BMS officials hosted a media function Thursday to announce a celebration of Dale Earnhardt’s first career win at the track 40 years ago in April. Then a 28-year-old NASCAR Cup Series driver from Kannapolis, N.C., Earnhardt won in his 15th career start and the seventh of his rookie season, driving the No. 2 Chevrolet for California car owner Rod Osterlund.
It remains the only time a rookie driver scored his first Cup Series victory at BMS.
“It was a major accomplishment because rookies did not win in that era,” BMS public address announcer and track historian David McGee said. “You had guys like Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker that won all the races. For a rookie to win against all those guys in the field was remarkable.
“Earnhardt didn’t have a spectacular career coming into Cup. He had tried a couple of times to get a Cup ride and had marginal success. This was his first real opportunity with a good team and a good car. It was the only win he had all year. He got hurt later in the season, so it was a big deal.”
Obviously, the victory remains a big deal decades later.
As part of the celebration, BMS officials unveiled a Chevrolet Camaro wrapped to resemble the paint scheme on Earnhardt’s winning Monte Carlo in the 1979 race. There is also the cover of this year’s Food City 500 souvenir program to celebrate the event. Furthermore, the first 10,000 fans at the race will get a special poster designed by motorsports artist Bill Patterson to commemorate Earnhardt’s victory lap.
Fans can also visit and take photos at a special tribute area in the speedway’s vintage victory lane located near the BMS Hospitality Village.
THE FIRST WIN
It was the first of nine Bristol wins for Earnhardt and the first of his 76 career wins (eighth on the all-time NASCAR list). His career included seven Cup Series championships (tied with Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson as the most all-time), and Earnhardt was part of the inaugural class inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
On that day in April 1979, Earnhardt started ninth and led two times for 163 laps. He fell behind race leader Darrell Waltrip, but his crew got him out of the pits first after an accident involving Johnson City’s Mike Potter and another driver. Waltrip faded and Earnhardt’s Chevy held off the No. 15 Ford of Bobby Allison for the win.
Coincidentally, Earnhardt would drive the No. 15 Ford three years later for Hall of Fame car owner Bud Moore.
Richard Childress, Earnhardt’s future car owner with the No. 3 Chevrolet, finished 11th in the 1979 race and Potter finished 16th.
Earnhardt repeated as the winner of the Valleydale Southeastern 500 in 1980, and it gave him back-to-back victories after he won at Atlanta the previous week. The Bristol win was one of five in his championship season.
Earnhardt took the lead from Cale Yarborough on lap 366 and led the final 135 laps. He would later hold off Yarborough for his first series championship that season.
At Bristol that day, Waltrip finished second, followed by Allison.
THE EARNHARDT APPEAL
Earnhardt remains one of the most popular figures in NASCAR history, and that’s no surprise to McGee, who credits his appeal of being able to identify with the common man. Earnhardt was a second-generation driver, whose his father, Ralph, a two-time Sportsman champion, died when Dale’s career was getting started.
Before racing full time, Earnhardt worked in the cotton mills in Kannapolis and later as a mechanic at a brake shop.
“He was everyman, a common man, and people responded to that,” McGee said. “He came from a modest background, and he came up the way you did in stock car racing. He worked on the car. It was his stuff and if it tore up, he had to fix it. As he got successful, people came along for that ride.
“The other thing was Earnhardt’s personality. On one side, you had this very serious competitor who did whatever it took to get to victory lane. He also had this lighthearted side, where he liked to play jokes and pranks on the guys he was racing with.”
McGee sees Bristol as a perfect place to celebrate the career of Earnhardt, who died in a crash at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500.
“If you look back at the history of NASCAR, Earnhardt had three tracks — Bristol, Daytona and Talladega — where he had incredible success throughout his career,” McGee said. “It stretched here from 1979 to 1999 for his ninth victory. Five years later, we saw Dale Jr. come and win. No question, this is an Earnhardt track.”
The Bristol Motor Speedway Transporter Parade is moving to Food City 500 weekend and will be returning to its original route.
It will start 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 4 at Bass Pro Shops at The Pinnacle in Bristol and go on a nine-mile trek past downtown and past two Food City locations before arriving at BMS around 8 p.m.
Fans are encouraged to visit Bass Pro Shops at Bristol to get an up-close look at the haulers. Tickets are still available for the Food City 500, and they start at $55. Tickets for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco 300 and Zombie Auto 150 for the K&N Series combination start at $35.