Dale Earnhardt is a household name at this point, even for people who don’t know a thing about NASCAR.
But his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is surprised in a lot of ways that he really made it. Mostly because he had a lot stacked against him when he started his career in racing as a teenager.
This week on The Dale Jr. Download, Dale Jr.’s Aunt Cathy and sister of Dale Sr. was a guest. And she went in-depth on some of their family history, sharing a few stories and memories she had from Dale Sr.’s early days in racing.
They talked about how Dale Sr.’s dad, Ralph, passed away, and how it effected their family, ultimately causing Dale to step up as the leader.
He dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to pursue racing, and had been married and remarried and had two kids by the time he was 21 years old.
Dale Jr. still finds it hard to believe he overcame all of that to become the icon of all racing icons:
“To put all that in front of dad in 1973, at the end of ’73, it shocks me that he became what he became. It’s not surprising, but how did he not screw that up?
He had two kids, he was a lousy dad, he was a lousy husband.”
His Aunt Cathy said he was actually great dad until his first wife, Latane, left him. From that day on, he was never the same person:
“I do wanna say, Dale was a great dad, until Latane left him.
When he came home from work that day, and she’d taken Kerry Dale and everything he owned out of the trailer, and left him with a fork and a knife, and a plate and a cup, and one sheet and one blanket and one pillow, Dale changed.
Dale was never the same. Never the same.”
Though he did raise Kerry in his very early childhood, Kerry actually didn’t know Dale Sr. was his dad until he was in high school, because eventually, Dale Sr. signed over custody to Latane and he stopped seeing him for years.
But when Kerry was a toddler, Dale Sr. would bring him to Ralph’s shop to hang out with his grandparents. Apparently, though, Latane didn’t like how Dale smelled greasy and worked on cars… she just wanted him to work a regular 9 to 5 job and come home at night, which was a big part of their relationship troubles.
Dale Jr. says his dad was absent for a lot of his childhood, as well, but that the few memories he can still recall with him from that long ago are all good.
When Dale Sr. wasn’t at home (and he was gone most of the time), though, he was out racing and raising absolute Hell:
“When he was there, he was great. I have some very faint memories of him being there, and they were good times. But I do know, through stories from different people… dad raised Hell.
Drank, out all night, running around, goofin’ off, racing, you know, workin’. When the hell did this guy sleep? I don’t know how he made it happen.”
That, in addition to everything else Dale Sr. had been through in his life, would make it seem highly unlikely for him to go on and see the kind of success that he did, according to Jr.:
“I don’t know how he got that opportunity that propelled him into what he became, because he lost his dad, he just became this… he was running 100 miles an hour at the speed of light going nowhere.”
Kelley added that her dad’s insane success was due in large part to the fact that he was so likable. Aunt Cathy added that he could sell himself like no other, and that’s a talent that proved to benefit him greatly, and is a huge reason that we love him so much, too.
The guy had a larger than life personality, undeniable raw talent, and an unwavering belief in himself that he was going to make it no matter what.
Aunt Cathy said he always knew he had what it took… all he needed was a chance to prove it:
“Because in Dale’s mind, if he could just show his talent, if he could just get the chance to get out there and show what he could do, then he’d make it. That was his mentality. I just gotta show what I can do.”
Obviously, Dale Sr. was an imperfect human being with plenty of flaws, but I love the hell out of his attitude that he was willing to do whatever it took to make a dream a reality. He had all the tenacity and drive in the world (pun very much intended), plus endless amounts of charisma and charm to match it.
So, technically, the odds were really not in his favor, but he had the winning combination of all winning combinations in terms of who he was as a person.
Check out their whole conversation, it’s really interesting and insightful to hear his Aunt Cathy’s take on the Earnhardt family and her brother: