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Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s boat sails again

- TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS
Wednesday, Mar. 06, 2013

It was a balmy mid-spring day in the early 1980s.

The surface of Lake Norman was so slick it looked like a mirror.

Junior Wong, my best fishing buddy, and I sat in the middle of the reservoir just north of Charlotte, waiting impatiently.

We weren’t waiting on bites.

We were waiting on two friends to meet us in another boat, and they were almost an hour late.

"They aren’t coming," said a growling Junior, owner of a Chinese restaurant in Charlotte and the best freshwater fisherman I’ve ever known. "We have been stood up."

At about that moment I spotted a rooster tail far up the lake.

"I believe this is them," I said.

The rooster tail grew ominously as the onrushing boat bore straight at us.

"He’s going to hit us!" screamed Junior.

I sensed what was coming.

At the last moment the guy piloting the speeding boat swerved sharply, sending a spray of water sweeping onto Junior and me. We wouldn’t have been any wetter if we had jumped in the lake.

Laughing uproariously, the guys who had just soaked us putt-putted alongside.

They were NASCAR star driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr., and Joe Whitlock, his buddy, confidant, agent and public relations representative. They had asked me to have Junior show them where he was catching limits of striped bass at Lake Norman.

"Let’s go fishin’!" cracked Earnhardt.

Junior didn’t see the mirth in Earnhardt’s prank. In fact, he was furious. The spray had doused a big cigar he had been smoking.

"Go find your own damn stripers!" snapped an angry Junior. He cranked his boat’s engine and we pulled away.

Within seconds Wong reconsidered, and he motioned for the pranksters to follow us. Junior put them on his "honey hole" and we caught several nice fish.

Wong, Whitlock and Earnhardt are gone now.

But Dale’s sleek bass boat has been given new life. Bought from Earnhardt by Jack Watson in 1984, the blue 17-foot Terry with a 140-hp Evinrude outboard engine and walk-through windshield has been meticulously restored. For years it was in storage and unused.

Watson, a former executive with Wrangler Jeans, signed Earnhardt to his first substantial sponsorship contract in 1980. Coincidentally, they became neighbors in the Stumpy Creek section of Lake Norman a little later.

"We fished some together, and I really liked that boat," Watson, now a retiree who lives in Mooresville, said this week. "It was the best combination fishing and water skiing boat I’d seen.

"One day Dale came to me and asked, ‘You want to buy my boat?’

"I said I couldn’t understand why on earth he would consider getting rid of it.

"He flashed that grin of his and said, ‘Well, I’ve got a boat manufacturer who wants to become and associate sponsor, and I’ve been promised a bigger model. I’m getting a freebie!’

"So, I bought the boat.

"A couple weeks later Dale walked over to my house and sort of sheepishly asked, ‘Can I borrow YOUR boat? My deal fell through.’

"For a while we shared that boat until he got a new one."

Watson retired the Terry not long after Earnhardt’s death in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. It remained idled until 2011, when Watson decided to have it restored.

"The boat looks brand new," he said, "just like it’s coming off a showroom floor."

Watson is thinking about putting the blue craft that once belonged to the seven-time Cup Series champion and NASCAR Hall Of Famer up for sell.

"I have no idea what a boat with its history is worth," said Watson, who has legal documentation showing that the boat indeed once belonged to the famed, popular Earnhardt. "I will entertain offers."

Watson can be reached via email at jowatson@mi-connection.com.

Just think!

You, too, could splatter friends the way "The Intimidator" soaked Junior Wong and me on a spring day 30 years ago.

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