Alex Tresniowski
February 10, 2003 12:00 PM

Sometimes she almost slows down long enough to talk to Dale. She wants to tell him that everyone is doing fine, getting on with things. She wants to explain how much people miss him, how senators, governors and even the President were rocked on Feb. 18, 2001, when he crashed his black Chevy into a wall at Daytona and died. She wants to tell him about his daughter Taylor, 14 now and in the eighth grade—how Taylor has a piercing stare that could pin a beetle to a wall, just like her daddy had. Teresa Earnhardt wants to tell her husband, Dale, these things, but she simply can’t. “To do that, you really have to be still and quiet and dwell on your thoughts,” she says in her first interview since Dale’s death. “And I don’t have a lot of time to dwell on any thoughts. I don’t have time to dwell on anything.”

It has been two years since the racing world lost its biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, and in that time his widow, Teresa, has not stopped going full speed. From the very first moments after the unspectacular crash yards from the finish line at the Daytona 500, Teresa, 44, has taken it upon herself to help steer Dale’s children, extended racing family and even millions of fans through the shock and ongoing sadness of his passing. While taking control of Dale’s multimillion-dollar business ventures, including four racing teams, a new charitable foundation and a vast merchandising outfit, Teresa has made it her mission to keep spirits up around the Earnhardt camp, bolstering others with her strength and resolve. “She grieves every day, but she also feels a real sense of responsibility to Dale,” says her sister Sherry Houston Clifton, 49, a partner and promoter at North Carolina’s Hickory Motor Speedway. “You want to crawl into a hole for a while, but that didn’t happen because people were depending on her.”

Those who know her say Teresa put on a brave face after losing Dale and never let it drop. Even during the battle over Dale’s autopsy photos—she fought off newspapers trying to publish them days after his death—she was remarkably composed. “She’s never shown any signs of crumbling or going into a shell,” says her friend Kix Brooks, of the country singing duo Brooks & Dunn. “She’s just taken care of business and gone on with her life.”

Friends in the close-knit NASCAR community offered her shoulders to lean on, but Teresa never asked for any help. “She’s not the kind of person that needs to be consoled,” says her stepson Dale Earnhardt Jr., 28, one of NASCAR’s top drivers. “She really helped us understand how to deal with losing Daddy. She just has a lot of common sense.” When a friend sent her a mournful song about Dale and asked for her blessing to play it at a race, she said no, believing she owed it to Dale’s fans to keep things positive. “Everyone is just still heartbroken,” she says, “and I think they should concentrate on the gift we got with Dale and not be gloomy.”

It is the way she feels Dale—the gruff, tough, good ol’ boy known as the Intimidator—would have wanted her to handle things. Married for 18 years and partners in every way, “they would look at a situation and say, ‘Well, that’s the way it is, life goes on,’ ” says Darrell Waltrip, 55, a friend of Dale’s and a retired racer who is now a NASCAR analyst. In the numbing days after the crash, amid a massive outpouring of emotion from fans across the nation—”It was like Elvis died,” says Earnhardt pal Ken Schrader—Teresa was the calm center of the storm. Most important, she comforted Dale’s children: daughter Taylor, who lives with her in the Earnhardts’ log house in Mooresville, N.C., as well as Dale Jr., Kerry, 33, and Kelley, 30, his children from his first two marriages. “She has helped us remember his passion for the things he loved and the importance of carrying them on,” says Kelley, the business manager for JR Motor Sports, owned by her brother Dale Jr. “Teresa has been our rock.”

Protecting her husband’s image is nothing new for Teresa; all along she was deeply involved in day-to-day business decisions, negotiating deals behind the scenes while Dale drove and provided the public image for their expanding enterprises. The crash forced her to take a more visible role. “She knew there were issues to solve from that moment on,” says Michael Waltrip, 39, who drives for an Earnhardt team. “She said someone would have to be in charge and that someone would be her.” More sophisticated and less playful than Dale, she has, say colleagues, not missed a beat in taking over for him. “She’s not making the rounds in the raceshop every day, like he did,” Earnhardt driver Steve Park, 35, says. “You don’t have an old cowboy boot kicking you in the leg while you’re under a car. But she keeps everything running smoothly. You know she’s in charge.”

More than most, Teresa understood the dangers of racing because she was raised in a car-loving family. Her father, Hal Houston, 70 (he and wife Betty, 71, are now retired from the furniture-making business), raced stock cars all over their home state of North Carolina. “We were racetrack brats,” says Teresa’s sister Sherry. “Every weekend we were at a track with Dad. If we got sleepy, we’d get in the back of the pickup and curl up in a tire.”

Teresa was studying interior decorating at a Charlotte community college when she met Dale at a race in the late ’70s. A high school dropout from Kannapolis, a mill town in North Carolina, and the son of Ralph Earnhardt, one of racing’s earliest stars, and Martha, Dale worked odd jobs—as a welder for a trucking company, at a tire store—and raced only on weekends. But even then “he was very magnetic,” says Teresa. “He was always exciting to watch.”

Divorced from second wife Brenda, Dale married Teresa in 1982. Friends say they survived some rough spots as Teresa reined in Dale’s wild side and helped him focus on racing. “She had a major settling effect on him,” says H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, 64, president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte. “In the South the highest compliment a wife can get is that she was good to her husband. They were good to each other and good for each other.”

Not regarded as especially promising in his early days, Dale soon became the most daring and charismatic driver on the burgeoning NASCAR circuit, greatly boosting the sport’s popularity. Since 1990, attendance at NASCAR events has more than doubled to nearly 7 million fans; the sport’s TV ratings are now second only to the NFL’s. And while Dale, winner of 76 races, was a terror on the track, Teresa was the Intimidator at the negotiating table. “She read every contract he ever signed,” says Sherry. “People would get annoyed at her because she wouldn’t let him sign until she understood every line on every page.”

Things were going great guns for the Earnhardts—Dale’s handsome son was coming into his own as a driver—when everything changed on the fourth turn of the Daytona International Speedway. Trying to hold on to third place behind his son, Dale spun right and hit the concrete wall at 170mph. “I called him on the radio and he never answered,” says Richard Childress, the owner of Dale’s No. 3 Monte Carlo racecar. Childress radioed Teresa, who rushed to the track’s care center. By the time she got there, Dale was on his way to the Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach. “We figured it was just an injury,” says Dale Jr., who drove with his stepmother to the hospital. But in the somber emergency room “there were a lot of doctors standing around doing stuff. Nobody had to tell us. We just knew.”

Dale Earnhardt died of blunt-force injuries to his head and neck. Those present that day say Teresa was shaken but otherwise in control. When a technician cleaning Dale’s body tried to slip off his wedding ring, Teresa demanded he keep it on. “I am not one to curl up at any time,” she says. “I do what you gotta do. There’s right and there’s wrong, and you do the best you can.”

After the crash Dale’s family returned to Mooresville while Teresa stayed with his body in Florida. “She wasn’t going to leave Daddy down there,” says Dale Jr. She was just as protective when several Florida newspapers petitioned the Volusia County medical examiner to release Dale’s autopsy photos. Teresa testified at a June 2001 hearing and won a ruling against the newspapers (the Florida supreme court is reviewing the ruling). “She said, ‘This is just wrong, and I want to take it to the very end,’ and she did,” says Florida attorney Thom Rumberger, who headed her legal team. Just weeks after Dale died, the Florida legislature, prodded by Gov. Jeb Bush, passed the Family Protection Act, excluding autopsy photos from the public record.

This Feb. 18, the second anniversary of Dale’s death, Teresa will attend a candlelight service in his honor in Mooresville. In June she will host a concert to benefit the Dale Earnhardt Legacy Program and Foundation, which she created to raise money for children’s charities, education and wildlife conservation and to “give fans a little outlet for connecting with Dale again,” she says. It is clear to many in the Earnhardt camp that the mood there is brightening. “People are beginning to tell funny stories about Dale again,” says Humpy Wheeler. “And Teresa is smiling again.”

What makes her smile the most is spending time with her daughter. Taylor has her mother’s emotional reserve, but also her father’s friskiness. Dale liked to wrestle people to the ground, just for fun; Taylor goes for the quick takedown too. “She would try to wrestle me, and I’d say, ‘No, I don’t like it,’ ” says Teresa with a smile. “I am not the wrestler.” Together they are doing great. “Our lives now are very full and very busy,” she says. “I am so happy again.”

Perhaps down the road a spell she might even find the time to have those talks with Dale. “I’m sure he’s in a much better place than any of us now,” says Teresa, who wears one of his Winston Cup championship rings on special occasions. “We’re the poor souls left here to deal with life, you know. But I’m so grateful for all my blessings, I can’t possibly feel sorry for myself. That’s just ridiculous.” This is, she knows, just the thing Dale would want to hear.

Alex Tresniowski

Michaele Ballard and Don Sider in Mooresville

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