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For Richard Childress, 10 years on it still hurts

  The legendary 3: Richard Childress reflects (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   It was another painful day for Richard Childress, and the pain, even 10 years on, still hasn't abated.
   But he's learned to live with it, and with all the questions. And he sucked it up again Tuesday afternoon and made do, though almost fighting back tears, in one of the most emotional days in some time for him.  
   Childress realizes the next few weeks will be filled with more hard questions from the media, too hard really, as the 10th anniversary of the death of one of his closest friends approaches. "A lot of questions....and for some of 'em, I'm the only one with the answers to give," Childress said simply.

   When Dale Earnhardt, who with Childress won six NASCAR championships, and lost a couple more by just a nose, died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the veteran stock car team owner was ready to call it quits, after more than 30 years in this sport.
   That Sunday night, when NASCAR boss Mike Helton made the stunning, heartbreaking announcement "We've lost Dale Earnhardt," this sport changed so suddenly that even now it's hard to believe.
   Childress was quietly emotional but composed Tuesday when he was again forced to relive those moments. He knows it was a scene he will have to repeat in the days leading up to the Daytona 500 Feb. 20th.

     Richard Childress and Jeff Burton, the man Dale Earnhardt himself picked as the man to take over when/if (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "It didn't look like a bad accident," Childress said slowly. "I've seen him tear up cars a lot worse and walk away.
   "So we were just all in shock...."
    Quitting? "That Sunday night my wife and I talked about it," Childress said. "Monday I thought about it, thought about a lot of things....
    "Tuesday I was out on the dock by myself, at Bill France Jr.'s house. And some thoughts came back from an old hunting trip. And I knew I had to keep going.
    "Dale and I had been climbing a mountain in New Mexico, on a hunting trip. And, typical Dale, we had these guides and we were holding each horse's tail – that's just the way you hunt, when climbing hills and dangerous mountains.
   "We started to slip on this big chunk of ice. I was holding Dale's horse's tail, and he reared up and was about to fall back on me. And I had to come off the mountain.
   "And when I jumped, the horse slid behind me....and fortunately the trees caught us both, or it could have been bad.
   "Dale and I always called that 'the great horse wreck.'
   "When we got back to camp that night – Dale naturally blamed me for pulling his horse off the mountain," Childress went on with a wry laugh. "We were sitting around the fire place, and I told Dale 'You know if I got killed on that mountain today, you'd have had to race Phoenix (the tour's next stop that week).'
   "We looked at each other...and Dale told me 'If it ever happens to me, you'd better race.' And you've got to know just how he said it.
   "That made it all a lot easier."

     The car owner and his men: (L-R) Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. And soon Paul Menard makes four (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Childress says that since that fateful day Earnhardt died "I've tried to block that day all out of my mind.
   "When I get asked a question, I'll answer it as best I can.
    "But what gets me through it is remembering all the good times...all the great times, all the fun times I had with Dale Earnhardt.
    "But I try to block as much of that day out as I can. The racing stuff that day, and a lot of the other things that went on that day too.
    "Whenever I go to Daytona I look over at turn four....and we also lost Neil Bonnett over there (in 1994). (Bonnett was one of Earnhardt's closest friends, and Bonnett's death was a fierce blow to Earnhardt.) I think about all that every time I pull in there, and say a little prayer."
    Childress concedes he and his men still haven't completely recovered from Earnhardt's death.
    Dale Earnhardt's legacy is naturally much talked about. But Childress says Earnhardt's legacy isn't so much about the huge advances in safety that his death triggered but rather something else:
   "Dale Earnhardt helped carry this sport to a complete new level.
   "Our race fans were fans that wanted to see Dale Earnhardt succeed. He was one of them. He was a guy who worked in mill, he was a guy who worked on a farm. He was great for our sport.
    "The safety things, that won't be his greatest legacy. His driving, his 'being the man,' that's his greatest legacy.
    "But the safety thing, a lot of people will look back and say that's when it really started changing."

  Kevin Harvick (R): 10 years now as the man who took over Dale Earnhardt's ride (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Earnhardt was more than just a hard-charging driver, more than just an incredibly talented driver, more than just a driver with an amazing fan base, Childress pointed out. Earnhardt was also Bill France Jr.'s key go-to man for advice, on anything and everything in this sport. The two would even talk on the radio during races. And typically whenever Earnhardt put his foot down on something, France would agree with the logic: "Bill Jr. would listen...and take a lot of reaction...."Childress said.
   "Dale would speak strong enough to make a difference. We talked about a lot of things with NASCAR (France) in the day."


    If Dale Earnhardt were still alive, Teresa (L) and Dale Jr. (R) might still be teammates (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Finding another Dale Earnhardt....No one since has ever come close.
   Certainly Earnhardt was unique. Not only in his style but also his personality and talents, and in the emotional reaction he could generate in the grandstands. Love him or hate him, Earnhardt drew fierce reaction.
   No one since then has quite resonated with this sport's fans.
   "He was a special person in a race car. He wanted it," Childress said.
    "One of the things he'd always say is 'When it gets down to those last 50 laps, I want it worse than anyone.'
   "There are a lot of very good, talented drivers, and personalities. But I think it's been hard for the fans to relate (quite the same) to any one single driver.
   "Dale Jr. has done a great job of helping carry our sport, with his following, his fans.
   "But it takes a special person to do a lot of the things Dale did, and how he loved his fans. He really loved his fans.
   "So many people knew Dale Earnhardt as the race car driver but they also knew him as the person – you could see him working on his farm, throwing hay to his cattle, or working his chicken coops.
   "He worked every day, and that's what fans loved about him. He was a working man...and he related to our working-style race fans."
    Sadly perhaps, as the sport moves on, and new fans appear, and new drivers, the real Dale Earnhardt may be in danger of being lost to the mists of legend. How many of today's Daytona 500 racers even knew Dale Earnhardt, much less raced against him?
   "I don't think so," Childress says. "Wherever I go, I get questions about Dale Earnhardt: How was Dale Earnhardt; what are you going to do with the 3? All these questions.
   "His legacy will live a long time in this sport.
   "I'm going to do everything I can, as long as I'm here, to ensure that."


    Richard Childress (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





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