The following article appears in the Dale Earnhardt Hall of Fame collector's issue magazine, the digital version of which is free for all ESPN Insiders.
They call it bench racing. Just a couple of guys wrenching cars and running their mouths, reliving every lap of every race they ever ran. For Dale Earnhardt, it was the closest thing to a college education he'd ever experience. And his professor was his father, Ralph.
During the week, the Earnhardt family watched their neighbors choke their way through endless lint-covered shifts at the textile mill. Ralph had tried that, but he hated it and did what few -- make that no one outside of Indianapolis -- dared to even try. He became a full-time racer.
The only nickname they handed out on third shift at the factory was the demeaning Linthead. But the moniker Ralph earned at the track was pure Action Comics superhero: They called him Ironheart. Every weekend, and on more than a few weeknights, Ralph would leave wife Martha and their children at home in Kannapolis, N.C., tow his homebuilt race car out of the garage behind the house and pull it down the road to some nasty little bullring dirt track tucked away in some corner of the Carolinas. Places like the Piedmont Interstate Fairgrounds or the Occoneechee Speedway. If he finished first, he would collect his winnings from the track office -- assuming the promoter hadn't skipped town with the cash box -- and tow the Chevy home, quietly backing it into the garage while his family slept.