The driver that I saw the most was Dale Earnhardt. Yep, the man himself. I must start with my first encounter.... It was a most memorable day that makes a great story to tell at a party.
I was 19 years old and working as a pharmacy technician at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center. The old hospital was downtown at that time, and across the street there was a small restaurant in the side of a building called Little Spaghetti House. Actually, Little Spaghetti House was my very first job which I loved dearly. Well, I was leaving work at the hospital one day, and I was planning to pick up lunch for Mom and myself. I pulled into the Little Spaghetti House parking lot, and when I got out of my car I realized that there was quite a crowd going in. I didn't realize at that time that they were all men and all wearing black, but now that I think about it, I believe they were. I was preoccupied as I walked up to the door and didn't notice that the last man in line was holding the door open for me. He asked, "Are you in the free lunch line?" I looked up for the first time, and I was face to face with the man himself. Dale Earnhardt.
I'm sure he heard me audibly catch my breath. I was stunned. I immediately started shaking. He must have noticed that he took me off guard, because he grinned that sly grin of his and shook his head. In fact, I think he blushed a little himself and looked at the ground for a moment. He was aptly named "The Intimidator" on the racetrack, but the same could hold true just for the man that he was. Although he may not be considered by most as good-looking, he was ruggedly handsome and powerful. His mere presence rattled me hard. It was almost like you could feel you were in the midst of a legend.
I finally did respond to him, probably stupidly enough that it gave him a laugh later, that I was there to get lunch for my mom and myself. He said that he would be happy to buy her lunch too. I don't know what I said to that, but I'm sure I smiled and nodded as he allowed me to step in front of him to order. He ordered and worked his way over to one of the tables that held his racing crew, and later I realized that he had won the race on that Sunday before and was treating them for their work.
When my order was ready, I walked over to his table, being closely watched by his crew, and I walked up behind him. I leaned over to thank him, and he smiled, hugged me, and told me I was very welcome. I could hear his crew laughing as I walked out, but I didn't even care. I had met Dale Earnhardt.
Now, I'm not sure if he just thought I was a cute 19 year old hopping out of my convertible and wanted to see if I would talk to him, or if he just wanted to do something nice for someone. I really don't care either way. There are only a few people that I have met that literally took my breath away, and he was one of them. I hadn't been a big race fan up to that point, but I sure was after that. I always pulled for that black #3 car because of my encounter with the man driving it.
That wasn't the last time I saw Dale Earnhardt. There were two other times that I remember pulling my convertible up to a stop light and having a big black truck pull up next to me. He rolled his window down and tipped his hat at me and smiled. I don't know if he remembered meeting me that first day or not, but it was a thrill for me each time I saw him. This made it all the more heartbreaking for me on February 18th, 2001.
We were sitting in the living room of my grandparents watching the race that day, and we had celebrated my grandfather's birthday. I'll never forget seeing that crash. I immediately stood up and said, "Something's not right." They kept tiptoeing around the issue, and I kept saying, "Something's wrong. I want them to show him." They never did of course, and on the way home our worst fears about the Intimidator were confirmed. He was gone. We stopped on our way home at the grocery store close to our house, and weeping race fans were already coming out of the store holding flowers that they would take just a few miles up the road to Dale Earnhardt, Inc. I cried a lot that night, and I felt so strange for doing so. I didn't really know the man, but he sure left an impression on me.
I found myself having to go to DEI myself the next day. I took all of the kids with me. It was a circus there, and it was difficult to find a place to park. There were satellite vans from ESPN, CNN, FOXNEWS, and others. When we walked up to the front gate, it was full of flowers, notes, pictures, and other momentos. It was so crowded with people, but the only sound you heard was the quiet sobbing of those around you. It was one of the strangest feelings I've ever had. I stood there and cried too, and I couldn't figure out why. It was just an emotionally charged atmosphere on the backdrop of the lobby of that grand building he had dreamed of, his picture larger than life on the inside.
We took pictures there that day, and to look at them is so surreal. To think that his grand career ended that quickly was difficult to wrap the mind around. To think that his powerful presence would never be felt by anyone again was unimaginable to those that had been around him. That day, I was most thankful for the small memories that I had of that ruggedly handsome man that took my breath away.