Ingram: Rolex Rain Did Not Intimidate Earnhardt Sr.
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
From the Monday Morning Crew Chief ™:
There will be a lot written about Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s last Daytona 500 in the coming weeks and not much about his first Daytona 24-hour. Because it was the last time I had a conversation with Earnhardt Sr., the Rolex 24 is the race from 10 years ago at Daytona that stands out most in my mind.
The 24-hour not only became an opportunity for Earnhardt Sr. to demonstrate he had some of the all-around talent like other great American drivers such as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. It was planned to be the first step toward a post-NASCAR driving career in sports car racing.
It was also an opportunity for Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr., in his second year driving for Dale Earnahrdt Inc. in the Sprint Cup, to find new ways to communicate as co-drivers, rather than as father and son, or team owner and driver. GM’s racing department had put together the deal for the two Earnhardts to join veteran road racer Andy Pilgrim and young Kelly Collins in a yellow No. 3 Corvette C5-R, part of a two-car factory assault on the 24-hour.
After watching on TV how Pilgrim had won the GT class at Road Atlanta in the Petit Le Mans by banging fenders with a Dodge Viper on the last lap in the fall of 2000, Earnhardt Sr. quickly became friends with his veteran co-driver. “Dale said he wouldn’t be able to teach me how to rub paint since I already knew about that,” recalled Pilgrim. “But he said he wanted me to teach him how to drive the Corvette.”
From the outset, Earnhardt Sr. asked team manager Doug Fehan, long a veteran of road racing wars and known as a commanding leader, to treat him the same as other team members. “When I first met him,” said Fehan, “Dale said, ‘I know I’m an outsider, but I’m going to work hard to be an insider.’ ”
In testing at the Sebring, Fla. road circuit, the younger Earnhardt Jr., who had spent a lot of time road racing on video simulations, pushed as hard as possible until he crashed. But Earnhardt Sr., approaching 50 years old, indexed himself up to quicker lap times. He still managed to hit the tire wall at the daunting Turn 17 sweeper, flat-spotting his tires and damaging the nose of his Corvette. He simultaneously brooded and fretted while the Pratt & Miller Racing crew re-built the Corvette’s nose.
“You could see,” said Fehan, “the determination developing that he was going to master this.” Soon,
conversations started about how to put together a Corvette road racing team under the Dale Earnhardt Inc. banner. A Chevy dealer, Earnhardt Sr. also had a special edition street Corvette in the works.
During the annual test at Daytona for 24-hour participants, Earnhardt Sr. had the usual meetings with journalist about his progress and in general was friendly and co-operative. But at one point, he employed some sharp sarcasm familiar to reporters on the NASCAR side whenever “The Intimidator” had a burr under his saddle. What that burr was would not be known by anybody outside the team until long after the race was over.
At a time when the GT cars often competed with the prototypes for over-all victory, there were genuine prospects for Earnhardt Sr. to add another Daytona victory to a portfolio that already included 34. But he had made a very unhappy discovery, one he kept to himself when talking with reporters other than an odd, acid remark about writing a check for a “tire bill.”
The No. 2 Corvette driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell, Frank Freon and Chris Kneifel had been fitted with an experimental rear suspension and special rear tires from Goodyear. The new set-up appeared to be working OK in testing and was scheduled to be used for the race. At this time, the Corvettes were notorious for burning up the rear tires and if the new suspension on the No. 2 car
helped, those four drivers would have an advantage over the course of each stint. On the other hand, it was not unusual for teams in the 24-hour to employ a split strategy with one car designated for speed and another for endurance.
As it turned out, the No. 3 car suffered a broken axle in the middle of the night that took it out of contention, although it remained on the leader board. Earlier, Earnhardt Sr. had acquitted himself behind the wheel in his first stint following Pilgrim. He even diced for several laps with O’Connell in the No. 2 Corvette before the veteran finally squeezed past. “I was faster than Dale through the infield,” said O’Connell after this stint, “but once we got out on the banking, he would pull away from me. He knew where every bump was on the track.”
As luck would have it, Earnhardt Jr. was fourth in line for his opening stint, which meant he not only
had to drive in the dark but in a steady drizzle on a surface already muddied by drivers running off the track in the infield at the East Horseshoe and the West Horseshoe. He spun twice in his opening laps.
The weather gradually cleared, but when Earnhardt Sr.’s final stint arrived around 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, the skies had opened up again. Earnhardt Sr. handled the steady rain – his first ever competition in the wet – with nary a problem. He had help from Pilgrim, who was coaching him on the radio about his lines while watching the TV coverage on Speed TV.
The Earnhardt Sr. so familiar to NASCAR competitors was on top of his game in an entirely new environment. “Dale asked to do a second stint,” said Fehan. “I said ‘OK, you can go again.’ Then halfway during the second stint, he came on and said he wanted to go a third time. I said, ‘No.’ He spent the entire second half of that stint talking to me on the radio, trying to let him go a third stint.
“I made him get out,” continued Fehan. “But you could tell he had reached a performance pinnacle. He was capable of driving the Corvette at competitive times in the rain. He had realized he had succeeded. He was one with the car and had become a Corvette driver. The team wasn’t carrying him. He was carrying his own weight.”
Toward the end of his second stint, a minor rumble erupted in the pits when European reporters tried to get past security personnel at the entrance to the No. 3 car’s enclosed area at the pit wall. I had
already stepped into the adjacent pit area of the No. 2 car – leading the race over-all at the time. Shortly after he jumped out of his C5-R, I walked across to greet Earnhardt Sr., a driver I had known since his rookie year in what was then known as the Winston Cup. Still wearing his open-faced helmet, Earnhardt Sr.’s eyes were as big as headlamps. His exhilaration was unmistakable.
“They told me a lap time to do,” he said. “Shoot, I was two seconds under that in a couple of laps. I need this Corvette and all this downforce when I go up to Watkins Glen for the Winston Cup.”
The No. 2 Corvette won the race over-all, a major breakthrough for the factory’s relatively new Corvette Racing program. Despite a second stop to change an axle, the No. 3 Corvette finished second in the GT class and fourth over-all.
Plans accelerated after the race for Earnhardt Sr. to put together a Corvette team under the DEI banner. But events on the last lap of the Daytona 500 meant it would never come to pass.
Corvette Racing subsequently switched its focus to the Le Mans 24-hour, where the team has continued to enjoy great success. In those ensuing years at Le Mans, Corvette Racing always received a letter from Dale’s widow Teresa Earnhardt, read aloud to the team members by Fehan in a pre-race meeting, wishing the squad good luck in the great French road race.
Quote of the Week: “We’re going to find a way in our schedule to get over to Le Mans and see what that’s like. Me and my boys are going to do Le Mans.” – Dale Earnhardt Sr. on his goal of establishing a Corvette sports car team.
See ya! …At the races.
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments