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JAN 28, 2014

Inside The Oval: Looking Back On Good Times With Dale Jarrett

DH_Wins_Daytona500_1170

By Dan Zacharias
Ford Racing Public Relations

It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ Dale Jarrett was going to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it was only a question of ‘when’ and that ‘when’ happens to be this week as members of the fifth inductee class take their place among stock car racing’s all-time greats in Uptown Charlotte.

I had the pleasure of working with Dale from the time I started my NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in 1997 until he left Robert Yates Racing after the 2006 season.  During that time, I was fortunate to see him win a lot of races and that still-memorable championship in 1999 while also witnessing a competitive fire that only the great ones possess. In particular, a post-race altercation with Jeff Gordon at New Hampshire in 1999 and that infamous Brickyard 400 in 1998 when he ran out of gas while having the field covered instantly come to mind.

But what I’ll remember most are some of the moments we shared away from the track. 

Every Jarrett fan pretty much knows about his golfing ability and how he potentially could have been battling Phil or Tiger for a Master’s green jacket, instead of winning three Daytona 500s. But you’ll find nobody who possesses a better all-around knowledge of sports.   You want to talk ACC Basketball?  He’ll be able to tell you anything you want to know, especially if the topic is his beloved North Carolina Tar Heels.  Major League Baseball? He’ll hit the ball out of the park, which is something he would like to see more of from his New York Yankees in 2014.

I remember one night he and I, along with team public relations representative Danielle Frye, went to watch the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets play an NBA game a couple of days before practice was set to start at Texas Motor Speedway in 1999.  Arrangements were made to have Dale participate in the pre-game ceremonial jump ball and a free-throw shooting contest between quarters as a way of helping promote the race that weekend.

We were standing at our courtside seats talking as the two teams came out for warm-ups.  Lo and behold, here comes Charles Barkley to say hello.  Being an Alabama native he knew all about NASCAR and started talking to Dale like he had known him his entire life.  Danielle even got into the conversation by proudly telling him she hailed from Pell City, Alabama.

After Sir Charles left to go work on some free throws, it was Shawn Bradley’s turn to come by and say a few words.  It was rare to see Dale looking up at anyone because at 6’2” he was always one of the taller drivers on the circuit, but EVERYONE looks up to Bradley, who was listed in the game program at 7-feet-6.  Little did we know that he was a diehard NASCAR fan and just wanted to come over and introduce himself.

Dale was arguably one of the top two or three stars in the sport during that period and while demands on his time increased, he understood the big picture and always did what was in the best interest of NASCAR.

We were at what was then known as the RCA Dome in Indianapolis for a Ford Fan Appreciation event in which drivers would sign autographs and answer questions.  We always invited media to these sessions and Dale was generally the most requested for one-on-one time.

Well, we had packed a lot into his two-hour block and I was concerned that we had overloaded him to the point where he might have to go beyond that to get everything done.

As I met him and went through myriad activities, I braced myself for the worst. Instead, he blew me away by simply saying, “Whatever you need me to do. I’m here for you.”

Even more impressive was the way he went about that two-hour period. He not only sat and signed autographs, but looked everyone in the eyes, especially little kids, and chatted with them along the way.  Trust me, not every driver takes the time to do that, but Dale always got it and knew the impact he could have on people of all ages.

Dale Jarrett will always be a Ford man to me, and I think that’s how most people will remember him and his career.  And while he will be taking up permanent residency on the second floor of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his primary address will remain an unmistakable 11-story glass building in Dearborn, Michigan.

Congratulations, DJ. 

Dan Zacharias is a member for the Ford Racing Public Relations staff.

  • 16 years on the NASCAR beat for Ford Racing
  • Faster than a speeding bullet when it comes to transcribing driver interviews
  • Able to leap pit wall in a single bound during post-race mayhem