Originally created 02/20/01

Friend says hard driver had soft side



JACKSON - Kenny Jarrett remembers Dale Earnhardt Sr. as a good marksman who liked hunting deer and a man who would give a child the hat off his head.

"I loved him. He was a special kind of guy," said Mr. Jarrett, owner of Jarrett's Rifles in Jackson, who hunted with Mr. Earnhardt and made rifles for the NASCAR legend.

He said Mr. Earnhardt - who died Sunday after crashing in the last lap of the Daytona 500 - could be gruff with fans, then seconds later show his tender side.

"He would not have time for an autograph, but he would see a child in a wheelchair ... and I've seen him several times take his cap off and sign it and put it on the little fella's head. He had a real soft heart," Mr. Jarrett said.

The Jackson man was among racing fans across the Augusta-Aiken area mourning their fallen hero Monday. Mr. Jarrett said his friendship with Mr. Earnhardt made the loss even harder to deal with.

He said he has several souvenirs from Mr. Earnhardt, including a door from one of his race cars.

"The real magic about Dale was that we would sit in our living room and watch that race, and he would drive that car exactly like we all thought we could drive it," he said. "We were all right there with him. ... And when he won, we thought we won. ... He represented us."

Ronnie Joyner was quickly made aware of how much area residents thought of Mr. Earnhardt when he arrived at his Race World NASCAR store in Clearwater on Monday morning. He was greeted by a line of fans waiting to buy mementos of the driver whose black Chevrolet sported the No. 3.

Mr. Joyner said his store is usually closed Mondays so he can do chores, but he said he had to open this day.

"We didn't have much choice" Mr. Joyner said about opening. "They were about to knock the windows and doors down."

When he finally opened the store around midday, the crowd bought "anything with a "3" on it, anything Earnhardt."

The buying frenzy went on for about two hours, he said.

Jack Burgess, co-owner of Evans Racing Collectibles, faced a similar situation when he opened his Davis Road store at 8 a.m.

"It didn't matter what it was; as long as it has Earnhardt's name on it, they wanted it," Mr. Burgess said.

Mr. Burgess said it took only 45 minutes to sell out of Earnhardt memorabilia, which included collectable cars, posters, hats, T-shirts and other items.

Local racetrack historian Joe Cawley said Mr. Earnhardt's death has rocked the entire racing community.

"He was an aggressive driver and had a lot of crashes, but usually he walked away from them," Mr. Cawley said. "No one ever figured he'd die in a race car."

And although Mr. Cawley said he himself is not a huge fan he credited Mr. Earnhardt's enthusiasm for boosting the sport's popularity.

"He partially made NASCAR what it is today," Mr. Cawley said. "NASCAR needed something to get them back in the 1980s, and Dale gave them the punch."

Mr. Jarrett said he learned of Mr. Earnhardt's death Sunday afternoon while at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston.

"It was the longest ride from Charleston I'll ever take in my life," he said.

Mr. Jarrett said he met Mr. Earnhardt about 15 or 16 years ago.

"He came here years ago with Neil Bonnett. I knew Neil real well," Mr. Jarrett said of the NASCAR driver who also died at Daytona, in 1994.

Mr. Jarrett said he went hunting with Mr. Bonnett and made rifles for him, too. And one year, he said, Mr. Bonnett came to buy a rifle and brought Mr. Earnhardt along.

"Neil ordered a gun, and when he got through, Dale said he wanted one just like it," Mr. Jarrett said.

Mr. Earnhardt eventually bought six or seven rifles, several as gifts for other people.

After the first meeting, the three men began hunting together occasionally, with Mr. Earnhardt especially liking to hunt white-tailed deer, Mr. Jarrett said. However, Mr. Earnhardt could tolerate sitting still in a deer stand for only about two hours, he said.

"He had to be moving all the time," Mr. Jarrett said. "I told him one time he was like a shark; they can't ever be still."

Staff Writer Ashlee Griggs contributed to this article.

Reach Rick Green at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.