Several years ago, I was in Talladega for the NASCAR race and had stopped by the No. 3 truck to see Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt, as usual, was picking and poking at me over one thing or the other.
I threw back a quick quip over something and he chuckled merrily, characteristically lifting one corner of his lip and mustache as he snickered.
Earnhardt was intense in all he did. He raced hard, worked hard and laughed hard. A few years before that, we had been in Daytona for a preseason test with Chevrolet when he and I had ended up in a different kind of conversation.
I don’t remember what brought it up, but he got on the subject of being serious about the business of racing. He narrowed his eyes and said seriously, "Darrell Waltrip is my hero."
I did a visual double take. Those two had been spitting and snarling at each other as far back as I could remember. Their rivalry was as deep and serious as Chevrolet and Ford. Fans split up into separate corners cheering one or the other. You couldn’t like both Earnhardt and Waltrip. You had to choose your man.
"What?" I choked out. "Darrell’s your hero?"
He nodded firmly. "Yep, he is. He’s the first driver who came along and took this sport seriously as a business. He’s a business man who’s done well outside this sport. He took the money he made racing and made more money in business with it. I want to be just like him."
Then, he began to detail his plans for owning car dealerships, air-conditioned chicken houses, (condos, he called them) and focusing on the merchandising side. He did exactly what he said he would do because reports were that when he died, he was raking in more than $20 million a year in souvenir sales alone.
That’s all to underscore how intense he was.
When I hugged both Earnhardt and Childress goodbye that day in Talladega and took my leave of the hauler, I slid back the doors and stepped out onto the top of three steps. A dozen or so fans had gathered, hoping for a glimpse of their hero. To the right, stood a guy with a large framed piece in his hands, probably a 16 by 20. It was expensively done with black framing and glass. I glanced down and we smiled at each other.
"What’s that?" I asked curiously.
"This is a gift from 'The Intimidator,'" he said with a huge smile.
The guy turned out to be a Nashville songwriter who had been inspired by Earnhardt to pen, along with a co-writer, a song called "I’m In A Hurry (And I Don’t Know Why)."
The song had been a No. 1 smash record for the group Alabama. The framing he held in his hands contained the original hand-written lyrics and he wanted to gift those to the man for whom the song had been written. I ooohed and aaahed over the gift because I knew how special it was.
"Wait here," I said. I went back inside and said to Earnhardt, "You have to come and see what someone has brought you." Earnhardt was a big country music fan so I knew he’d be proud that he had been the inspiration for such a runaway hit song.
When I left, the smiling songwriter and the laughing hero were having their photo made together. As I was working out the other day, I listened to that song on my iPod and thought back to that day. Earnhardt lived and raced at a frantic speed. There was so much to do and crowd into his life. To paraphrase slightly the lyrics: He was in a hurry and he didn’t know why.
But now we all know why. He had a lot to do in too short of a time.
Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of several books, including "What Southern Women Know About Faith." Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column appears Tuesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com/ronda.