Dale Earnhardt rose to NASCAR stardom in the space of two years. He was the NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 1979 and then won the championship in 1980.
At the end of the 1980 season, with the title firmly in hand, Earnhardt found himself in a new, unaccustomed world. He had come from a hardscrabble background working in any job he could find and taking any ride he could in his quest for a career in stock car racing.
Now, he was the toast of NASCAR – and a man who had captured the attention — and admiration — of a legion of new fans.
A perfect example of his new status came after he nailed down the title in the Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway on Nov. 15, 1980.
Instead of flying to his home in North Carolina or riding across country in a team hauler, he was transported to Las Vegas for a celebration.
As the champ, he wasn’t going to pay for anything.
He was put up in a penthouse suite at a major hotel and casino. He was amazed. The plush accommodations were far removed from anything he had experienced.
He called a friend who was also staying at the hotel.
“You gotta come up here,” he said excitedly. “You won’t believe where I am. I’ve got a round bed and everything!”
It wouldn’t be Earnhardt’s only initial experience as a champion. He was also to be the Grand Marshal for a Christmas parade, driven down a main street in Concord, N.C., by a nervous guy who hardly knew what he was doing.
More on that later.
In 1978. Earnhardt drove in four races for Will Cronkrite. During that time, he caught the eye of Rod Osterlund, a California businessman who fielded Chevrolets for Dave Marcis.
Marcis became disenchanted with the team and left before the season ended. Earnhardt was given the ride for the Dixie 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the following race at Ontario.
He remained with Osterlund in ’79, and that’s when things began to happen. Earnhardt won the first race of his career at Bristol Motor Speedway in the spring and went on to compile a record that included 11 top-five finishes and 17 among the top 10 – and, of course, the rookie title.
Even with such an impressive first year, hardly anyone thought Earnhardt would win the championship a year later.
But he was in the hunt for almost the entire year. As the end of the season approached, the outcome was in doubt.
Cale Yarborough won at Atlanta to trail Earnhardt by just 29 points going into the final event. Yarborough was making a bid to win his fourth championship with Junior Johnson
The title would be decided at Ontario, a handsome, sprawling superspeedway modeled after Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It had experienced financial difficulty for years. By 1980 it had gone into foreclosure and Chevron acquired the property. It announced it would tear down the track following the NASCAR race.
That was probably a big reason why only 15,000 fans attended the race to determine the championship.
Earnhardt tried to give the championship away. He fell a lap off the pace when he pitted too early under a caution flag. He fell to ninth while Yarborough raced for the lead.
Then, on lap 183, Earnhardt pitted for a gas-only stop. But his crew didn’t get the message and began to change tires. Earnhardt peeled away with only two lug nuts holding the right-rear tire. He was blackflagged and fell nearly a lap down.
Earnhardt managed to finish fifth behind winner Benny Parsons, good enough to win the championship by 19 points over Yarborough, one of the closest margins in NASCAR history.
Afterward, it was a new life for Earnhardt.
“And let me tell you something,” he said. “It will change you, that’s for sure.”
One of the ways in which Earnhardt was changed came through his status as a media target. He was constantly asked for interviews.
I made one such request. I asked him if I could come to his home at Lake Norman, N.C., for an extended interview.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “But I’ve got to do a few things and I might need your help.”
I said I’d assist in any way.
“I gotta be in the Concord Christmas parade,” he said. “I want you to drive the car. We can do some talking then.”
“Yeah, there’s nothing to it,” Earnhardt said.
On the day of the parade, I met Earnhardt at the assembly point. He was in a jovial mood.
“Hey, I’m gonna sit on this Pontiac Grand Prix T-roof,” he said with a smile. “You just drive the car straight. That’s all you have to do.”
When I saw people and cars start to move ahead of us in line, I timidly pressed the gas pedal and we were off.
I had no idea how fast I was supposed to go, but I reasoned that if I kept a sensible distance behind what was in front of me, things would go smoothly.
Apparently, what I thought was a sensible distance wasn’t what Earnhardt wanted. What was ahead soon outpaced us.
“Waid, speed up,” Earnhardt said as he sat above me. “We’re losing ground for crying out loud. Let’s get this over with.”
I sped up and closed the distance. But then a couple of youngsters broke away from their places on the sidewalk and ran toward to our car, determined to get Earnhardt’s autograph.
I figured I had to keep things safe. So I stopped.
“Waid, don’t stop! Don’t stop!” Earnhardt shouted. “I’ll sign autographs as they run. Keep moving! Keep moving!”
Which is what I did. But then, two more youngsters ran toward the car. And then another, and another.
“Waid, don’t stop!” Earnhardt shouted. “Keep moving, but whatever you do, keep the car straight. Don’t move it right or left an inch!”
I was nervous and tense at the same time. But thankfully, we made it to the end of the parade without incident.
“Don’t ever ask me to do that again!” I said to Earnhardt.
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Earnhardt said with a smile.
He then told me that winning the championship and being the top dog in a Christmas parade helped make his holiday a special one.
And I hope, in 2022, your holiday is special, too.
About the author
Steve Waid has been in journalism since 1972, when he began his newspaper career at the Martinsville (Va.) Bulletin. He has spent over 40 years in motorsports journalism, first with the Roanoke Times-World News and later as publisher and vice president for NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
Steve has won numerous state sports writing awards and several more from the National Motorsports Press Association for his motorsports coverage, feature and column writing. For several years, Steve was a regular on “NASCAR This Morning” on FOX Sports Net and he is the co-author, with Tom Higgins, of the biography “Junior Johnson: Brave In Life.”
In January 2014, Steve was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame. And in 2019 he was presented the Squier-Hall Award by the NASCAR Hall of Fame for lifetime excellence in motorsports journalism. In addition to writing for Frontstretch, Steve is also the co-host of The Scene Vault Podcast.