Much has already been written about the driver, who he was, what he meant to the sport and the icon he became. He was, perhaps, a true hero to racing fans not so much because he was a great competitor, which he was, but also because he represented the everyman.
He was one but he transcended that. He was a blue collar guy who lifted himself, through many struggles and sacrifices, to the top of his profession.
In doing so he asked no quarter and gave none. To many he was the purest image of the rugged stock car driver. Certainly he had his detractors. But no one, not even his rivals, could deny his skills. Nor could they ever question his leadership in the garage area and beyond.
None of that need be repeated here.
Instead I would prefer to reflect on Earnhardt the man, a part of whom most were not privileged to see. I was.
It can honestly be said that when Earnhardt considered someone a friend he was generous and caring – almost to a fault. I was able to learn that firsthand.
I initially encountered Earnhardt through a good friend, the late Joe Whitlock, who, over 30 years ago, was Earnhardt’s confidant and public relations representative.
Earnhardt had just begun his career in Winston Cup racing. He won the rookie of the year title in 1979, the same year he won for the first time. I – and many others – had written much about him.
Through Whitlock I got to interact with Earnhardt away from the track. I got to know him as a person. He shared his personal thoughts with me and me with him.
In 1980 Earnhardt won the Cup title. He was invited to be Grand Marshal of the Concord, N.C., Christmas parade that year. He would be driven down the city’s main street as something of a conquering hero.
I drove from Roanoke, Va., to Lake Norman, N.C., his home, to join in the celebration.
I had no expectation of what was to happen.
“Listen up, Waid,” Earnhardt said. “I want you to drive the car I’m in during the parade.”
I didn’t ask him why for a simple reason. He had asked me. By the force of his personality I was required to do it.
And so it was that I drove Earnhardt, who basked atop the T-roof Pontiac Grand Prix that I guided through Concord, in the Christmas parade of 1980.
It was a very pleasant journey. The Charlotte Observer’s Tom Higgins was in the back seat serving as, uh, our bartender.
I cannot begin to tell you the attention and admiration Earnhardt attracted. Men, women and children were thrilled by his attendance.
During the route of the parade I often stopped so fans could get his autograph.
After a while Earnhardt told me to keep going.
“Waid if you keep stopping we will never get through this,” he said.
So I didn’t.
But when the parade ended Earnhardt steadfastly signed every autograph opportunity extended to him.
In 1981 I came from Virginia to North Carolina to join a publication then known as Grand National Scene.
The very day I arrived I was informed that Earnhardt wanted me to join him for a cookout.
I went to his handsome home in Doolie, N.C., on the shores of Lake Norman.
After I had dinner with several of his friends, Earnhardt took me aside.
“Look,” he said. “I’m pretty sure you don’t have a permanent place to live here yet.”
He guided me to the lower level of his house.
“Look at this,” he said. “I have all of this I don’t use. You can have your own bedroom, your own bathroom and even your own private entrance into the house.
“Live here with me. It won’t cost you anything because I don’t use it. I’m not even here most of the time. Take it.”
I couldn’t. I told Earnhardt it just would not be right for an editor of a NASCAR newspaper to live with its reigning champion.
But I realized then the kind of man he really was.
Over the years Earnhardt and I interacted over many matters – most of them racing, to be sure, but we also talked about life, politics, relationships and so much more.
He often asked me for advice. I did likewise and he gave it freely.
For some reason he began to call me “Wages.” He did so until he died.
There is one thing that I have always remembered.
It happened during the Concord Christmas parade.
I stopped the car. Earnhardt disapproved.
A kid, maybe 15 or so, ran up and extended a piece of paper and a pen for an autograph.
He said, “Dale Earnhardt, you really got it made, don’t you?
I don’t know if Earnhardt thought that at the time.
But that kid knew.
And now, years later and after the passing of an icon, we all know.