David Blanton, one of Earnhardt’s closest outdoor friends, offers a glimpse into the private life of a passionate outdoorsman, a scenario very different than his iconic public image.
I first met Dale in 1992 at a hunting lodge in Michigan where I was filming whitetails,” began David Blanton. “The Realtree TV show had just started and I was getting deer behavioral footage. The guys at the lodge mentioned that Dale was coming in to hunt. I had heard the name and knew that he was a racer but I didn’t know much about NASCAR or Dale. After rattling, grunting and videoing all of the next day, I came back to the lodge and set up a station with a monitor and forms to log footage. I was lugging all the camera gear down to the basement when Dale held one of the doors open for me. After dinner, I gathered my stuff and went back down to the basement. Later, Dale joined me and introduced himself.
“What are you doing,” he asked with sincere interest.
‘I’m logging deer footage.’
He pulled up a stool and I soon found out that he had come down here to escape the hustle of the lodge and the attention people were giving him. Dale was in the public spotlight and he didn’t like that. He tolerated it, yet not something he craved. He came down for some peace and quiet. We talked into the wee hours of the morning about where he lived, the fence he put up to raise deer and about deer hunting. I really saw how much he loved deer. I think the fact that I was not in awe of him as a racer was the reason we hit it off so big from day one.
“I will be hunting in the morning,” said Dale as we finally headed up stairs. “Why don’t you bring your camera?” We started by rattling deer. He was intrigued by how we set up our equipment and that I could move around in the woods so quietly. He appreciated that. He started rattling and I had a grunt call that held deer for better footage, the first time he had seen a grunt call. “Let me see that call,” Earnhardt said. It was his first grunt call and he was surprised what it could do. He was amazed. I ended up filming him killing a deer and then we went our separate ways.
Two years later, he called me at work. In the meantime, I had started following racing more and began to understand the super star that he was. I was impressed. We began hunting together and going to North Carolina to film deer. We always had such a big time together.
Our relationship was centered on hunting. He didn’t have many close relationships in his life where he didn’t feel like he was being used because he was a racing super star. He felt very suspicious. It wasn’t racing, but deer that brought us together. I spent time at his place in North Carolina where a very deep friendship developed. It continued through the years and we hunted together in Texas, Mexico, Michigan, Iowa, Utah, and each spring we in Georgia for turkeys. I always gave Dale his room because he hunted like he drove- with very little patience, wide open. That didn’t go hand in hand with videoing. There were times when Dale and I really disagreed. He tried to hunt like he raced, with little regard for the camera. We clashed several times, but the fact that I was not in awe of him strengthened our friendship.
Catching deer hunts on tape was a special challenge. If a really big deer showed up I would get very little footage before Dale shot. We had been hunting two or three days in Michigan for whitetails, when suddenly, we looked up and saw a big deer coming through a hardwood bottom. Dale got real excited and threw up his gun.
‘Wait a minute Dale. I can’t find it,’ I said, all the while rolling footage. I knew I had to do something to stall him. “You better get on him quick,” said Dale. “I’m fixing to shoot.”
I’m still getting footage. “Get on him, David,” said Dale in frustration. Finally, I said ‘OK’, and boom! Dale knew he shot too early. Back at the lodge, we reviewed the tape and Dale started seeing that I had some awesome footage. He looked at me and realized, he’d been had. I had snookered him a little bit. He hauled off and hit me in the arm. He was always hitting on you if he liked you. Everybody had a big laugh.
As the years progressed, Dale genuinely became more and more interested in what we were doing at Realtree. It ultimately led to an endorsement contract with Realtree and a relationship with Bill Jordan.
Dale always, talked to me about priorities in life; he’d call me up and say, “David, how much you been traveling?” he’d ask, knowing that it was fall and I traveled a lot. He’d always talk about keeping my family first. “Don’t let your career become more important than your family,” he’d advise, asking in particular about my wife Ginger. He was such a genuinely thoughtful person and very few people knew that outside of his family. We talked about family and life while hunting.
The next week I’d go to the racetrack and see a different person. It took a few years to understand. The first time I went to a NASCAR race, I was astounded by the demands of the media and the public. Fanatical fans would wait outside for just a glimpse of Dale. The demands of his time from the media were incredible. This was in the mid 90’s before NASCAR really took off. I saw a different Dale at the track.
As the years progressed I began to understand that the Dale at the track was not the man who was my friend. When Dale arrived to race, he put up a shield because people hounded him constantly. “You know,” Dale said, “I didn’t want to be a super star. I never wanted to be on a pedestal. I just wanted to race for a living.” That was Dale’s way of saying he was uncomfortable with the attention people gave him. When someone would suck up to him, it would turn him off. If he went on a hunt and race fans were there, it really turned him off when they talked about NASCAR. He wanted to be outside of that world and be just one of the guys. That’s one of the reasons we got along so well.
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