Friday, April 21, 2000
makes pit stop
Third-generation race carBy Paul Arnett
driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is
winding down after his first
Winston Cup victory
Not so long ago, when the name "Big E'' was mentioned in certain crowds, people knew it was basketball player Elvin Hayes, pure and simple.
These days, those traveling in Winston Cup circles don't even slow down when talk shifts gears to "Little E." They're well aware it's Dale Earnhardt Jr., the new kid of NASCAR, who will have a 4,000-word piece about him in the new edition of "Rolling Stone'' magazine released today.
Not that the son of Dale and grandson of Ralph needs any introduction for those who pack the stands in Super Bowl numbers each week to watch these road warriors reach speeds that could take you from one end of H-1 to the other in about 10 minutes.
They know all of the rail-thin youngster, who 10 years after deciding to give racing a go, became one of the youngest drivers ever to win a Winston Cup event.
Behind the wheel of his 725-horsepower Monte Carlo and in only his 12th NASCAR try, Earnhardt took the checkered flag in the DirecTV 500 two weeks ago to become the quickest active driver to win his first Winston Cup race.
And what did he feel after crossing the finish line?
"Relief,'' Earnhardt said yesterday with a soft Southern drawl.
He had just finished a whirlwind tour of the USS Missouri and wasn't too far removed from signing autographs and meeting local race fans, mostly from the military.
"I was just glad to get that first victory over with,'' the 25-year-old said. "It took a lot of pressure off the entire team.''
So much so, Earnhardt decided to take a little R&R in Hawaii this week as part of a Budweiser promotion. He knows the love for racing runs deep in military families, but wasn't sure what to expect from fans of the 50th state.
"I'm usually pretty modest about these kind of things,'' Earnhardt said. "But I wasn't sure how many people over here even knew I was in racing.''
Judging by the crowd waiting to meet the driver, he need not have worried. There were plenty of fans standing in line to meet this polite man on the deck of the Mighty Mo.
"One of the reasons I came here was to get a sense of history of this ship and to visit the Arizona Memorial,'' Earnhardt said of his first trip to Hawaii. "Every American should come to this special place to get a sense of history.
"I get chills thinking about it because you know of the great sacrifices made here. This was the thing I wanted to do most when Budweiser asked me to come.''
You get the sense father and grandfather had something to do with Earnhardt knowing what Pearl Harbor means.
His family has made a little history of their own. So much so, you wonder why Little E ever got behind the wheel of a car.
"It wasn't like racing was in my blood because it wasn't,'' Earnhardt said. "I started fooling around with racing when I was about 16 and started doing it professionally when I was 18.
"Sure, there are a lot of doors opened by the Earnhardt name. But with it, comes a lot of expectations. My dad was a great racer. I enjoyed it the first time I raced against him. But he never expected me to follow in his footsteps.''
In fact, Dale Earnhardt didn't really want his boy racing at speeds four times the legal limit in Hawaii.
"You hope your kids turn out OK, and then when they take up what you do, you worry about them because of the danger factor," Dale Earnhardt said after his son joined the 1998 NASCAR Busch Series and went on to become the two-time grand national division champion.
"I didn't tell him no,'' the elder Earnhardt said. "You just let them do what they've got to do. I guess he watched his granddaddy (Ralph Earnhardt) enough to learn how to drive.''
Having his father around didn't hurt, either. After all, Dale Earnhardt didn't do too badly himself over the years. Seven times he was named the Winston Cup series champion.
"That's pretty awesome, isn't it?'' Little E said. "Being a third-generation race car driver has its advantages. I'm proud to be a member of this family, but when I get on the track, I don't really think about carrying on the family name.''