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Lasting memories, great stories

The Charlotte Observer
Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011

There are many still in NASCAR who spent time working for, racing against, cheering or jeering Dale Earnhardt.

The Observer asked some of those close to Earnhardt to share their favorite stories, to help explain why he was loved and hated – sometimes at the same time.

Putting on a show

Steve Hmiel, former director of competition at Dale Earnhardt Inc., now with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing:

“We were just about to take Dale Jr. to his first Cup test at Daytona in 2000 and at the time Steve Park had a tire test to go to in Atlanta. … One airplane was broken down and I took it upon myself to say, ‘Dale Jr., there is a lot of hubbub about him and we need him to run good. Let’s put (Junior’s) team in the plane and (Park’s) team can drive the four hours to Atlanta … .’

"It worked out OK. The No. 1 team (Park’s) was kind of mad. We got back from the race track later that week and Earnhardt, in front of everybody – which is how he liked to do it – he grabbed me and said, ‘Let me tell you something, That ain’t your airplane and you don’t run it like it’s your airplane.

" 'From now on, whatever plans we made, you stick with them. I don’t care what your opinion is.’

"I said that was cool and I explained to him the reason I did it. He said, ‘I don’t (care) what your reason is. If I make a rule, I make a rule.’ I said that was cool. He told everybody else to get out of there.

"They all got run out of the room and they thought I was going to get … chewed some more and Earnhardt said, ‘I appreciate you looking out for my kid, but I got to be a hard-ass in front of the other guys.’

"He did that … with everybody. He was the toughest guy in the world and had to stay that way but he had a heart that was so big.”

A new toy

Felix Sabates, NASCAR team owner:

“Dale Earnhardt had always had small fishing boats. He never owned what you would call really big boats. We invited him to go on a fishing trip to the Bahamas on one of my yachts.

"We were docked at Hatteras (Island) at the time. Dale came over and got on the boat and said, ‘Can I drive it?’ And I was thinking, ‘This is a multimillion-dollar fishing boat.’ So I said OK.

"Well, he never got off the boat for eight hours. He would not get off the controls because he was afraid someone was going to take it away from him.

“So we get ready to go back to the dock and the captain says to me, ‘You can’t let him drive it into the marina. Look at all the boats – he could wreck the whole marina.’ All I could see was my insurance going up.

"So I told Earnhardt he had to give up the wheel. He said, ‘I’m not giving up the wheel.’ I said, ‘You can’t dock this boat.’ He said, ‘Why not? I got enough money to pay for all of them. I’m docking this boat.’

"He came plowing through the marina. The captain said, ‘He’s going to kill us all!’ Earnhardt goes in wide open, cuts it off just as we pull to the dock and stops the boat.

"He gets off and says, ‘I’m buying this boat.’ And he did. That became his boat ‘Sunday Money.’ ”

Weather forecaster

Ty Norris, former executive vice president of DEI now with Michael Waltrip Racing:

“One time, Dale was hunting in Colorado and he called me before the race weekend at Loudon, New Hampshire, and he was whispering on the phone. …He was hunting elk or something.

"He said don’t tell anybody, but I’m coming in tomorrow night. And I told him if he came tomorrow night he would be flying right into the middle of a storm. I told him there was a hurricane coming up and it’s in Florida and it’s supposed to come through Charlotte like Hugo did.

"He said he hadn’t heard anything about it. I said, ‘Yeah, it’s supposed to hit in Charlotte around 3 p.m.’

“So, he asked me where it was now and I told him it was off the coast of Florida not far from Daytona … So he goes, ‘Well if it’s going to hit down there it’s not coming to Charlotte. It’s going to come up, bounce off this or that and by the time it gets to Georgia it’s going to turn right. We’re never going to see anything in Charlotte.’

“I told him, ‘Three minutes ago you hadn’t even heard of a … storm, now you’re going to tell me the route it’s going to take?’ So he flew in the next day and landed. The storm had veered off and it never touched Charlotte.”

Better wreck him good

Rick Hendrick, NASCAR team owner:

“Back when Earnhardt and (Geoff) Bodine were going at it hammer and nail, Geoff went into the corner in a race and just rubbed him and the next corner Dale planted Geoff in the wall. We walked over there and … the car was destroyed.

“I said, ‘You know Geoff, if you walk on the street and you see a snake, you step on its head, you don’t pick him up and shake him and lay it back down, because it will bite you. If you’re going to mess with Earnhardt, you better wreck him good because if you don’t, we’re going to be cutting you out of the car.’

“That feud cost Richard Childress and I a lot of money. The meeting that (Bill) France (Jr.) had with us down in Daytona saved me a lot of money because I was losing a lot of cars.”

Run, Dale, run

Michael Waltrip, from “In the Blink of an Eye: Dale, Daytona and the Day that Changed Everything”:

“Like the time in the Bahamas that Ty (Norris) and I decided we would go jogging, and Dale said he wanted to go with us. Ty and I came out in our running shorts and shoes. When Dale walked up, he had on a big ol’ pair of fishing shorts, black socks and a pair of those shoes you wear on a boat. ‘How far you boys want to go?’ he asked.

"The first quarter-mile consisted of two lefts and one right. The right headed you out of the marina and up toward town, which is where Ty and I were planning on running. Dale elected to make three lefts and quickly ran right back to the boat. When Ty and I got back from our run, Dale was sitting on the back of the boat drinking a margarita.

"When we walked up all sweaty, Dale said: ‘I can’t run like that unless something’s chasing me. But I’ll bet you guys can’t climb a tree like I can. I can shimmy right up one. Without any spikes either. I’d like to see you two try that.’

"We laughed that day and said: ‘You got us there, Dale.’ ”

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