West Virginia is going to be able to claim a piece of the Earnhardt family car racing legacy, thanks to the hospitality of some Mountain State folks who took a liking to a young man from North Carolina.
Visit Chavela Simmons’ Pawn Shop or barbershop in Kanawha City on a weekday, and you’re likely to bump into Bobby Dale Earnhardt helping her out with office tasks.
Simmons, who owns the All-N-One pawn shop and the Drive-In Barbershop, is Earnhardt’s first sponsor in West Virginia, but she’s also a bit of a mom to the 24-year-old transplant from Morris Hill, N.C., who moved here in February seeking a training facility.
“I just really loved it up here — it’s right up my alley,” Earnhardt said of West Virginia.
Simmons is the one who drives with Earnhardt to the Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne twice a week so he can train on the dirt track with his coach and other sponsor, Frank Wilson, a promoter and former NASCAR racer who helps run the racetrack.
Together, Simmons and Wilson hope to see Earnhardt progress from dirt track to asphalt and from a few meager sponsors to the big-dollar support it takes to join the NASCAR circuit, just as the young driver’s uncle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his late grandfather, Dale Earnhardt, did.
Wilson believes this Earnhardt also has what it takes.
“Right off the bat, you could see that he has talent,” Wilson said.
Earnhardt also has been told time and again that he looks strikingly like his grandfather, who died in a crash during the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February 2001.
Earnhardt is the son of Kerry Earnhardt, the half-brother of Dale Jr. It’s a complicated family tree and one that has had its share of fallings out.
Yet Earnhardt has fond memories of his grandfather.
“The January before he went to Daytona, he and my dad and I went hunting and I shot my first deer,” he said.
Earnhardt has a racing name, but he’s determined to earn his way into NASCAR.
“If you want to do it the right way and make a living at it, you have to work your way from the ground up. You appreciate it. I want to do it the way my grandfather did,” he said.
To that end, he has been driving to Tyler County on Wednesdays and Saturdays for night training, usually driving back to Charleston right after.
He’s eager to get in “seat time,” taking training tips by radio from Wilson the whole time.
Wilson is planning to put Earnhardt in his first official race Aug. 31 at the Tyler County track, where Earnhardt will run a 2012 Kryptonite Race Car.
“Then we’ll try to get him in 12 races through the end of the season in February, all over West Virginia and probably eastern Ohio and southern Pennsylvania,” Wilson said.
The progression to NASCAR will take two to three years, Wilson estimates. That’s because Earnhardt has to prove himself every step of the way, from dirt track to asphalt, where his next step would be the ARCA racing series. If he’s successful there, he could be assigned a NASCAR development person.
“They would sign him and follow him through a rookie season,” Wilson explained. “They watch him and approve him to go on to the next track. Every NASCAR driver does this - even Jeff Gordon has to do that.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is the goal, of course, and for that Earnhardt needs skills and lots of sponsors.
Simmons and Wilson say if Earnhardt is as successful as they believe he can be, those sponsors will come knocking. So will the fans.
“Once he hits those tracks, everybody and his brother is going to want to see him,” Simmons said. She envisions organized bus trips to see Earnhardt race. Already, there are T-shirts and die-cast cars printed with his race number, 33.
She has seen customers become tearful when they see Earnhardt and recognize his resemblance to his grandfather.
“It’s all about West Virginia supporting him and helping him build his base,” she said. “West Virginia has a lot of NASCAR fans. This is just the start.”
For his part, Earnhardt plans to be patient and play to his strengths.
“Probably my biggest strength is determination and the will to learn. I adapt very quickly. When I put on the driver’s suit, I’m a whole new person.”