Attending races as a working member of the media, I have the rare opportunity to see the sport from a perspective that few others have had.
Although I have talked/interviewed Dale at both the September race at Dover, the October race at Charlotte, and some other times before this, one chance conversation that I had with Dale occurred in the October 2000 Charlotte race.
I have to admit anytime that I had ever interviewed Dale Earnhardt there were what seemed like 200 media people around. Many times I would ask questions to Dale from behind a wall of people. But in Charlotte I stumbled upon a chance to speak with him one on one. I had stepped to the backside of the GM Goodwrench car hauler to check the batteries in my camera and recorder getting ready for other interviews. While fumbling around with my equipment, I noticed a figure coming at me from the front of the hauler. Figuring it was one of the GM Goodwrench team members, I went on about my business. That is until I heard a voice jokingly say, "What are you doing?" It was at that point I realized I was standing one on one with "The Intimidator" himself. Who when I made eye contact (or I should say eye to reflective sunglasses contact) was actually a really friendly face. At the risk of sounding like some prepubescent kid on a date, I just replied, "ahh, just trying to make sure I have enough battery life in case I get to interview you (so much for the risk of sounding stupid).
I introduced Autoracing1.com and myself and shook his hand. I knew he sensed my nervousness and it was obvious he was trying to make me comfortable. I do not know why, but I told him the same old stuff I am sure he hears all of the time. Stuff like, I think you are the greatest driver and Ambassador that motorsports has ever seen. He smiled and thanked me. I thought, this is unbelievable, Dale Earnhardt just thanked me. I remember thinking to myself whatever you do don't faint! Before I could I stop myself, I went on to tell him (what I realized about half way through telling him could have been disastrous) that I haven't always cared for him. (what was I doing?) I told him, I think it was mostly due to my Brother in Law and Niece who worshiped the ground you walked on and constantly went on about you. As I was hearing myself sound pretty stupid, there was Dale Earnhardt actually (or at least putting on a great act) listening to what I was saying. I then told him, that for the past 2 or 2.5 years after watching him on and off the track I realized that my Brother in Law and Niece were right, you are a great driver, and that you truly are a great guy.
Of course, this was not coming out as flowing as I am writing it. But the thing I remember most was when I got done droning on, I told Dale, for the past 2 years I have been a closet Earnhardt fan. He looked at me with that Earnhardt grin, nudged me a little and said, I think it's finally time you come out of that closet. At that point I think I went from a prepubescent teenage boy, to some love stricken teenage girl. For him to be joking with me was one of the biggest thrills in my life!
Since the Daytona 500, I can not tell you how many times that I have replayed that conversation over and over in my head. Three years ago I never would have thought I would be taking Dale Earnhardts passing as tough as I have. As menial to most that my conversation with Earnhardt seems, to me it was one of the most memorable times of my life (other than the birth of my 2 beautiful little girls).
I often wonder if he were alive today, would he remember me or the conversation we had the next time I saw him? Just to make myself feel better, I am going to think that he would
have. Dale Earnhardt was a great man on and off the track, I only wish that I had realized it sooner.
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