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December 06, 2001

Remembering Dale Earnhardt
By Dan Patrick

Dale Earnhardt's passing this weekend reminded me of one of my more memorable "Outtakes" interviews for ESPN The Magazine. I caught Dale in the middle of a pre-race meeting so at first I thought his mind might not be totally into it. Wrong. He was completely on his game. He toyed with me and kept me off-balance. Yes, he intimidated me.

The Earnhardts
Dale Earnhardt, left, was supposed to watch his son Dale Jr. win Winston Cup championships for years to come.
Some subjects make it clear that they will be good if you are good. If your questions are lame, the answers will follow suit. I can respect that. And I certainly respected Dale Earnhardt.

In the past few months, Dale was tentatively scheduled to come on the radio show, but with his busy life we couldn't nail down a time. My producers and I just figured we'd get it sometime. We thought we had all the time in the world.

Dan Patrick: Is speed an aphrodisiac?
Dale Earnhardt: I think so. It has been with me. Throughout my career, when I wanted to drive a car I wanted to drive it fast. People that want to go fast may make good racers because speed is a thrill, an excitement.

DP: Settle the argument once and for all. Are NASCAR drivers athletes?
DE: (long pause) That's a question that's been asked for 99 years. To endure four-hours-plus in a race car at the temperatures we endure, if you are not an athlete you will not win.
DP: Give me a sport that requires similar skills to that of a NASCAR driver.
DE: There isn't one.
DP: No?
DE: No. Maybe the concentration and focus of a tennis match. I think tennis, when it comes to the focus, could be the same. Because of the determination and focus and the hot temperatures and the endurance level you have to put up with in a NASCAR race. We don't have halftimes or timeouts or breaks. You go hard. Even on a caution or a pit stop, it's happening quickly. You're focusing. You're talking the whole time about what you can do to the car to make it better for the next run. As far as endurance, I don't think there's a sport you can compare it with.

DP: Do you ever let your wife drive when you're in the car?
DE: Sure.
DP: Is she a better driver than you?
DE: She's not a better driver than me. She's a good driver. But I'm more comfortable driving, no matter who's in the car with me.
DP: Are you a back seat driver?
DE: Probably yes.

DP: Why is it Formula One drivers get the women?
DE: Hey, I've got a beautiful wife.
DP: But doesn't it seem like the models go out to see Formula One guys.
DE: I don't know. I've never been to a Formula One track.

DP: Do you think you still intimidate?
DE: Yes, I can still intimidate.

DP: How much of a role does luck play in NASCAR?
DE: On some days, it seems like 100 percent. But I think a good driver and a good team makes the luck.

DP: If you grew up in Annapolis, Maryland instead of Kannapolis, North Carolina, would you still be a race-car driver?
DE: If my dad was Ralph Earnhardt, yes.

DP: When did you become a Braves fan?
DE: I met Jody Davis about 15 years ago when he was playing for the Cubs. And then he went to the Braves for the last two or three years of his career. Then I met Bobby Cox and Ned Yost. And I got to be friends with them. Now Bobby, Ned and I talk frequently on the phone. We talk about what's going on with our teams. Now every chance I get to watch them on the tube, I get fired up about it.

DP: Is it a young man's sport?
DE: It's an innovative sport and it's a sport that has moved very fast in the last 10 years. I think you have to stay on top of change. And I think that younger guys have adapted more to changes and the older guys are more set in their ways. It may take them longer to adjust. Still, if you are winning races, you are adjusting pretty well.

DP: Tell me why Jeff Gordon is good and bad for NASCAR.
DE: I don't think he's bad for NASCAR at all. He's young and aggressive and brings a fresh side to the sport. He brings younger people into the sport. He's an exciting driver and an exciting person to watch and try to figure out.

DP: When did NASCAR go from being sports to being entertainment?
DE: I think it's always been entertainment as much as it has been a sport. I think all forms of racing, or football or whatever, have always been entertaining. I enjoyed racing before I was a driver. And I still enjoy racing even if I'm not in the race, and I'm talking about watching a truck race or a Busch race. I'm a Formula One fan when it comes to watching them on TV.

DP: What percentage of your audience comes for seeing things other than a race? Do they come to see accidents?
DE: There's always that factor. But I don't think it's as many as come to see close and competitive racing. I think they are more excited about the thrill of seeing someone racing side by side and one get beat and one win. I don't think seeing an accident is the main focus.

DP: Do you worry that it's getting too big too soon?
DE: Well, I don't know if it's too big too soon rather than just too big sometimes.
DP: There are so many stops now.
DE: The schedule may be getting too tight. You can, I think, overdo it. If you only had a certain number of races, you might go more often because if the season was over you wouldn't want to say, "Well, I didn't get a chance to go." Now, there's one every weekend, so you'll say, "Well, I'll give this one up. I'll go next weekend." Or next month for that matter.

DP: What question tips you off that someone doesn't know NASCAR?
DE: I can't really put my finger on anything that indicates someone doesn't understand the sport.
DP: Maybe you get a question that makes you say, "This person doesn't understand NASCAR."
DE: But you can't really hold that against somebody. What you do is try to educate them with answers.
DP: But you must get tired of answering those questions.
DE: But that goes back to accepting your position of being not only a driver but also an ambassador for your sponsor or your sport. You put yourself in that position to sign autographs or answer questions or do appearances.

Dale Earnhardt
A little boy places flowers at a memorial outside the headquarters for Dale Earnhardt Inc. as the flags fly at half-staff.
DP: Will the 1998 Daytona winner's circle be your fondest memory, even if you go on to other wins at Daytona?
DE: It is one of the greatest moments in my career. That and all the other championships, too. I think I've had as much fun or more fun winning championships as anything. It was pretty neat to keep winning championships. But I had never won the Dayton 500, so to finally win it in my 20th year and in the 50th year of NASCAR was pretty awesome.
DP: To see all your competitors line up like that ... I don't care if you're not a NASCAR fan, people had to be moved by seeing that.
DE: That meant as much to me as anything. That moved me so much. And all the faxes, phone messages and cards and notes that I have gotten. I have them in a big scrapbook that looks like I've been saving stuff in it for years and years on something. But it's just congratulations on the Daytona 500.

DP: The previous Daytona, weren't you in an accident and you said in the ambulance, "But there are still fenders on the car"?
DE: Tires. "There are still tires on the car." I was getting in the ambulance and I looked back and I saw there were still front tires on this thing. So I jumped back out, went around and saw that all the tires were on it. I asked the guy in the car to see if it'll crank and he fired it off. So I told him ,"Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" And I jumped in and drove off.

DP: Do people underestimate your determination, your drive to win?
DE: Maybe more in the last year of my career. People think, "Well, he's won seven championships. He's 47 years old. Maybe he's going to start to slow down." I think they are underestimating me when they do that. I'm still as determined, as aggressive and as positive as I can remember being. Just don't get up against me when it's the wrong time because I'll put you where I want you.

DP: Why don't NASCAR drivers get tickets?
DE: Tickets?
DP: Speeding tickets.
DE: Oh, I thought you meant to the Bulls or something. I don't get any of those either.
DP: Michael just sends them to Jeff Gordon, he doesn't send them to you.
DE: I reckon. I just renewed my license back in April, and in North Carolina if you don't have any tickets, you just get your picture made and take the eye test. That's all you have to do, and I've done that for the last 15 years or so. I've not had a ticket.

DP: Free association. The color black.
DE: My black boots.
DP: Johnny Cash.
DE: I like.
DP: Richard Petty.
DE: The king.
DP: Fear.
DE: Budweiser.
DP: Fear, not beer!
DE: Budweiser.
DP: No, fear, f-e-a-r...
DE: Budweiser! No, I'll give you one for fear (pause) ... I don't have any.
DP: Dick Trickle.
DE: A great racer.
DP: Talladega.
DE: A great racetrack that needs to be raced on instead of restricted.

DP: Are you more nervous racing or watching your son race?
DE: I'm more nervous qualifying than either of those. But I'm probably more nervous watching him because of the confidence level. If I knew he was as confident as I am capable, then I probably wouldn't be as nervous. And it's not fear of him getting hurt but fear of him failing -- not being able to accomplish something going up against the competition.

DP: What does Jeff Gordon have that you don't?
DE: A lot of years left to race.

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