To live in Kannapolis, N.C., during the 20th century was to live in a company town, and if folks there didn't exactly sell their soul to the company store, everyone lived by the pulse of the massive Cannon Mills, provider of fluffy cotton towels and washcloths to a increasingly cleanliness-conscious nation.
"They had three shifts there -- first, second and third," recalled Martha Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt's mother. "When it came time for a shift change at Cannon Mills, a mile or so away, "they had a horn that blew," she said in a 2007 interview with this writer for Racing Milestones magazine. "You could hear it."
Ralph Earnhardt, her husband, started his adult life in the mills, but didn't stick around. He was too independent-minded for that. "He definitely didn't like being shut up in there," she said.
"When he and I got married, he was working on the third shift in the mill. He worked in the weave room. That was in '47. I was 17 when we got married and he was 19. He left the mill not too long after we got married and went to work for a gentleman down here on (U.S.) 29 in a garage. That's where he learned about building motors and all that.
"But then some of the local guys that raced around here came down, and Ralph worked on their cars. That's how he got into racing. He didn't like the mill anyway. It was a place to get out of."
In 1948, Ralph told Martha he wanted to try racing. "I told him I didn't really want him to, and I threatened to leave him and all this, but I ended up joining him... "
Ralph already had a hot street car and was driving fast anyway, "but he promised me if I'd let him starting driving race cars that he would slow down on the road and the street. He said if he couldn't make it without taking away from the family, he would not do it. And he always took care of me and the five kids, without me ever needing to work."
By 1953, Ralph was driving full-time. He was the 1956 NASCAR national Sportsman champion, runner-up in 1955 and third in 1956. He ran 51 NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) races between 1956 and 1964, including the Daytona 500s of '62, '63 and '64. But he never ran a full season and always preferred to prepare his own race car rather than run for another car owner.
"It would be great fun to drive on the superspeedways, but Grand National league is a bit rich for my blood – meaning my pocketbook," Earnhardt told Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star sportswriter Buck Knight in a rare and revealing August, 1967 article.
Dale was 16 by then, and working for his father.
"Dale is getting to be a good mechanic," Ralph said. "He is a hard worker and he is learning fast."
By 1967, Ralph had won hundreds of local and regional races, as well as dozens of track championships in addition to his national title. His trophies – 300 to 500 of them – were everywhere in their modest home.
"My wife says the cups are about to crowd us out of our home," Ralph said. "But I am going to try to keep on winning them as fast as I can."
In the midst of all that, the couple (right) had five children – three boys and two girls.
"Ralph, you know, never missed a race because of a child being born, except once," Martha said. "Randy and Kathy were both born in December. Kay is in October and Danny in November. Well... Dale come along in April.
"Ralph was fixin' to go to a little old track up there toward Greensboro and race there that day. And I told him that morning, 'I think you better stay home. I don't think you need to go to the races.' And he was still (working) down at that garage and he said, 'Well, just let me go down there and get the race car and I'll come back by here and check on you.'
And I said, 'No, I don't think you need to go to the race track. Today you need to stay home.' So he stayed here, and Dale was born that day. And, so, it's ironic that Dale is the only one who kept him away from a race, and Dale is one who ended up racing."
Although Ralph was never badly injured in a race car, he died young, collapsing in his garage with a massive, fatal heart attack on Sept. 26, 1973, at age 45.
"He made a pretty decent living for us," Martha said. "When he died at 45, everything was paid for. You know, with five children, being able to have what we had, and have it all paid for at 45 years old. I thought was pretty good."
In the wake of Ralph's sudden death, a family friend, Gray London, helped the Earnhardts start the Earnhardt Racing Team, and Dale took over the operation, preparing the cars in his father's garage beside the house. For five long years, from 1974 through 1978, he raced locally and regionally, and Martha went to many of the races.
When he began driving in Winston Cup in 1979, Martha went to many of those as well, even traveling the circuit for one year in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
"But after so many years, you just sort of wore out," Martha said. "And after they started coming on TV, it was just much easier to stay at home as to go."
And that's where she was -- sitting in her living room chair -- when Dale finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998.
"I think my granddaughter and her husband and my daughter were here," she said. I tend to want to stand up and pace the last couple of laps. I can't sit still. My granddaughter, Jennifer, gets excited, too. So that's what we were doing that day. She was up helping me. We were pacing back and forth, just me and my granddaughter, until he finally won it."
Soon, the phone rang. It was Dale, calling from victory lane. One of her most cherished photographs (shown above) shows Dale in victory lane, on the phone with her. "He said, 'Momma, I finally won the Daytona 500!' And I said, 'Yeah, I saw you, son. I was watching it.' That was real special to me that he would call me from winner's circle and talk to me."
Just before Dale left for Daytona for the final time in 2001, he'd talked with his mother about her house and offerered to buy her a new one in Mooresville, nearer to his farm.
"I don't want to live out that far," she told him. "I'm so close to everything I need right here."
"And so before he left to go to Daytona that year, he said, 'Mom, why don't we just freshen up your house? We'll just paint it and freshen it until you decide what you want to do.'
Today, at age 80, she still lives there.
The racing fans who frequently stop by to take a look are almost respectful, and she doesn't answer the door unless she knows who is there.
"They might stop and take pictures across the street, but they don't really bother me," she said, still amazed that her little boy became such an icon in automobile racing.
"It's just hard to explain, you know, that my child, Dale, who was just a little old kid running around here in the neighborhood, would become the person that he became. It's just hard for me to understand how people feel about my son."