Dale Earnhardt is one of the most intriguing personalities in American history, let alone American sports history.
"I'd made up my mind, I was going to quit racing. That's what I wanted to do."
-- Richard Childress
Folks are captivated by his life and death whether or not they respect or understand what he did.
He was Elvis and John Wayne and Steve McQueen and Christa McAuliffe all melded into one bad SOB.
Hence, doing justice to his story is no simple task. Producing a movie on his life that gives a true indication of who he was, and why, is all but impossible. (See: "3"). But it now has been done.
"Dale," a collaboration between CMT Productions and NASCAR Images, is the American dream in documentary form. It is the life story of Dale Earnhardt, the rough-around-the-edges ninth-grade dropout from a Nowhere, N.C., mill town who fought all manner of hardships to become the greatest stock car driver of all time and, in turn, an international icon.
Told with forgotten footage -- much of it never before seen -- and through interviews of Earnhardt and of those who knew him best, "Dale" is a most revealing look at an oft-mysterious individual.
Non-race fans will be moved. Race fans will be moved to tears.
This movie -- which opens in February all over Florida, then, like a concert tour, basically rolls across the the country with the Nextel Cup Series -- is not fiction. Nor is it based on a true story. It is fact; start to finish, from the hearts and minds of those who lived it. The quotes are eye-popping.
"Racing was his mistress. Being able to buy soap and toothpaste was a luxury." -- Marshall Brooks, Earnhardt's good friend.
"He was a chunk of coal. We all figured he'd be a diamond someday, but it was going to take a lot of polishing." -- three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip.
"If you're a badass and you can back it up, it will intimidate people. Dale could look at people, and just by looking at them, Dale could make them doubt themselves." -- Teresa Earnhardt.
"He was the first real live-action superhero my son had gotten to know. For that matter, he's the first one I'd ever gotten to know, too." -- NBC news anchor Brian Williams.
And that's just the one-liners. The interviews with, and stories told by, Richard Childress, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, Kerry Earnhardt, Teresa Earnhardt and Taylor Nicole Earnhardt, plus Dale's four siblings, former crew chief Doug Richert and former crew members Chocolate Myers, Will Lind and Danny Lawrence, and NASCAR on Fox personalities Waltrip and Steve Byrnes, among others, are simply priceless.
Emotional doesn't start. Insightful doesn't start.
Childress told of the time he and Earnhardt were riding horses up a mountain in New Mexico and Earnhardt's horse slipped on a rock. Down the mountain they tumbled, collecting Childress and his horse along the way. They could have been killed.
When they returned to camp that night, Childress told Earnhardt that if he'd died that day, he'd want Earnhardt to keep racing. Without flinching, Earnhardt nodded.
"Yep, same here," he said.
That conversation is why Childress is still racing.
"I'd made up my mind, I was going to quit racing," Childress said later in the movie, discussing the dark days after Earnhardt's death. "That's what I wanted to do. Then I went back to my conversation on the mountain that day. We knew that's not what Dale would've wanted."
The interviews in this film are so good, so insightful, it'd be best just to print the transcript. And the footage, gems from the annals of NASCAR Images, is stunning.
The movie opens on Earnhardt driving a mid-'80s Chevy Blazer, the familiar black and silver, across his property at sunup, a rare glimpse of him deep in personal thought. His love for that farm is apparent throughout the film. There are shots of him moving dirt and trees with a bulldozer, shots of him throwing hay and just sitting in a barn sipping Gatorade.
There is footage of Earnhardt as father, water-skiing with a preteen Dale Jr. and doting on Taylor Nicole as a toddler. And for the first time, viewers see how badly Dale Jr. yearned for attention his father couldn't give. You can see the want on Junior's face, how much he admired his father and yearned for acknowledgment. It's quite sad, really.
And the progression in confidence as Junior matures into a successful driver is readily obvious, too. He'd gotten his father's attention, earned his respect as man and competitor. That's cool to see.
The personal life footage could stand alone as a film. But integrate the reason Earnhardt was beloved in the first place -- the racing -- and this is a landmark production. The Daytona 500 provides a key platform throughout the film. For 19 years, it haunted him.
In 1986, he ran out of gas late. In '90, he led the field into the next-to-last corner of the race, only to suffer a flat right-rear tire, handing the race to unheralded Derrike Cope.
In '97, he went on his roof, prompting legendary announcer Ken Squier to say "And for the 19th time, Lady Luck deals a bad hand to Earnhardt." I love that voice. Goose bumps.
Then, 1998. Before the race, Earnhardt met with a young girl who required a wheelchair to move about. She gave him a penny, said it would bring him good luck in the Daytona 500, help him win the race that had so long eluded him. He hugged her, kissed her cheek. And sure enough, he won the Daytona 500. Again, hair-raising.
Three years later, he would die on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in NASCAR's highest-profile tragedy. Earnhardt was on the cover of Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated. Suddenly, NASCAR was seared in mainstream American consciousness.
Childress, Teresa Earnhardt and Steve Park all speak about the immediate aftermath in the film. It is gut-wrenching.
Despite having dropped out of school in the ninth grade -- a decision he considered his life's biggest regret -- Earnhardt was a very smart man. And he was a ruthless competitor. Waltrip says as much in the film while commenting about his legendary run-in with Earnhardt at Richmond in 1986. To this very day, that race still gets to DW. This film makes it obvious.
But equally obvious is the joy their 1998 partnership brought Waltrip. Park had broken his leg in a crash at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Earnhardt summoned his ol' buddy to fill in. It meant their relationship had come full circle.
Waltrip gave Earnhardt his first Busch Series opportunity 20 years before, and now it was Earnhardt who had the car and Waltrip who needed the opportunity. It was Waltrip's chance to silence the doubters who said the sport had passed him by. He took full advantage.
Earnhardt was a man's man. The alpha in every setting. Wrangler executive Jack Watson explains that as the reasoning when the jeans company chose him as poster boy for its "One Tough Customer" program.
Didn't take long to validate it. Earnhardt broke his leg in a wreck at Pocono and was slated to have surgery the next day. Watson got the call informing him of the situation but was forbidden to pass the information further. If NASCAR had known about the injury, it would have disallowed Earnhardt's participation the next week. He raced.
And on and on and on. The stories don't stop. And most of them, we'll never see. Lead writer Ryan McGee told me it easily could have been four hours long.
The wildest one of all, though, came from Earnhardt himself. He is fishing on the shore of Lake Norman, discussing his inner drive, what it is that makes him so successful.
Fear of failure. Fear of losing his ride. Fear of losing his legendary ability.
Are you kidding me? Priceless.
This movie is worthy of the man. He would be pleased. You will be, too -- race fan or not.
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.