By Bobby Markos
The Earnhardt family’s legacy is synonymous with the sport of auto racing. Dating back to family patriarch Ralph, four generations of Earnhardt relatives have made lives in motorsports in one capacity or another. Since starting the Dale Jr. Download, Dale Jr. has used his podcast as a platform to host in depth conversations with many of these family members and figures closely related to the family history. Through those chats, he has uncovered stories to help him better understand where he came from, and the path that led the Earnhardt family to where it is today. Each of those stories help illustrate the households unwavering dedication to racing, painting a picture of working class people doing whatever was necessary to keep competitive cars on track and food on the table. This earnestness has always shone through the tough Earnhardt exteriors, making them some of the most relatable and genuine figures in racing’s rich history. Without their story and contributions, the sport would look completely different today.
In this episode of The Download, co-host Mike Davis was on vacation with his family, so Dale took the opportunity to learn more about the early years of the Earnhardt tale by inviting his Aunt Cathy Watkins into the Bojangles Studio. He also tabbed his sister and co-owner of JR Motorsports Kelley Earnhardt Miller to fill-in for Mike, paving the way for an intimate family reunion. Dale asked Cathy about her earliest childhood memory, and she recalled when the family, then consisting of parents Ralph and Martha and siblings Kaye, Dale and Randy, moved into a three-bedroom apartment and what the living arrangement was like. She also described the contrast of their new home they eventually relocated to, and how it felt like a mansion in comparison to the cramped life they were accustomed to.
From an early age, Cathy enjoyed working in the garage with Ralph and her brothers, where she cleaned parts and learned about carburetors. She explained that she always wanted to be a part of what was happening with Ralph’s racing career. When she began to grow older, Ralph forbade her from participating, as he felt the all-male environment would be too crude for a teenage girl. This proved devastating for Cathy, who recalled the racing season as one of the happiest times in her young life.
Cathy described Ralph as being a firm father who expected a lot from his children. The Earnhardt siblings behaved differently when he was in the house, and were taught at an early age to “be seen and not heard” when going out in public. She reminisced about attending races with the family at some of Ralph’s regular haunts such as Columbia, Greenville Pickens and Smokey Mountain Raceway. She characterized Ralph Earnhardt the race driver as a superstitious man, disallowing activities believed to be bad luck in racing such as eating peanuts and wearing green to the speedway.
In January of 1973, Ralph suffered a heart attack which all but ended his racing career, leading him to put dirt late model standout Stick Elliott behind the wheel of his racer. Cathy explained that medical science was just beginning to develop bypass surgeries and stent procedures, so it wasn’t an option for Ralph at the time. While he was then on medication and not actively driving as much, he still continued to work hard in the garage. Then, in September of that year Ralph would suffer a second heart attack, this one proving fatal. At the time Cathy and mother Martha were taking her grandmother back home from a visit, and ended up receiving the note to call home from a family friend along the route. When she dialed the house, Dale answered, instructing them to return home at once, but spared them the full details of Ralph’s passing. Upon arriving back at the Earnhardt household, both sides of the street were lined with cars, and they immediately knew the severity of the situation. This day would change the Earnhardt family dynamic forever.
Cathy articulated the loss of Ralph by tying it into the family’s life in racing at that time. She illustrated that racing was everything they did, it was a bond for the household that kept everyone involved. When Ralph passed and the garage closed, that activity stopped, and Cathy described it as one of the most traumatizing moments in her life. But soon Dale stepped up and reopened the garage doors, bringing the family racing connection back to life. The connection that rejuvenation brought with it was crucial to the family's healing.
While her life in the garage may have been cut short due to her father’s overprotection, Cathy still found a way to be involved in racing when local speedways began staging Powder Puff Derbies for female competitors. Cathy went on to race ten times over a ten year span, winning every feature and proudly donning her the “only undefeated Earnhardt”. She recounted the details of her final race, which pitted her against Sharon Hodgdon, wife of Warren Hodgdon, who had the help of Neil Bonnett’s race team. In a thrilling last lap pass, Cathy prevailed, protecting her perfect record and allowing her to retire in glory.
Textile mills are a big part of the Kannapolis way of life, and Cathy quite enjoyed her time working there, where she made a great living as a supervisor and manager. When the time came for a change of pace, her husband Mike suggested they turn in their mill jobs for a life on the road, operating one of NASCAR’s first souvenir trailers. She also loved this chapter, as the traveling of the NASCAR schedule took her to parts of the country she had never been to and taught her a lot about other people. Eventually, Cathy retired from the road and went on to manage the JR Nation retail store, where she continues to love interacting with Earnhardt family fans to this day.
The Download listeners and Earnhardt fans can expect some never before heard stories and heartfelt moments from this cherished conversation. During the opening segment of the episode, Dale and Kelley rehash the NASCAR weekend at Martinsville, which saw Dale hop behind the wheel of a JR Motorsports entry. They also unpacked the drama that unfolded between Ty Gibbs and Sam Mayer, as well as Dale’s attempt to bring back the tradition of a post-race beer amongst competitors. The Cup race was a subject of contention, as many fans and drivers voiced their opinions on social media. Dale touched on what he believes needs to be done to help the NextGen car be successful on short tracks, ensuring that the push will continue to bring back more of that style of racing to the NASCAR schedule. On Ask Jr., fans sent in questions about JR Motorsports late model success at Greenville Pickens over the weekend, what it means to Dale to have his daughters at his races and what five tracks Dale believes should host more than one race a year. You can hear all of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.