"Dale" captures Earnhardt, warts and all

Friday, January 18th 2008, 2:30 pm
By: News On 6

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Nearly six years after his death, Dale Earnhardt's family is finally in total agreement about something: The biography ``Dale'' definitively captures the life of NASCAR's seven-time champion.

``I was amazed, blown away,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of the movie, which opened this week. ``Couldn't believe how good it turned out. It's to the point. It's perfect.''

Produced by NASCAR Images and CMT Films and narrated by Paul Newman, the documentary allows Earnhardt to tell his own story. Made with raw footage _ much of it long forgotten, some of it never before seen _ the film is spliced together around a reflective interview Earnhardt did one day while fishing on his North Carolina farm.

Using racing scenes, photos, present-day interviews and old family videos, the film chronicles Earnhardt's rise from an eighth-grade dropout living in a depressed mill town to a NASCAR hero.

He was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 at the age of 49.

``I was thinking 'What have I not seen? Am I just going to be sitting through a whole bunch of stuff I've already watched?'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ``But all the footage that they got, the entire movie, I'd never seen any of it before. If it felt behind the scenes for me, imagine how it's going to feel for the fans.''

The project was a collaboration with Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, and car owner Richard Childress, who have been extremely reluctant to authorize or endorse Earnhardt projects. Childress refused to watch the first Earnhardt movie _ ESPN's ``3,'' _ which Teresa described as ``someone's dramatic piece.''

But the two people closest to The Intimidator had no qualms about this project.

``Richard and I both knew that they respected Dale as much as we did, and we felt very confident in their motive in doing this,'' Teresa Earnhardt said. ``This is the first thing that I know of that's endorsed, and I really think people will love it when they see it.

``It just shows a lot of the raw Dale, and that Dale's personality was more than just the racing champion.''

``Dale'' will be released as NASCAR moves across the country this season, opening in theaters near each week's race. It will air on CMT later in the year and eventually be released on DVD.

The story traces Earnhardt's life from birth until death _ with a never-before-seen in-car camera shot from the second before he hits the wall in Daytona _ and doesn't sugarcoat the controversies or criticisms that shadowed his career and his personal life.

Video footage shows the strained relationship he had with a young Dale Jr., who desperately longed for his father's attention but often was squeezed out of the spotlight. But there are tender moments, too, including a scene where Earnhardt tries to teach his son to water ski and another where a young Junior pretends to interview his father in Victory Lane.

There's a part in which Earnhardt professes his adoration for Teresa, and, after often failing as a father to his first three children, scenes show him flourishing in the role with youngest daughter Taylor Nicole.

``Time is really short to spread between a family, home, racing, the dealership, the farm,'' he says in the movie. ``You just try to have something for the future for the wife and the kids if something happens to me.''

The film shows a sensitive side to the hard-nosed racer, and it's sure to surprise many fans. He regrets dropping out of school and, despite his success on the race track, professes a constant fear of it all falling apart one day.

It's why, despite 76 career wins and more than $41 million in earnings, he continued to labor on his farm each week and did most of the chores himself.

``I can win a race on Sunday and I can feed the cows on Monday or collect eggs in the chicken house, it doesn't matter to me,'' he says. ``Because we win doesn't change my attitude or way of life. I'm a jack of all trades and a master of none.''

That ethic is what endeared Earnhardt to so many fans, said NBC anchor Brian Williams.

``If you are out there working for a living with your hands, boy, this was your guy,'' Williams says in the movie. ``He represented blue collar hopes and dreams in this country. It meant a lot to him that because he was from that class and society, he would never betray that class and society.''

Childress admitted poring over the footage was painful and used a memory of Earnhardt to explain how he continued racing after his best friend's death.

Once while riding horses in New Mexico, the horses tumbled down a mountain, and both men could have been killed. When they returned to camp unscathed later that night, Childress told Earnhardt that if he'd died that day, he'd expect Earnhardt to keep racing.

``Yep, same here,'' was Earnhardt's response.