamlin when asked if the new tire is more like a bias tire. "But maybe if we were racing bias-ply tires at the speeds we're running here now, they'd likely feel about like these things do right now. So maybe you can say that."

Parker also says that there could be something else affecting Earnhardt's performance over the years.

"He didn't like to practice. He used to send Neil Bonnett in his place all the time and maybe that hurt him a little bit," Parker said. "[Jeff] Gordon and those new guys are so good at getting their cars perfect because they practice so much.

"For example, 15 to 20 years ago, a driver would get out of his car and tell the crew 'Don't touch it, it's perfect.' You never hear that today," he continued. "A driver like Dale Jarrett will get out of his car and say 'It's just a little bit tight coming off the turns.' When bias ply tires were the ticket, you never heard that. Now, it's a matter of tweaking the car and getting everything right. With the bias-ply tires, you could make up for it on the track. With the radial tires, you better get your set-up right."

In comparing Dale Sr. with his son, Dale Jr., Parker says that Little E is going to make his own history someday.

"As for the genetic makeup, Dale Sr. gave Dale Jr. everything he's got," Parker said. "He came out with every bit of the drive and natural ability his dad has."

Parker doesn't hesitate to anoint a new King of Racing.

"Dale Jr. has grown up on the tires they are racing today, whereas his dad had to change in midstream. He knows those radial tires better than his dad knows them," Parker continued. "I think Dale Jr. is going to rewrite the record book. He's got that uncanny drive that nobody understands. He's got that Earnhardt desire to win -- that 'refuse to lose' attitude."

But Parker also says the competitive spirit in the Intimidator is fierce, as Terry Labonte found out when Earnhardt bumped him out of the way to take the checkered flag at Bristol over the weekend.

"He don't like to lose at racing, fishing -- anything," says Parker. "If he got in a foot race with a gold medallist, he would think of some way to win. But Junior is way more laid back. For example, Dale Sr. is up every morning at 5:30 or 6am Junior could sleep until noon...And Junior is more patient in a race car than Senior was. That's going to help him, too."

As a fellow businessman, Parker knows that Earnhardt is looking ahead to his future.

"Our time together is nowhere near what it was. He's at a pivotal point in his career," said. "He's really dedicating a lot of his time and energy into building Dale Earnhardt Enterprises."

And what is Earnhardt's take on what lies ahead?

"I'd like to win 25 more races before I quit racing, and I'd like to win another championship," he said. "That's on my list of things to do."