Drive along a rural route in any state and you’re likely to see a few mailboxes adorned with a tilted, red-and-white “3.” That number, of course, belonged to Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR legend who won seven Sprint Cup championships and died tragically at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s legacy remains strong today. Other NASCAR drivers have won more races, but no one has personified the grit and determination it takes to win like the man they called The Intimidator. In addition to being a one-of-a-kind personality, Earnhardt was also a savvy businessman. Here are four traits that drove his success and fueled his legend:
It can take years for the best drivers to work their way up to NASCAR’s top league. Earnhardt bounced around different racing circuits for a decade before becoming a regular in the Winston Cup, which is now called the Sprint Cup. He won his first race as a rookie in 1979, then won his first points championship the following year.
Earnhardt was NASCAR’s dominant driver for the next 14 years—and not necessarily because he had the best car on the track. He had a rough, tenacious racing style that fans loved and competitors sometimes feared. Earnhardt would often bump other cars if they came between him and the checkered flag. This approach sometimes led to confrontations with other drivers, as well as a few spectacular wrecks. “Bumpers were made for bumping,” Earnhardt liked to say.
Earnhardt was a risk-taker who was obsessed with winning. He rarely backed away from a challenge because he knew the rewards were high. Over the years, he earned the nickname, “The Intimidator” from drivers and racing fans.
NASCAR drivers are different from other pro athletes in that they are essentially entrepreneurs. In order to race on Sundays—and climb into a competitive car—each driver needs to attract a sponsor and a racing team. Earnhardt understood the business side of racing better than most. He knew that branding and identity were important parts of being successful.
In the late 1980s, Earnhardt picked up a new sponsor, GM Goodrich, and switched his car to a black, red and silver color scheme, with that tilted No. 3 painted on the door. The new look seemed to fit Earnhardt’s ornery personality and earned him a new nickname: “The Man in Black.” Merchandise for Earnhardt’s team flew off the shelves as he won four more points titles and built a nationwide fan base. Even today, items bearing Earnhardt’s name, likeness and racing number outsell the products of many of NASCAR’s current stars.
Earnhardt might have been a maverick on the track, but he was not a loner. As a businessman, he understood people and had a knack for seeing untapped potential in them. He staffed his racing team, DEI, with the most capable drivers and mechanics in the business.
When Earnhardt hired driver Michael Waltrip to join DEI in 2001, Waltrip was riding an awful, 462-race winless streak in Sprint Cup competition. Still, Earnhardt respected Waltrip’s character and his racing ability. He felt it was only a matter of time before Waltrip broke through on a big track like Daytona or Talladega.
Like so many other times, the Intimidator was right. Waltrip won his first race, the Daytona 500, in 2001. Unfortunately, Waltrip’s victory had a tragic outcome for his boss.
Though auto racing is an individual sport, NASCAR drivers also belong to different racing teams. Earnhardt understood the team concept. During his career, he mentored many drivers, though he liked to joke about how he taught them “everything they know, but not everything I know.”
On the last race of his life, two of Earnhardt’s DEI drivers, Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr., had a shot at finishing first in the final laps. Earnhardt, who was in third, deftly blocked other cars from challenging his two DEI teammates. At the end of the race, a collision with Sterling Marlin forced Earnhardt’s car into the wall, and he died on impact.
Though he is mostly remembered as a cut-throat racer who always wanted the checkered flag, helping out his teammates was Dale Earnhardt’s final act as a NASCAR driver.
Sources: Wikipedia, Sports Illustrated