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Ralph Earnhardt’s Biography
Ralph Lee Earnhardt was born on February 23, 1928 in Kannapolis, Cabarrus County in North Carolina, the youngest of four sons, to John Henderson and Effie Mae Earnhardt. The family was part of the farming community and after finishing school, Ralph worked in one of the cotton mills for several years. Wages and conditions were poor, and one way out was competition.
During his later teens, he began building cars in the family garage with the goal of racing one at local dirt tracks, eventually starting in 1949. In 1953, at the age of twenty-five, Ralph turned pro and began his core career, making a big career. impression on the racing world very quickly.
His first race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series took place on November 11, 1956 when he finished second to Speedy Thompson in the Grand National (now the Sprint Cup Series) at Hickory Speedway, North Carolina. Also in 1956, he won his first NASCAR Sportsman title, a year in which he earned 32 wins.
During his career, he held track championships in seven different countries. 1961 saw Ralph have his highest finish in the Grand National points standings, 17th, and also saw him fill in for Cotton Owens as a relief driver in the Daytona 500, lapping more than 300 miles and finishing in 5th place. His awards include: – Ralph was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1989, the same weekend that Dale Sr. won the South 500 at Darlington Raceway, was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Alabama, in 1997 and, along with his son Dale Sr., was named one of NASCAR’s “50 Greatest Drivers.” During NASCAR’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1998, Ralph was a 2004 inductee into the Oceanside Rotary Club of Daytona Beach Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame and a 2007 inductee into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame.
His son, Dale Sr. later said of the award he shared with his father, “This has been a very special time for me and our family. I wish he could have been here to see it all.” During an interview with Buck Knight of the Free Lance Star, Fredericksburg, Virginia on Friday August 25, 1967, Ralph was asked if he would like to drive on the Grand National circuit, he replied, “It would be great fun to drive in the super fast tracks but MNL is a little rich for my blood – meaning my pocket book. It’s quite different from driving a sports car on short tracks, but not so grand that a man can’t make the difference. The main difference I found is that on the highways a man has to stay very cool and very smart. There is no time to calm down, to rest.”
In the old days Ralph raced with old veterans like Joe Weatherly, Buck Baker and Curtis Turner and many others. “The sport is very different to what it was in those days, when I was starting out, a friend heard about the races coming through the grapevine, or through a phone call from a friend or promoter. The purses were very small and now and then a promoter took it before payment. No one will ever know what NASCAR means to racing, he turned a casual affair into a business and brought certainty to a game where there was little or none.”
When asked if he had any thoughts of retiring from NASCAR racing, he replied, “I feel good and I believe I’m driving better than ever, I should be, a man learns something every race he drives and I drive three times a week. Ralph had an interest in new guns and was the one who started Bobbie Isaacs in the racing business. Ralph provided the guidance that started his son’s racing career while growing up in North Carolina and Dale Sr. Sadly , Ralph Earnhardt died of a heart attack at his home on September 26, 1973 at the age of 45. He was found by his wife, Martha, on the kitchen floor, not people. I want to believe, working on a car garage and was found by his son, Dale Sr. He is survived by his wife, Martha, Dale sons Dale Sr. and Danny, and two daughters, Martha Kay and Kathy Lee. He was the grandfather of Dale Jr., and Kerry Earnhardt.
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