Dale Earnhardt was an unknown — and unnoticed — when he first came to Talladega

In 1978, Dale Earnhardt and I came to a Talladega race for the first time.

Dale finished 12th.

I finished a 12-pack.

Earnhardt raced 44 times at Talladega, winning 10 times. (To show the capriciousness of this place, he had 11 DNFs.)

This is somewhere in the high 60s or low 70s for me, either in the revelry of the infield, a couple of seasons doing PR for the Pennzoil NASCAR team or more than 50 as a writer. I assume some other sportswriter has covered half the races at Talladega, but there can’t be many of us.

Anyway, I’ve covered at least eight of Earnhardt’s Talladega wins, including his last one, in the fall of 2000. There was a lot of retrospective on that race when the 20th anniversary rolled around last year, and certainly even more as the 20th anniversary of his fatal wreck at Daytona was recalled in February.

What struck me was that I had not written anything, or recalled reading anything, about his first race at Talladega. I set out to do that in a longform piece for The Anniston Star.

A couple of things that jump out:

  • Earnhardt was driving the No. 96 white Ford Torino sponsored by Cardinal Tractor.
  • An intensive search of newspapers from that week discover his names mention in only two places – in the agate type of the qualifying list and the postrace results.
  • He qualified 27th.
  • Qualifying 18th was the No. 3 Oldsmobile, driven by Richard Childress. He later found slightly more success as the owner of the No. 3 car than he did as a driver.

My favorite part of the saga, as I interviewed Will Cronkrite, who owned the Ford Torino, is how everything unfolded. Earnhardt essentially begged Cronkrite for the ride. Earnhardt had only a few races at NASCAR’s highest level under his belt and was basically known as the son on of Ralph Earnhardt, a flinty driver on the Carolina short tracks.

Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Humpy Wheeler had lured into NASCAR a guy named Willy T. Ribbs, a Black driver who had some success in open-wheel racing. He arranged for Ribbs to drive for Cronkrite. But Ribbs grew obstinate during a test session. Then he displayed some of his most daring driving while trying to outfox Charlotte police after darting the wrong way down a one-way street.

Wheeler announced Ribbs’ firing in time for the 6 p.m. newscasts in Charlotte.

Watching the news that night was Dale Earnhardt. Before the next commercial break, Earnhardt was already on the phone, calling Will Cronkrite.

They connected well enough, and three races into their partnership they headed to Talladega.

“Both of us,” Cronkrite said, “were just happier than hell to be going racing.”

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