2002 Season

It's been a long journey, but we are family
By: 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 didn’t 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 didn’t matter where I went wearing a hat, shirt or jacket of Dale’s, because someone would always start up a conversation. They may not have been a fan of Dale’s, 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 didn’t 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.

Those days 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 mother’s 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 didn’t 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 Dale’s personality.

“Oh My 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? It’s 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 son’s 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 Dale’s impact on their lives. Number three’s 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 Savoie’s 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 didn’t 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 I’ve 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 don’t want to miss out on any more moments of family, so each weekend I will be watching with a renewed passion.

I’ve been an Earnhardt fan since as long as I remember. I watched races ever since I was born, but I didn’t 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. I’d 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. I’ve 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. I’ll never forget making the Intimidator laugh. As most of you know by now I love nothing more than to bring a smile to someone’s 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 someone’s face. I’ll cherish that memory for the rest of my life.

I’ll 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 Pete’s 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 don’t 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.



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