by Bobby Markos
(Dale Earnhardt and Will Cronkrite)
The sport of stock car racing was founded on humble beginnings, and the same can be said for one of its biggest names: Earnhardt. Family patriarch Ralph was a dirt racer, finding much success on the Carolina dirt tracks and even racking up a NASCAR Sportsman title in 1956. When Dale Earnhardt Sr. tried to make his entry into the Cup racing circuit in the mid-70s, he didn’t have much reputation to borrow on. In fact, had it not been for another driver’s ride falling through, the legend that is Earnhardt may have not happened at all.
If you’ve watched the Download before, you’ve probably wondered what the significance of the white and red number 96 car on the table, parked alongside some of the most recognizable rides in the history of NASCAR. On this week’s episode, Dale Jr. and co-host Mike Davis sit down with the man behind the car, Will Cronkrite.
The conversation unfolds an amazing story from 1978, when a relatively unknown Dale Sr. reached out to Will about a ride for the World 600. The car was originally intended for Willy T. Ribbs through a deal with promoter Humpy Wheeler, but when the Ribbs deal fell through and the seat was vacated, Cronkrite’s phone rang.
Will explains that he had met Dale Sr. at the Earnhardt family house one night, where they sat on the back porch and talked about spring failures and how to make them stronger. Will told Dale Sr. that it wasn’t up to him, the decision on a replacement driver would be up to Wheeler, as he was the main proponent in the Carolina Tractor sponsored 96 car. After a couple more phone calls, it was set in stone, and before Will knew it Dale Sr. and a 3 ½ year old “scrawny” Dale Jr. were in his race shop, getting the car prepared for the upcoming marathon race.
Listeners can expect some incredible Earnhardt family folklore from this episode, as well as an intimate look into some of NASCAR’s early racing teams. Cronkrite recalls his early years in the sport working for Nichels Engineering, where he reveals some wild details like being paid in diamonds and ending up in jail in Gary, Indiana one night.
He also speaks about his time with some of NASCAR’s biggest characters like Benny Parsons, Joe Frasson, Donnie Allison and Ralph Moody. Cronkrite also fills Dale and Mike in on his brush with Hollywood, as he worked behind the scenes on “Stroker Ace” and has some amazing stories about Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson.
Earlier in the episode, Dale and Mike have an intimate conversation about married life and making the mental switch from “mine” to “ours”. Dale also takes time to answer listener’s questions on “Ask Jr”. All of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this site and all major podcast platforms.
Additional reading about our guest:
Will Cronkrite was born in Howell, Michigan and lived in nearby Brighton during his childhood. His family moved to Middletown, Ohio when his father got a new electrical engineering job. He played sports like football and basketball, but was really drawn to go-kart racing. After acquiring his first kart, Will’s father eventually took him to a track because he was tearing up the yard with his practice laps. It was there that Will discovered his love for the sport and competing.
Will also proved to be a gearhead, and learned about engines by taking his kart engine apart and putting it back together again. He would go on to become a draftsman in the 60s and worked in steel building construction. In 1969, tragedy struck and Will lost his wife and daughters in a car accident while moving to Lebanon, Ohio. The catastrophe led Will to rethink his entire life, and he realized he wanted to submerge his mind in mechanical work.
Cronkrite went to work for Howard Milliken, helping prepare his team for the Indianapolis 500. Once the race had completed, he then moved up north to Griffith, Indiana, where he would take a position working for the famed Nichels Engineering. In 1972, Will followed Ron Puryear down to North Carolina and began wrenching for Benny Parsons.
The 70s saw him bounce from team to team, working for the likes of Joe Frasson, Cecil Gordon, Donnie Allison and Ralph Moody. In 1978, Cronkrite put together a car for Humpy Wheeler in a deal with Carolina Tractor to sponsor Willy T. Ribbs. When Ribbs was unable to race, the ride was filled by Dale Earnhardt Sr., and the duo would go on to race four times together that season, including Earnhardt’s first career Cup top-10, a 7th place in the Firecracker 400.
Earnhardt would go on to work with Rod Osterlund in 1979, and Cronkrite would continue to dabble in the NASCAR garages. In 1983, he worked behind the scenes on the film “Stroker Ace”, helping to prepare the cars shown in the movie.
Today Will is mostly retired, but travels the country promoting his book “I Was A NASCAR Redneck”, which preserves all of his incredible stories.