“The Intimidator”

Dale Earnhardt won 1979 NASCAR “Rookie of the Year”.  A year later, he won the 1980 NASCAR championship, the only driver to ever do both consecutively.  He dropped out of school in 9th Grade against his fathers wishes who put him to work in his shop, preparing dirt track race cars.  His  driving career would redefine NASCAR and he became a wildly popular driver.  He would win 7 Championships, tied for most ever with Richard Petty. After 20 attempts, he won the “Daytona 500”  and every member of every pit crew lined up to shake his hand on his way to victory lane.  Earnhardt then drove onto the infield, making tire tracks in the shape of a #3 in the grass.

In 2001, on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt crashed into the wall and was killed.  Fans were in disbelief.  North Carolina grieved.

Today, leaving Interstate 85 at Exit 60 to Kannapolis,  you can follow the “Dale Trail”,  watch the single “A” baseball team, the Kannapolis  “Intimidators”, and eventually end up here on “Glory Road” at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  There are 19 cars, including this 1996 #3 Chevy.  This  first  floor display ends in a 33 degree bank like Talladega.  The cars are real , the fans only a display but walking up the ramp, you’ll eventually reach the  “Hall of Fame”, where Dale was inducted along with Junior Johnson and Richard Petty in 2010.  There is a later model, black #3 Chevy there.

Ahead of his father, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second in the 2001 Daytona 500, behind another driver for the Dale Earnhardt Team.  In 2004, he won.

1996 Chevrolet - Dale Earnhardt

1979 Daytona 500

Cale Yarborough Oldsmobile from the 1979 Daytona 500

The first “live” US national television broadcast of a 500 mile auto race was in 1979.  Until then, even the INDY 500 was shown on tape delay and then only portions of the race.  Held in Florida on 18 February, the “Daytona 500” was seen by a lot of new viewers,  stuck indoors due to a major snowstorm in the Midwest and Northeast.  New “in car” cameras were first used.   Some think it was the most important in NASCAR history because of the new audience and the finish.  On the last lap, the car above and another driven by Donnie Allison “got into it” for the second time that day.  Previously, Yarborough had repaired his car and made up the lost laps.  Both cars now crashed, ending up in the infield while Richard Petty, a half lap behind, won the race.  Still on live national television, a fight started between Cale Yarborough and brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison.  It was a real fight too, with fists, helmets and blood.  Next day, it was the front page story of the New  York Times Sports section.

Cale said “I was going to pass him and win the race, but he turned left and crashed me. So, hell, I crashed him back. If I wasn’t going to get back around, he wasn’t either.”  There was a reason that Cale was driving for Junior Johnson.  Cale had a pretty good year during the rest of the season but he and a lot of other drivers would be getting familiar with a new driver, one who would be named 1979’s Rookie Of The Year, Dale Earnhardt.

Disclaimer: Like most museums, tripods aren’t allowed and there are crowds and ropes and less than great conditions to photograph.   Not a great photograph but a great story.

1971 Wood Brothers Mercury – David Pearson

1971 Wood Brothers Mercury driven by David Pearson

Woods Brothers Racing had two race requirements from its driver David Pearson aka “The Silver Fox”.  First, a stick of chewing gun for each 100 miles of the race was taped to the dash.  Second, install a cigarette lighter.

“You’d be out here at Darlington with 50 laps to go. It’s 95 degrees outside and you’re just dying,” said Pearson’s archrival, Richard Petty.   “And then David would go blowing by you and he’s driving with one hand and lighting a cigarette with the other. You knew you were in trouble then.”

Two years ago, 73 year old Pearson drove this car around a refurbished Darlington for a demonstration.  He drove in front of a modern race car driven by Carl Edwards.  Pearson drove about as fast as 1972 and would have gone faster on the newly surfaced track but his tires were older than the other driver.   The duct taped chewing gum and cigarette lighter are visible below.  Edwards had neither.

Ready To Race

Fabulous Hudson Hornet

No better title than the one on the sign.   Inside, along with a wonderful collection of racing history,  is a complete, functional “moonshine still”.  Part of Stock Car racing grew out of  “moonshiners” who built cars strong enough to haul 100 gallons of untaxed whiskey and fast enough to outrun the law.  When NASCAR asked for a “model” of a “moonshine still”,  legendary ex moonshiner, NASCAR driver and owner “Junior” Johnson insisted on providing a real still.   He delivered and assembled it personally.  NASCAR enlarged the planned exhibit space to accommodate Junior’s donation.  In 1956, Junior had the misfortune to be caught at his Daddy’s still and served 11 months of a 2 year Federal sentence.   Junior still makes “shine” but legally, 80 proof  “Midnight Moon”, using the same family recipe and copper still process as 1956.  Unlike 1956, it is available in North Carolina State Liquor stores.   Junior describes his moonshine as “Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best shine ever.”  In 1986, President Reagan granted Junior a Pardon for his Federal conviction.

This car and few more like it dominated the 1951, 1952 and 1953 races.  My earliest memory of an automobile is riding in the back seat of a Hudson when I was about 3 years old.  It seemed enormous and compared to current automobiles, was.  My father owned a “Hornet” and a “Wasp”.

A Mile Shy of Charlotte

A Mile Shy of Charlotte

Charlotte skyline seen from the Amtrak Station, glitter seen from grit.  Travel from Raleigh is better than driving and the good news is, this 1961 station is being replaced by the N.C. Dept. of Transportation in 2012.  The new station will be downtown where it should be, within walking distance of the important things like the Carolina Panthers  Stadium and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  I even saw train passengers in suits (including neckties) and laptops commuting to and from Raleigh.  Apparently, there is some Banking and Finance activity in Charlotte.  Not important like Football or Racin’ but for some, it’s a living.