Friday, April 28, 2006

How the hell did he do that?

They're having Dale Earnhardt Day on Saturday in Mooresville, marking what would have been the seven-time champion's 55th birthday.
I am sure the people who come to Dale Earnhardt Inc. headquarters, where NBC News anchor Brian Williams will be joining Teresa Earnhardt in leading the ceremony marking the occasion, will enjoy themselves. I'll be at Talladega Superspeedway, though, and when you really think about it, that's as good of a place as any to remember Earnhardt by.
It's hard to go to Daytona without thinking about Earnhardt, of course. His Daytona 500 victory there in 1998 and Jack Nicklaus' win in the 1986 Masters are the two most memorable events I've had the privilege of covering in my career.
Daytona is also where I saw Earnhardt have as much fun as I ever saw him have, running in the Rolex 24 just a couple of weeks before the crash in which he was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.
But Talladega was a place where I got to see Earnhardt do something that amazed even Earnhardt - his victory in the 2000 Winston 500. That would turn out to be his final victory in a Cup race, which makes what happened on that October afternoon that much more memorable.
In an effort to give the drivers more throttle response with their restrictor-plate engines, NASCAR gave teams plates with 1-inch openings for that weekend's activities. But after second-round qualifying on Saturday morning, the drivers were called into a meeting and they emerged with plates featuring openings that were one-sixteenth of an inch smaller.
In practice that morning, before the swap, Bobby Labonte had turned a lap at 198.475 mph. That was too fast for NASCAR's liking, so they made the controversial move to reduce the plate openings before "happy hour" and for the race.
"I don't know who it favors," Earnhardt said after the meeting. "They made the change, that's what it's all about. It's not going to change the drivers going four wide. That's what they were talking about in the meeting. You've got to use your head."
In the race the next day, Earnhardt was 15th on a restart with just 15 laps to go. His first parry failed, and in two laps he fell back to 23rd. When he crossed the scoring line to complete Lap 183, with just five laps remaining, he was 18th.
And then it happened. Kenny Wallace had new tires on his car. He and Joe Nemechek, who then were teammates for Andy Petree's operation, hooked up and as they started toward the front Earnhardt pulled down in front of them.
"It was like I had turbos," Wallace said. Earnhardt went from 16th at the start of Lap 185 to eighth at the end of it. The next time by, he was in front of the pack chasing leaders Dale Earnhardt Jr., John Andretti and Mike Skinner and Benny Parsons, on ESPN, was screaming "Where did HE come from?"
The Earnhardt-Wallace-Nemechek train kept coming. Coming to the white flag, Earnhardt passed Skinner, who'd picked up the lead after Earnhardt Jr. bobbled when he got down on the apron off Turn 4.
After being 18th with five to go, Earnhardt spent the last lap playing defense to HOLD ONTO the lead. Which, of course, he did.
Back then, before NASCAR completely rolled over and played dead for the broadcast media in how it conducts postrace interviews, the race winner at Talladega came to the press box to be interviewed after completing victory lane ceremonies and the ridiculous photo "hat dance."
At Talladega, that required putting the winner in a van and, with a police escort, driving him around the track under the grandstands to the press box, which is just above track level there in front of pit road in the Turn 4 end of the trioval.
But the time Earnhardt got to the press box that day, a couple thousand fans had gathered on the concourse to greet him. When he climbed out of the van, it was as though he was Caesar and he'd just returned to Rome from his conquests. The chants of "EARN-HARDT! EARN-HARDT!" were so loud you could barely hear in the press box with the doors shut, and had no chance to hear anything when they were opened to let him in.
No matter what you might think, reporters aren't idiots. We all knew we'd seen Earnhardt write another chapter to his legend that day. We couldn't wait to get him to talk about it, to tell us how he did something most of us couldn't believe even though we'd just seen it. I begged the moderator of the postrace interview to call on me first that day, and that wish was granted.
Earnhardt sat down, took the microphone and grinned that little goofy grin of his at us. "The first question comes from David Poole," the moderator said. Earnhardt looked at me and I said, "Earnhardt, how in the hell did you do that?"
He had no idea.
"To think anybody could come from as far back in the field as we were and win this race is beyond me," he said. "You saw it. I couldn't believe it."
Two days later that DEI called a press conference at the team headquarters in Mooresville to announce that Earnhardt and Earnhardt Jr. would drive in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the following year.
I walked in and Earnhardt was standing there talking to someone. He motioned a couple of us over and said he'd watched the videotape and figured out some of how he'd made it from 18th to first in four laps and won that race.
As he talked, he used his hands to demonstrate each move he made and how he made it pay off.
I looked at Earnhardt and said, "Well, it's still one of the damndest things I've ever seen anybody do." And to this day, it still is.

6 comments:

Monkeesfan said...

David, the roof spoiler package was not designed to give the drivers more throttle response, it was designed to blast open so much air that the draft would kick in and allow cars to pass. It worked better than anyone expected, to where the speed pickup in the draft nearly hit 200 before they went to smaller plates.

On that famous run to the finish, he couldn't get by John Andretti, who'd taken the lead at Lap 185 and was fighting to hold on sidedrafting Skinner and Junior; Andretti had been one of a handful of drivers who Earnhardt struggled to pass on the plate tracks in the late 1990s, so he cheapshot Andretti coming out of Four; Andretti made a great save.

Geoffrey said...

David,

who could forget that day? it was simply unbelieveable. great post.

monkeesfan, just so you know, the article does not state the roof spoiler package increased the throttle response. It says the plates given to the teams did. NASCAR had given the teams a larger restrictor plate -- the 1 inch plate -- in association with the roof spoiler and rear spoiler lip. It was an effort to add more throttle response to the cars that had greatly increased drag. It obviously wasn't enough, and soon the 1/16" was taken away.

Neil said...

when I think of Earnhardt doing things that amazed me, I always think of him rolling on his lid "I forget where" and skidding down the racetrack upside down and getting dinged by other cars being collected in the wreck...

When you watch the replay, the man never stopped driving the darned car, even when the wheels were belly up.

Wannabe Slim said...

Actually, David, reporters are idiots. Your boring blogs and articles prove it regularly.

Lonnie said...

I remember it like it was yesterday. I just wish I had a copy of it on video. It was one of my top two Earnhardt finishes (with the "I just wanted to rattle his cage" Bristol finish being #2).

I was cool to see the 8 car (and all the DEI cars) in black this weekend too.

However, had Joe not been running a special paint scheme that day, Kenny Wallace might have won the race. He said he looked back comming to the white flag and did not reccognize the car behind him. He decided that he would stay in line and not risk having that car not go with him, which of course being teammates he would have.

L

Monkeesfan said...

Geoffrey, I was simply adding something David Poole forgot to mention in the piece in mentioning the roof spoiler package, and also pointing out that it was not increased throttle response that made passing possible in that race.