Dale Earnhardt at Talladega
12 October 1997
TALLADEGA, AL -- Hard to believe that it was one year ago at this event that NASCAR came oh-so-close to losing the 'franchise'. No it wasn't some power struggle in a board room. No, it was when Dale Earnhardt took a sharp right and plowed head-on into Talladega's front stretch wall at an estimated 190 mile per hour clip. Sound bad? It was. But it was only the beginning of Earnhardt's ride. You see, right after the black #3 hit the wall it flipped onto its roof - then on to its side. But it didn't stop there. No, the car kept tumbling down the front stretch of the longest track that NASCAR's premier touring series visits. Heck, the rolls may not have been bad in themselves but the other cars that came plowing into the RCR ride only made the nightmare that much darker. When the #3 finally came to rest the crowd sat in stunned silence looking for a sign that Earnhardt was okay. After a long wait, word came out that Earnhardt was not only conscious but directing the rescue operations by telling the crew working on his car that the jaws of life were unnecessary. As it turns out later Earnhardt didn't want to scare the fans more than they already had been. The injuries were limited to a broken sternum and a collar bone. Earnhardt qualified and started the next race at Indy but handed the reigns over to Mike Skinner. It was an emotional moment for Earnhardt - something he didn't want to do again. The following race Earnhardt sucked it in and put his GM Goodwrench ride on the pole at of all places - Watkins Glen's road course. He wrestled and hustled his ride to a sixth-place finish in that event. As a matter of fact Earnhardt never did miss a race from that spectacular crash. But he admittedly pushed it too hard to fast. "That period of time set us back," said Earnhardt while reminiscing about the last year. "I probably shouldn't have drive the race car all day at Watkins Glen. I should have gotten out of it like I did at Indy because it set us back. But I've played hurt before so it's no big deal." Earnhardt, who has made himself real scarce of late, perhaps sick of getting asked 'when are you going to win again' came to the press the other day to tell us what he is thinking and feeling about the last year of events that surrounded him. Earnhardt was playful and kid-like when he spent 45 minutes telling us about everything from plate racing to his recent incident at Darlington. "I like this place. I like to race here," said Earnhardt on his chance to run at Dega. "My confidence level is so good. I know once the race starts we'll be drafting and get right up there to the front and be one of the contenders to win." Earnhardt, then got a serious look and started playing with the, what appears to be, permantaly attached sharpie pen and spoke in a softer tone. "You don't see guys passing each other now without help. We ran second to Mark (Martin) here in the spring race. We just had to sit there. We couldn't do nothing. I couldn't pull out either way because the car wouldn't go forward. If you call that racing-OK. So be it. We'll just sit in line.' What would Earnhardt do about superspeedway races? He'd lose the plates that slow the cars down to rolling packs of trouble. "Take the restrictor plates off and we'll see who'll hold it wide open around here," Earnhardt said with almost an evil glow. "Who knows? Who cares how fast we'd go. It's a race," Earnhardt said glibly. "It's always defeated me. The technology you have to race and you build a race track that you can hold it wide open all the way around. Why do you want to slow 'em down? I crashed with a restrictor plate on pretty bad the last time here. If they're worried about the people, move 'em back. Build bigger grandstands or walls and move 'em back. We spend more time and effort and money on restrictor plate development as we do on unrestricted development. I wish I had an answer I could tell 'em but I don't." Earnhardt then turned part braggart when he recalled the days before the plates. "I can remember going into the corner at Daytona and the other guys would lift but I would not." Then, with a devilish chuckle, Earnhardt said, "I remember that well." Earnhardt, short on wins with 55 consecutive starts and his best finish a second, took exception to something he read in the paper. "Did you read the paper?" Earnhardt asked rhetorically. "Did you see what Jack Roush said?" he asked again. Not waiting for an answer, "He said they gave the Chevys a 1/4 (on the rear spoiler) so Earnhardt could win. Can you believe he said that? Man that's some sheeeyit. I gotta go talk to Cactus Jack and see what he's talking about." Earnhardt then chuckled and said, "And I thought we were friends. "I couldn't tell you how much this race pays," said a serious Earnhardt. "I race to win. Yeah, the money is part of it but I couldn't tell you what the purse is here. It's probably not enough for the car owner. When you're a driver and you're racing, you want to win. That's about all. "Racing is fun. It gets busy and hectic sometimes. You come in late at night and wonder about tomorrow. The next thing you know you're up at 5 o'clock signing autographs for the fans. You just get after it. That's all there is to it. "When I sit down in a race car it's like the first day I ever done it. There's nothing else on my mind. I'm not sitting there while I'm racing pondering everything going on in my life. I'm focused on beating whoever is in front of me or behind me." Then as Earnhardt was getting ready to go he made a little remark about Jeff Gordon. "Who else would hang out with Gordon but Robin. Heh! Me, I run with Superman." As the champ walked out of the room someone asked what he thought of his chances come Sunday. "Imagine you leading the race on the last lap with me behind you. Would you want that? As guys get older they get smarter and they don't forget anything - at least I don't. I would hate to have me behind me on the last lap if I haven't won a race all year. "They're (the fans) going to be booing me some more before it's over with. When they boo you, then you know you're running too good. The fans are hard on all the guys who win right off. They were tough on Darrell, Cale, Bobby Allison. That's life. I want to win. I want to be the one one getting the boos."