Dibs on Dale and DeLuxe
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his announcement this week that he was stepping down, it hit many fans like a ton of bricks. NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for a record 14 years straight, two-time Daytona 500 winner, third-generation driver, and oh yeah...he's Dale Earnhardt’s kid. It's a big story and it hits close to home. You could say it’s personal.
Earnhardt's contribution to the sport is undeniable. Some non-believers might argue that there are many other drivers with more impressive resumes in the sport that are more Hall-Of-Fame worthy than Dale Jr. I refuse to entertain the thought of debating the old "who's the better driver" game. I think his body of work on and off the track and his contribution to the sport will speak for itself for decades to come. His decision to step down cuts much deeper for many of us that call ole' North Cackalacky home.
It's a 28115 thing.
I'll save you a Google search, that's the zip code for Mooresville, North Carolina. It's where Dale Jr. calls home, and also the location where I spent the first 5 years of my life. I know, I know...no one state can claim the birth right of NASCAR, but what the heck. I'm calling "dibs". The organization known as NASCAR may have been officially born at The Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, but the sport was raised, groomed and celebrated the most in the Tar Heel State. Mooresville IS Race City USA by the way, although that designation didn’t come about until the early nineties. Before NASCAR exploded in the region, the coolest thing in Mooresville was the DeLuxe ice cream factory.
The sport was grown by folks from all areas of the state. We made some great moonshine back in the day running those roads from the mountains to the coast, thus we have Junior Johnson. Some drivers got their start hauling shine, most just liked to go fast on those Piedmont and Sandhills tracks. Names like Buddy Baker, Bobby Isaac and Benny Parsons come to mind. We had Earnhardts, Pettys and Jarretts. We had North Wilkesboro Speedway, The Rock, Hickory Motor Speedway, Bowman Gray Stadium, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and many more local bull rings. Back in the day, it was safe to say there was a race track in every other town in North Carolina. There have been races in High Point, Salisbury, Shelby and Fayetteville. Two races were run at the now defunct Harris Speedway in Harris North Carolina in 1964 and 1965. I had to Google “Harris” because I've never heard of it before and after I found it on the map; I still don't know where it is! (My apologies to anyone from Harris!) I took for granted that I grew up right smack dab in the middle of racing heaven. So it's personal, Dale Jr. is one of us. It's a given that when you’re born in North Carolina, you automatically become an Earnhardt fan. It's in your DNA.
My family moved from Mooresville to the small mountain town of Jefferson, North Carolina in the summer of 1969. The town of Jefferson is the county seat of Ashe County. (28640) The first NASCAR race I attended was at the nearby North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1974. Cale Yarborough won the race, with Richard Petty coming in second. The cars were fast and loud, the action was exciting and the people in the stands were very entertaining and fun to watch. I was hooked. Growing up in a rural small town didn't shelter you from the sport; it exposed you to the true grass roots that have continued to firmly cement the sport within the state of North Carolina. We even had a local driver make some racing history in the late eighties when Larry Caudill won consecutive back to back championships in the Goody's Dash Series, and even one of my old high school buddies was a tire carrier for several top shelf NASCAR teams. Everybody had a Junior Johnson story, and almost every resident race fan in the state of North Carolina has met Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. It's personal; these guys are part of the family.
The town of Jefferron, N.C.
When I moved to Wallburg, North Carolina in 1998, (27373) I was thrilled to learn that my house was only 8 miles from Bowman Gray Stadium and that one of the most decorated drivers at the historic Madhouse was Junior Miller. He has amassed 6 championships and 73 wins at Bowman Gray Stadium. Although he has lived the majority of his life in the Triad, he was actually born in Ashe County, North Carolina and lived in the town of Lansing. (28643) I knew it! He was one of us too! I soon noticed that I was only a few miles away from Richard Childress's original shop in Wallburg, and I was also just a mile away from the modified racing stable of Lee and Robert Jeffreys, whom we sadly lost back in February. Ed Berrier lives down the road from me, and former NASCAR flag man Jimmy Howell lives a few miles away too. I also realize that Jimmy hasn't asked me to play golf with him in in a few years. (What's up with that Jimbo?) These people are real, and are the fabric of the sport that is weaved throughout the entire state. It's close and personal to me.
So when Dale Jr. made his announcement, I really wasn't surprised. I think Dale made a good decision based on what's best for him and his family and his interest looking forward. I'm sure he'll continue to be involved in the sport and in the broadcast booth. The sport is in good hands; the young bucks will carve out their own careers and make names for themselves in the years to come. (You know that Blaney kid is from High Point, and he is a force to be reckoned with) I'm all for diversity in the sport of NASCAR, it has grown because of it. Our little local secret got out and became a regional sport, and has now bloomed into a national phenomenon with global aspirations. I guess it just makes me a little sad to know that Jr. is one of the last links to a glorious past that I'll always consider the heyday of NASCAR. It’s the same feeling you get when your best neighbor sells their house and moves away because of a new job; you feel bad because you’ll miss them and their family but you look forward to meeting the new folks moving in. We all remember those feelings when we heard about North Wilkesboro and Rockingham going away. It’s the same feeling when Tony and Jeff stepped down. It’s like when the big oak tree in my Granny’s back yard got struck by lightning many years ago. The tree slowly died, withered away and had to be removed a little at a time until it was gone. The fond memories of dozens of cousins playing in that tree for hours was the highlight of many hot and hazy Iredell County summer days that ended on the front porch with a cold watermelon while we listened to our tar heeled heroes race to victory on MRN radio. It was part of my past, never to return. It’s personal.
Granny's front porch in Troutman, N.C.
After Dale Jr. finished his press conference Tuesday, my mind immediately jumped back to February 18th, 1998. It was my first ever trip to the Daytona 500, and it was an incredible race until the last lap. The long, sad drive home the next day was filled with sincere sympathy for the Earnhardt and RCR family and crew, and the entire racing community. The sport had lost its Superman. It's over, how can this sport go forward? It was difficult, but the sport forged ahead like it always does. Life moves on. The same applies right now. I'm optimistic that the new drivers will prevail, the sport will grow and I will continue to be a fan. I guess I'm just getting older, and change is harder to accept. I'll be fine, and NASCAR will continue to grow and adapt to meet the needs of their fans.
I don’t know where the sport of racing will eventually end up, but I sure will remember where it started for me and Dale Jr. (28115)