Never before have so many grown men cried. I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I was one of ’em.
By the time the networks broke the news that Dale Earnhardt didn’t make it this time, we already knew. The celebration for Michael Waltrip had just begun in Daytona’s Victory Lane, and Mike Rhodes, GON’s advertising director, was burning up my phone line… the TV showed a quick shot of Schrader looking into the 3 car and motioning for help… we hadn’t heard from Mike’s brother J.R., Dale’s public-relations rep and right-hand man… then the shot of Dale being wheeled out of the ambulance. We knew then. Five weeks later we still can’t believe it.
Kevin Harvick driving that Goodwrench car to a remarkable win in Atlanta sure helps the healing process. For the friends of Dale Earnhardt, swapping stories about the man is part of the healing.
Bill Jordan and his gang at Realtree shared plenty of hunt camps with Dale Earnhardt, and they were gracious enough to share some of their hunting-related memories of Dale with the readers of GON. This is a side of Dale you won’t read about in Time or People magazines, but boy was it a big part of his life — Dale Earnhardt the outdoorsman. As Bill Jordan said, "behind his family there was racing, and after racing there was the outdoors."
Bill Jordan: "Where’s The Love?"
Most people who follow NASCAR know of Bill Jordan’s involvement through Realtree’s sponsorship of the Dave Marcus No. 71 car, and through their associate sponsorship of the Goodwrench car. What many people don’t know about Bill is that his relationship with NASCAR dates back to a time when Realtree was still just a very good idea. Bill was a business partner and friend of the late Davey Allison. To some extent, having dealt with the tragedy of losing Davey, who died in a helicopter crash on the Talladega infield, has guided Bill in helping friends cope with the Earnhardt situation.
Bill’s memories of Dale are many, and asking him to pick a favorite was impossible, but a story that stands out was about their last hunting camp together.
"It wasn’t easy being Dale Earnhardt, with all the business pressure he had," Bill said. "He had built an empire that he was responsible for with the race teams and racing himself and being the personality out front. He couldn’t pick his times when he had to be Dale Earnhardt, he was Dale Earnhardt every day of his life. Hunting really was his escape. When he got away, he let the other side out — Dale Earnhardt the average person, just another guy in the hunt camp. I treasure those memories.
"The last year and half he was as happy as he’s been since I’ve known him. Dale got happy again. His race shop got built, Dale Jr. was coming along, the Childress team was running good again, and the big thing was his neck surgery, getting rid of the pain that he’d been dealing with. I wish people had seen him when the cameras weren’t running, that’s when we had the most fun. Dale was like a little kid.
"Our last hunt together was in December in Iowa. Ned Yost was with us, the third-base coach for the Atlanta Braves. Dale and Ned were very good friends. Typical Earnhardt, it takes him a day or two to unwind. It was so cold outside we couldn’t hunt in the morning, and he started worrying about something, I think mainly because he had a limited time to hunt. Ned and I could see him getting uptight. He’s over there fretting about this and fretting about that. Ned and I aren’t saying anything.
"Finally, I said, ‘Dale,’ and he looks over at me, and I said, ‘Where’s the love? Where is the love? Show me the love.’ And then Ned looks over at him and says softly, ‘Dale I’m not feeling it either.’
"And Dale just smiled and busted out laughing, that big old grin. Here’s three grown men in the middle of a hunting camp wanting to know where the love is. The whole time we were there, anytime he started to step outside — you know, outside of his deal where he’s relaxing and enjoying himself — when he would step outside that and start to get uptight, Ned and I would ask him, ‘Where’s the love Dale?’
"Well after a few days Dale had to fly to Texas for an appearance deal, and none of us had killed our deer yet. He went to Texas, and the day he left Ned shot a really nice, big, mature 8-pointer. We took a digital picture of us with Ned’s deer, and we sent it to Judy Queen, Earnhardt’s secretary.
"We told her, ‘Don’t think we’re crazy when you see the message with the picture.’ We sent it email over to her, and with the picture of Ned’s buck the message says, ‘We’ve got the love. Missing you, Ned and Bill.’ The next day I killed a big 12-pointer, and we did the same thing with a picture, and this one I killed off Dale’s stand, the stand he had been hunting, which of course drove him crazy.
"Needless to say the next day Dale was there, back in Iowa. He ended up killing a big 10-pointer, and that was his last trophy deer. But I’ll never forget that, three grown men wanting to know where the love is."
Michael Waddell: In Search of an Earnhardt Hunt on Video
Getting a turkey hunt or a deer hunt on video is already a huge challenge, but getting a video of Dale Earnhardt killing a deer or turkey had to be the ultimate challenge. If Dale went hunting with the Realtree guys, he was there to hunt, not make a pretty video.
"One thing I was impressed with about Dale overall was that he took his hunting real serious," said Michael Waddell, who had the pleasure and challenge of trying to video Dale numerous times with the Realtree cameras.
"He was a really good hunter, a really good woodsman, but that made it hard to get Dale on video. Several years we tried to get Dale on video killing a turkey, and it seemed like every year something went wrong. We never did get good video of Dale killing a turkey. Usually he’d kill the turkey off-camera, and almost every time it was because Dale was such a good hunter.
"A particular hunt that really stands out, we were on a little logging road and we had a turkey gobbling really good. This time I was calling, and Dale was up in front of the camera which was getting a nice over-the-shoulder shot. This bird was gobbling and he was definitely coming up this logging road, but he wasn’t committing suicide. Finally the bird had hung up. He gobbled and gobbled.
"Eventually you could hear that bird spitting and drumming right over a little ridge. Dale was smart enough to know that if he could get to the top of that ridge and shoot down that hill he could kill the turkey. Now I want Dale to kill the turkey, but I also want to get it on video, and I just know in my mind that turkey is gonna come to us on that logging road because it’s thick on both sides and there’s open hardwoods behind us.
"Well I’ll be John Browned if Dale didn’t get on his belly and started crawling up the logging road toward that turkey. He got to the top of that ridge, and he eased up and nailed that turkey. He killed that turkey before it ever got over the ridge to the camera. And I remember he turned around and looked at us and said, ‘Sorry guys.’
"And that happened time after time, and the thing that really impressed me about it was that I really appreciated Dale for the hunter he was. He knew how he could bust that turkey, and he did it. And that’s just what kind of competitor he was, and it impressed me about his hunting abilities."
David Blanton: Georgia Turkeys and a Wet Track in Alabama
"It had gotten to be a standing thing that Dale always came in the week of Talladega to hunt turkeys," David Blanton said. "After the Martinsville race last year, he flew in on Sunday night.
"Monday morning, I went down to pick him up at Circle N (the Realtree lodge near Columbus), and every time Dale and I would leave a camp early in the morning in the dark, whether it was deer or turkey hunting or whatever, when we’d start up the road he’d always reach over there in the dark, and he’d feel to make sure I had my seat belt on. He wouldn’t say anything, he’d just reach over and tug on that seat belt.
"We get up there to LaGrange, and we meet Glenn Garner and Michael Waddell in Troup County. Plan was, I was running the camera, and Glenn and Michael would get behind us and call. Glenn had put this bird to bed the night before. We were having to set up in a real open cow pasture, and there was an old deadfall tree sitting out in the middle of the pasture. The bird’s gobbling on the roost straight to our left across a little creek bottom. That bird starts gobbling and gobbling, and it’s getting lighter, and Dale is getting so excited, whispering, ‘There he is, there he is.’
"I noticed the gobble had changed, and I said, ‘That bird is on the ground.’ I sat up on the stool I use when I’m running camera, and I turned around and looked, and directly behind us that turkey is strutting in the cow pasture. He had pitched and landed right behind us. Michael and Glenn are over the hill calling, and he’s gobbling his brains out. The decoy is in front of us, and I can’t move the camera, and Dale is about to go crazy.
"So this turkey is behind us, and he starts working his way over the hill toward Glenn and Michael. I realize there’s no way I can work the camera around, so I tell Dale, ‘Dale, kill that turkey.’ Well, that’s something you don’t have to say twice. Using the deadfall as cover, Dale just twirled around and lowers the gun and kills the turkey. Just like that. We were all pumped. We didn’t get it on video but that’s nothing new with Dale. Oh man does he get excited, he was fired up.
"The next day he had to fly back home, and then he came back on Thursday before the Talladega race. We hunted Thursday and didn’t do any good. Friday morning we wake up, and Dale said ‘I’ve got about an hour-and-half we can hunt and then I got to get to Talladega for practice. Well it was pouring down rain, raining like I haven’t seen it rain in a long time. We’re sitting in the truck, me and Glenn and Dale, and it’s raining so hard even Dale wasn’t crazy about getting out of the truck. Usually he’ll go, he loves the challenge of beating the weather. He was not about to let the weather get the best of him. He was always one step ahead of everybody as far as getting prepared – at least he thought he was.
"Finally it slacks up, just a little, and he says, ‘Come on let’s go.’ Well you can’t take a camera out in that kind of rain. So Glenn and Dale take off, and I’m standing inside this barn, and it’s pouring down rain on that tin roof so hard I could hardly hear anything. I just barely hear a gun shot. And I’m like, ‘I cannot believe they shot a turkey.’
Well here they come back, dripping wet, and Dale has this big smile on his face, but he didn’t have a turkey. Dale was always bad about pulling your leg, and I thought, ‘what in the world.’ Then they start telling the story. They had seen these turkeys in a green field, just standing there not doing anything, like they do when it’s raining. And Dale puts the Mohican sneak on them and gets up there and fires a round off and misses. But he was so happy. He had snuck up on a turkey in the pouring rain.
"He looks at me, and he says, ‘You know, this is a good morning.’ I’m thinking, ‘You’re crazy.’ He said, ‘You know why this is a good morning Blanton? Because we can’t practice.’
He gets his little phone out of his fanny pack, and he starts dialing numbers, and finally he gets through to the NASCAR trailer at the infield of the Talladega racetrack.
He said, ‘Hey this is Earnhardt, what’s the weather doing?’ Someone told him it was raining good over there, and they’re not doing anything soon.
He said, ‘Alright I’ll call you back later.’ He hangs up and looks at me and says, ‘We’re gonna hunt.’
After a while it breaks up to a little drizzle, so we go to another spot. We get out of the truck and start walking, and we hear turkeys gobbling. We set up and start calling. About that time it starts raining harder. This camera is getting soaked, so I told Glenn, ‘Look I’ve got to get this camera back to the truck.’ Dale said, ‘Come on Glenn, let’s go.’ That’s all he needed to hear. Now he didn’t have to worry about the camera, he could just go hunting.
"I get back to the truck, and I sit up there and wait and wait, and all of sudden about 40 minutes later, BOOM… BOOM BOOM.
"Then here they come walking back up to the truck. Dale has a dadgum turkey strung over his shoulder, a big old longbeard. That was as excited as I’ve ever seen Dale. He was going on and on and on. He was so fired up about that turkey. Him and Glenn had located these turkeys, and they crawled up to the crest of a hill in a cow pasture and put the decoys out. They’re laying on their bellies in all the mud and muck and rain. Glenn starts calling and two longbeards come out to their left, strutting right into them. Glenn told him, ‘When you kill that first one, shuck another shell in there and shoot the second one.’ Dale shoots the first one, and the second one starts kind of running around, and Dale shucks another shell in there — mud and all. He shoots and misses, then the turkey starts flying off and he shoots and misses again.
"Dale was so happy to be out there crawling through cow mess in the pouring rain. I was talking to Judy Queen, his secretary, a few days after Dale was killed, and she and I were sharing Dale stories. She said, ‘He always wanted to tell that turkey story.’ She said, ‘David, I have seen him re-enact that on the floor in our office. He would literally get down and crawl around on the floor to show them how he killed that turkey.’
"After we took pictures, Dale was still so pumped, and he said, ‘Let’s go kill another one.’
"He called the NASCAR trailer again, and they said it was still raining. I said, ‘Dale, when they start drying that track, how long will it take them?’
"He said, ‘Oh about 45 minutes to an hour. We’re in good shape.’
"So we go back and we hunt for a while and get on some turkeys, but we couldn’t get one to do anything. So Dale calls again. ‘Hey this is Earnhardt, what’s the weather doing over there?’ They told him, ‘Dale, we’re going to be running in 30 minutes.’
"This is where the fiasco starts. We’re in rural Troup County, they’re going to start running cars at Talladega in 30 minutes. His airplane is parked in Columbus, which is a good 35-minute drive. The look on Dale’s face was like, I have just screwed up. He starts calling, trying to get Richard on his phone (Richard Childress owns the Goodwrench car).
"He can’t get Richard. He finally gets somebody at the hauler and says, ‘Look, you go tell Richard he’s going to have to get Skinner to jump in my car and run a plug check around the track because I’m probably not going to get there.’ He is panicked.
"He jumps in my truck. He said, ‘We got to go.’ We get on the interstate, and I’m driving, he looks at me and he said, ‘David you’re gonna have to git. Don’t worry about a speeding ticket.’ I’m going down Interstate 185 at 107 miles an hour. I said, ‘Dale it’s on the floor.’
"He called the airport and got his pilot on the phone. He said, ‘You go ahead and crank that right engine and let that thing be warming up. When I pull up, I’m jumping in and whoever’s going with us better be ready.’
"We haul down there, pull up to the airport, and everybody’s ready to go. He’s throwing bags to people, and they jump in the plane and take off. Bill was flying over there with him. They get to Talladega, and as they’re landing Bill looks down and sees the Cup cars on the track. He looks at Dale and says, ‘Buddy, y’all are practicing.’ So they land and Dale and Bill ride over to the track together. Well that was the race where they did the big modifications on the cars. Dale walks into the garage, and the whole back end of his car is laying on the ground. They have torn his car apart — it hadn’t passed inspection.
"The next day I go over there to the trailer and walk in and he’s sitting in the front holding court, telling that turkey story. He even talked about that turkey hunt on ESPN before he got in the car at qualifying. When I walk in there Saturday, he’s telling the story. He stops talking and looks at me and says, ‘David, I got over here yesterday after all that, my car’s torn apart, didn’t pass inspection. We could’ve hunted another 45 minutes.’
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The impact of Dale Earnhardt’s death, the overwhelming magnitude of a nation’s grief, might have surprised some people who don’t know NASCAR. But for those of us who know, the void is palpable, like somebody kicked you in the stomach, only a million times worse. You feel it every Sunday now when that black No. 3 car isn’t out there. There’s also void in the outdoor industry, as we have lost a man who was likely the greatest spokesperson hunting and hunters could hope for.
"Dale was a true hunter," Bill Jordan said. "He lived it. He was proud of it. He went out of his way to say he was an outdoorsman. That’s what our industry is going to miss. Dale wasn’t a celebrity that wanted to hunt. Dale was a hunter who happened to be a celebrity."