Post-race threats stepped up security for Earnhardt


- Contributor
Wednesday, May. 16, 2012

Death threats against Dale Earnhardt followed the wildly controversial all-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May, 17, 1987, an event then known as The Winston.

A few were considered credible.

So credible, in fact, that for some time afterward Earnhardt, the race’s winner, was quietly afforded special protection, some of which was handled by federal authorities.

Saturday night's all-star event at the Charlotte track brings this dark page in stock car racing history to mind. My two sources, both former high-ranking officials – respected and responsible – will remain anonymous.

The passions of Earnhardt and rivals Bill Elliott and Geoff Bodine were high in that third annual running of NASCAR’s all-star event as they battled at the front of the field in the waning laps. Starting a final 10-lap segment on the 1.5-mile track, Elliott and Bodine shared the front row. Earnhardt was immediately behind.

The cars made contact in the second turn – who triggered it will be debated forever – causing Elliott and Bodine to spin. Earnhardt charged to a lead he never relinquished.

For two laps Earnhardt and Elliott exchanged bumps, then Earnhardt forced Elliott high in the fourth turn. On the following lap, Elliott sent Earnhardt into the grassy area between pit road and the track along the front-stretch.

Earnhardt never lifted and after slashing through the grass for perhaps 100 yards before driving back onto the asphalt, still in the lead.

His skill – or great luck – almost immediately became popularly known as "The Pass In The Grass,” and it has lived on in NASCAR lore. Never mind there absolutely was no pass. Earnhardt never for an instant lost the lead.

Both Elliott and Bodine bumped into Earnhardt’s car after the race.

Emotions were running so high that two of Earnhardt’s burly crew members, Chocolate Myers and Cecil Gordon, accompanied the driver to the press box for interviews.

And Elliott took the unusual step of visiting the press box, too, to offer his version of what had happened. The popular Georgian was so flushed with anger that it was hard to tell where his forehead ended and his red hair began.

For their actions, all three drivers drew fines from NASCAR – miniscule by today's standards. Earnhardt and Elliott were assessed $2,500 each and Bodine $1,000.

Not surprisingly, passions were also high among the trio's fans.

These were further fanned a day or two later when an overzealous member of the track’s press department used a tasteless ploy to hype ticket sales for the following weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

He had packages delivered overnight to the media. Each contained a crushed Coors beer can, a torn Levi Garrett tobacco pouch and a tattered piece of denim, presumably ripped from a pair Wrangler jeans.

Coors was Elliott's sponsor, Levi Garrett was Bodine's and Earnhardt was backed by Wrangler.

The implication was that more mayhem was to come in the 600.

The late sports editor Benny Phillips of the High Point Enterprise best assessed the asinine stunt:

“What is the speedway going to do next?” he wrote. “Mail out phony death certificates?”

Worse, word soon circulated that the passions of a few misguided followers of stock car racing had gotten out of control. Threats to Earnhardt's safety were being made. One even outlined how a sniper could fire on the driver's race car from wooded areas near some of the tracks.

Thankfully, these threats were not carried out.

What role law enforcement officers played in preventing them from being attempted we’ll probably never know.

The hard feelings between Earnhardt and Elliott soon eased as well. And they eventually made promotional appearances at each other's auto dealerships.

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