By CHRIS HOBBS
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving NASCAR racing after the 2017 season — a decision he announced today – and it’s one of a very few sports-related things my mom, now 85, is or would be interested in knowing.
To my knowledge, she’s never been to a race unless it was one at Hickory Motor Speedway (bet a lot of folks in our area could also make that claim).
And other than the time she found out her next door neighbor was a big Jeff Gordon fan, she’s never really been interested in things like sponsors or horse power or racing other than perhaps when my older brother, Randy, was going to Charlotte Motor Speedway or I had been assigned to staff a NASCAR race.
But like a lot of fans of Little E, my mom (Betty) has some fond memories of this young, composed and smiling kid who often came into the service station she once owned. It was located just a few miles from Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet in Newton, near Mount Olive Lutheran Church, and is still operating today.
When mom took over the store – she was probably approaching 70 then — it continued as the place that cars sold at DEC were filled up with gas for the buyer. And many of the guys who worked there also made non-work related visits to her store for gas, coffee, soft drinks, candy or those yummy sliced bologna (or ’mater) sandwiches mom whipped up.
One of them, of course, was Dale Earnhardt Jr. He worked at the dealership as a mechanic and would often come to the store. I worked a few days for mom and remember Little E coming in. He was always unassuming and nice, and the only way you knew his blood line is if you, well, knew his blood line.
As his career developed and he went into NASCAR racing full-time, I would occasionally tell mom about what he had done… that he’d won this race or won Most Popular Driver again. And her response was usually the same – “He was such a nice young man.”
The race car drivers that I have experienced getting to know, if only in passing, have been some of the most friendly, grounded people you will meet.
Dale Jarrett — to have reached the level of famous that he did/has – is as pleasant a person as you’d want to meet. When his girls played basketball and his son played baseball at Hickory High, you’d see Dale in the stands watching but he blended in with all the other fans (and parents). He loved being a normal guy, out to enjoy seeing his children play, and getting to know his kids a bit by covering them was fun for me because I had also covered their mom when she was an athlete at Newton-Conover.
Little E was nice to my mom even though she didn’t know much – if anything — about his famous dad.
Another driver I’ve never personally met but have grown to admire is Jeff Gordon. He was good friends with an old colleague of mine, the late David Poole (Charlotte Observer NASCAR beat writer), so I told David the story of mom and the neighbor and racing and asked a favor.
When my mom would visit with Hazel, who has now passed, Hazel would always come to the door when mom knocked. But if mom went to check on her (Hazel was approaching her 90s) on a Sunday afternoon, she never could get Hazel to come to the door or figure out if she was in her home.
Mom mentioned that to me, and I told her to just ask Hazel about it. She did.
“I didn’t hear ya, Betty,” Hazel said. “Sundays are my NASCAR days… I have to watch (and root) for Jeff Gordon.”
When mom told me that story, several months ahead of a Christmas, I called Poole– who we all still miss; we lost him eight years ago this Friday to a heart attack) – and told him the story and asked if he could help.
The idea was, at some point, for Poole to tell Gordon a brief version of the story – that a 90-year-old woman would not come to the door on Sundays if she was watching Gordon race.
I asked Poole if he could get a color photo of Gordon and, at some point, ask Gordon to sign it to Hazel so that mom and I could give it to her, framed and all, for Christmas.
It wasn’t long before Poole called me and told me to meet him in Gastonia to pick it up, that Gordon was happy to sign it.
A few days later, we had it wrapped and gave it to Hazel for Christmas.
When she opened it, beginning to realize it was a color picture of Gordon, she began to cry.
“Oh, my Lord,” she said. “Jeff Gordon signed this for me?”
She looked at me for an answer… “Chrissie (that’s how she said my name), you know Jeff Gordon?”
I explained to her that I had staffed races Gordon had been in, but that I did not know him but a good friend who covers all the races did. And that friend agreed to ask Gordon for the personalized autograph.
That single auto impacted Hazel’s life. She took great pride in it.
Within a year or two, Hazel’s health further declined and she went to a nursing home. She had been a neighbor for upwards of 50 years, like an aunt more than a neighbor, and we’d go to visit her in the nursing home.
She would have to stare hard sometimes to be 100 percent sure who we were, and then she’d tell stories of when I was a little boy outside running around the yard (or in hers) with my grandpa.
When we made later visit(s), her memory was not as good as it was in the old days. But nearly every time we came, she’d point to a treasure on the wall and tell me who sent it to her and then she would smile.
She’d forgotten who gave it to her by then but it meant the world to her.
It was her personally signed color picture from Jeff Gordon, and every time I see him on TV or hear his name I think of Hazel and wonder what channel she turns her TV to in every racing season.