by Bobby Markos
Before winning his first NASCAR Sportsman race on July 19th, 1974 at the newly paved Metrolina Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Sr. had made a name for himself on the Carolina dirt tracks, racing in the semi-modified division. He had planned to follow in the footsteps of his father Ralph, who reigned supreme on the red clay for the two decades prior. The car Dale Sr. cut his teeth in raced out of the famed Russell’s Garage, which was established by accomplished engine builder James Russell in the 1950s and had previously prepared rides for NASCAR modified pioneers like Dink Widenhouse, George Mantooth and Banks Simpson. On this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale Jr. and co-host Mike Davis sit down with the man who built the hot rod that was the first stepping stone for Dale Sr.’s rise to NASCAR stardom, second-generation Russell’s Garage car builder Tommy Russell.
Tommy and Dale Sr. became acquainted through a mutual admiration for Ralph. Tommy tells Dale Jr. a story about how Dale Sr. actually came to resent him initially, when Ralph began inviting a young Tommy to go to the races at Columbia Speedway with him, meaning Dale Sr. would be left at home. Tommy realized he wanted to go racing himself and set out to build a car with guidance from Ralph, but due to the protests of his father James, eventually relinquished driving duties, putting local ace Tony Therell in the ride. Meanwhile, Tommy explains that Dale Sr. had built his own semi-mod entry in Ralph’s shop with the backing of James Miller. Once Tommy and Dale Sr. realized they wanted to go racing together, Ralph negotiated a deal to buy the car from Miller and sell it to Tommy. Tommy presented Dale Jr. with an artifact from that very deal: a check for $1,000 made out to Ralph and family matriarch Martha.
The conversation with Tommy provides Dale Jr. with some insight into his grandfather Ralph’s demeanor, as well as what Dale Sr. was like in his late teens and early racing career. Tommy recalls the night of Dale Sr.’s first win and some tales from their nights on the road, including one where they backed their race hauler up to their hotel room and slept with the door open and a pistol on the bedside table to make sure no one tampered with their vehicle.
Tommy also speaks on the sudden passing of Ralph in 1973 and the effect it had on both he and Dale Sr. Right around this time, the two had decided they wanted to move up to the Sportsman division the following season, and shortly after made an attempt to run their semi-mod car against the class, in which the engine blew. This would mark the end of their road together as a racing team, but Dale Sr would never forget his old friend. In fact, Tommy goes on to talk about being at Daytona in 1976 when Dale Sr made his Sportsman debut. He also recounts a never before told story about Dale Sr.’s Cup debut, which came in the 1975 World 600, involving a bottle of nitrous oxide and modified air filter.
Dale Jr. speaks of the regret of never getting to know his grandfather, as Ralph passed away a year before his birth. He goes on to share a heartfelt story about watching an old film of the 1965 Charlotte 250 with his Dad at his race shop, which shows the only interview known to exist with Ralph. Earnhardt fans will surely enjoy this episode.
Earlier in the episode, Dale Jr. and Mike Davis chat about Noah Gragson’s huge victory at Martinsville and the young driver’s ability to deal with low points and capitalize in high-stakes races. Dale Jr also talks about his recent test of the Next Gen car at Bowman Gray Stadium and clears the air on a timing discrepancy with Clint Bowyer. During the Ask Jr. portion of the show, listeners ask Dale his opinion on Denny Hamlin crashing Alex Bowman’s burnout celebration at Martinsville, as well as his thoughts on how non-playoffs drivers have been racing against playoffs drivers in general. All of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.