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ESPN movie tells life story of legendary Dale Earnhardt

Posted: Wednesday, December 08, 2004

 

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  The filmmakers shot scenes on location at tracks like the North Carolina Speedway (right). photos Courtesy of ESPN

Barry Pepper portrays Dale Earnhardt in the made-for-TV movie 3 that airs Saturday night on ESPN.

photos Courtesy of ESPN

After all, his success on the track was much like the man himself, a complex tale of twisted fenders and broken relationships that created a figure that made him one of the most loved and misunderstood people in American sports history.

ESPN did a good job of tackling the job of telling his story in "3," which premiers at 9 p.m. Saturday. It shows a different side of Earnhardt, one that's troubled by a tough father, a pair of failed marriages and a lost relationship with his own children.

Don't tune in Saturday night expecting to see a lot of racing. That part of Earnhardt's life can be found in history books.

"We never planned on going any other way than the personal story," said Mark Shapiro, ESPN's vice president of programming and production. "It isn't just a legend; it's tangible. Let's get underneath all the imagery and corporate makeup. What was going to keep the audience was telling the personal tale."The movie essentially skips through his seven NASCAR championships. It focuses instead on his life away from the track.

It opens with a young Earnhardt waiting at the gate of the old Cannon Mill in Kannapolis, N.C. His father, legendary short-track driver and tough guy Ralph Earnhardt, punched a time clock there for years until he walked away to follow his racing dream.

 

The filmmakers shot scenes on location at tracks like the North Carolina Speedway (right).

photos Courtesy of ESPN

A young Dale wanted to follow in his father's footsteps but Ralph, played by J.K. Simmons of "Spider-Man" fame, continually berated his son for dreaming. Dale spent most of his life trying to win his father's approval, but his father died of a heart attack while working on his race car inside his grease-stained garage.

That lack of acceptance and his father's words, "You know why I ride you son. It's because you don't try hard enough," haunted Dale the rest of his life.

Earnhardt went more than 20 years without seeing his first son, Kerry, following his first divorce. He was tough on Dale Jr. and Kelly from his second marriage, highlighted by a scene when Dale stood three feet from a wall and ordered Dale Jr. to drive a go-cart a full speed between his leg and the wall to teach him about fear.

The parallels between Dale and his father, then Dale and his son, are hard to miss. Ralph once told his son, "They can't put it in you, and they can't take it out." Years later, Dale passed that same wisdom to his son.

Barry Pepper did a masterful job portraying Earnhardt. He not only looked like the racing icon, he mastered many of his mannerisms. He admitted this role would be scrutinized like no other. That's why he paid so much attention to every detail, especially the champion's friendship with fellow driver Neil Bonnett.

Shapiro said he got a lot of help from NASCAR and Dale's widow, Teresa, during production. The family had access to the script, he said, and that allowed them to dig a little deeper into the driver's life.

It also allowed Teresa Earnhardt to put a favorable spin on her relationship with Dale Jr. The movie suggests she tried to protect the third-generation driver from his father's iron hand and unrealistic expectations, when the real relationship between Dale Jr. and his step-mother often has been described as something completely different.

While Earnhardt Jr. didn't say whether he's seen the movie in advance, his attitude changed dramatically. Last week all questions about the movie were answered with the same two words: "No comment."

Overall, "3" remains a powerful movie. It did a good job showing the tough and troubled side of a man who never finished high school but wound up winning more than $41.7 million. And only at the end, during a flashback to Ralph Earnhardt leaving the mill and this time embracing his son with a hug and a kiss, do you realize or hope Dale Earnhardt may have found peace before he died.



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