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ROLEX 24: The Final Podium, Pt. 1
Written by: Marshall Pruett
Date: 01/25/2011 - 12:44 PM
Location: Fremont, CA
A lot has been written on the life of Dale Earnhardt in the decade since his death at the 2001 Daytona 500, and most of it has centered on his contribution to NASCAR and the profound impact he had on the sport’s growth.

Memories and recollections of ‘3’ have been reserved for his contribution to NASCAR, but for a brief period in January of 2001, Earnhardt and his son Dale Jr. belonged to the world of sports car racing.

With the pairing of the Earnhardts, Corvette Racing, GM factory road racing drivers Kelly Collins and Andy Pilgrim and the aptly-numbered No. 3 Corvette C5-R, the 7-time Sprint Cup champion added an indelible page to the endurance racing history books by competing in the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

Many chapters could be written on Earnhardt’s foray into the storied 24-hour event, but rather than delve into the minutia with all of the managers, crew members and support personnel who contributed to the effort, we’ve chosen to let his teammates— Collins and Pilgrim — tell the tale from a few different angles.

“He was trying harder than anyone”

The quick bond and brotherhood that formed between one of the most famous athletes on the continent and two relatively unknown sports car drivers was a surprise at the time, but even a decade later, Collins and Pilgrim consider themselves — even in the most informal sense — to be protectors and custodians of Earnhardt’s all-too brief turn as a sports car driver.

Looking at how Earnhardt’s participation at the Rolex 24 has been characterized over the past 10 years, it has often been cited as a marketing ploy — a gimmick from Chevrolet to draw attention to their new Corvette sports car program. And while there were heavy promotional motivations behind bringing NASCAR’s biggest star to compete at the Rolex 24, labeling Earnhardt as a token contributor behind the steering wheel is a surefire way to anger Collins.

“That was not the truth at all,” he said. “Everybody collaborated together with Dale to do this thing and of course we wanted to get people to come to the sports car race; Dale was a draw anywhere he went. But anyone who paints him as a fish out of water in sports cars doesn’t know what they are talking about. What truly transpired is that not only did Dale want to win, but he also wanted to learn. This wasn’t a one-off race for him — it was meant to be the first of many — but I think some people saw that he didn’t match us instantly on lap times and figured he wasn’t trying hard. Believe me; he was trying harder than anyone.”

Collins says Earnhardt came into the Rolex 24 with a lot of unknowns about the experience that awaited him, but by the end of the event, “The Intimidator” started talking seriously about becoming “Le Intimidator.”

“Some of this is known, like Dale wanted to go sports car racing, but I haven’t really spoken about other parts. He said to Andy and I that at the end of [2001] he was either going to complete that year, or do one more year of NASCAR and then retire from it. He wanted to get a couple more Pratt & Miller Corvettes for himself and go to Le Mans.

“He talked about Andy and I driving with him at Le Mans with his motors. He said he wanted to have Dale Earnhardt Inc. build the engines and was really fired up about having his own engines race at Le Mans. He was serious. Think about him going from driving a big, heavy stock car monster to the Corvette. It was like a slot car to him. He dug it. He thought the Corvette was the coolest thing ever.”

In private conversations between the two, Collins says Earnhardt drew his inspiration from some of the other living legends who mastered different forms of racing.

“He was at a stage in his life where he was venturing off. He put his own pressure on himself to do other kinds of racing because he said guys like A.J. Foyt could drive sports cars and NASCAR and IndyCar, and Dale asked what had he done himself other than NASCAR? He wanted to get his name out; he wanted to go to Le Mans big-time. We lost him before he got to do it, but it would have been the best thing ever.”

“It was just like you were meeting an old friend”

Collins, an all-American driver with chiseled featured and heaps of talent, was a natural fit with the Earnhardts.

The fourth and final member of the No. 3 line-up, England’s Andy Pilgrim, might not sound like friendship material for the NASCAR veteran, but as he shares, Earnhardt treated Pilgrim like family from the moment they met.

“The first time I was introduced to Dale was in Charlotte when they unveiled the special Earnhardt Edition Camaro SS and that whole day was an amazing deal. I’ll never forget it. It was also going to be the announcement of the Corvette Rolex 24 race deal with Junior and Senior. The first time we met was basically when he came into the room and introduced himself with a big old smile, big old handshake, and he’d been going on and on about the fact that I did that ‘Pilgrim Pass’ at the Road Atlanta.”

(Pilgrim raced like mad to the last lap of the 10-hour Petit Le Mans event in late 2000, passing the class-leading Dodge Viper in dramatic fashion with only a few corners remaining to take the win for Corvette.)

“Here I am meeting the most famous driver in America, and all he wanted to do was talk about the Pilgrim Pass! It was just like you were meeting an old friend. The funny thing of it was, he’d just won the Talladega race in a big way and all the media and TV people wanted to talk about Talladega, but he’d have none of it. Even I wanted to talk to him about Talladega, but he was really clued in on the Corvette and the sports car stuff. It was just amazing, really.”

As Pilgrim soon found out, once he’d (unknowingly) gained Earnhardt’s trust, his name skyrocketed.

“From that first day we met, he basically dragged me with him to do [ESPN’s] RPM Tonight. He was supposed to go there alone to talk about Talladega, but he took me with him! So we flew out there and then he gets to the studio and obviously they were expecting Dale. Just Dale. And Dale comes in with me and he says, ‘Andy Pilgrim’s with me.’ They said, ‘Well, that’s nice.’ He said, ‘Well, I want Andy to come on with me because I want to talk about the Corvette.’

“The bottom line was, the producers are looking sideways like, ‘Okay, Dale ...’ What else were they going to say to Dale Earnhardt, right? So that night, and because of him, I appeared with Dale on RPM Tonight. It was pretty amazing. He basically took me along and that first day that was it really just a big whirlwind for me to be included in his world.”


Check back Wednesday for Part Two and on Thursday for Part Three of The Final Podium.


Marshall Pruett is SPEED.com’s Auto Racing Editor, and covers IndyCar and sports car racing for the site. In addition to his work at SPEED, Pruett contributes to Road & Track, Racecar Engineering and has co-authored three motor racing books.


Pruett spent 20 years working in the IRL, CART, IMSA, and most of the known open-wheel feeder series before retiring from active duty in 2001. And in case you were wondering, he isn’t related to Scott Pruett.

Marshall lives in Northern California with his wife Shabral, can be e-mailed HERE HERE and you can also harass him on http://twitter.com/marshallpruett’);"> Twitter .

Pictures:http://auto-racing.speedtv.com/article/rolex-24-the-final-podium-pt-1//P2/

Article: http://auto-racing.speedtv.com/article/rolex-24-the-final-podium-pt-1/

Speed TV Schedule:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

02:00 PM CST-09:00 PM CST

Sunday, January 30, 2011

08:00 AM CST-03:00 PM CST
 
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