Earnhardt steers show at National Press Club NASCAR star draws two standing ovations

June 17, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It was nice to see Dale Earnhardt smile yesterday, even nervously.

The Intimidator came here to address the National Press Club and said it was he, not club members, who was intimidated.

"It is intimidating to stand up here and talk," he said, after becoming the first stock car driver ever to address the group and have his speech broadcast live on C-Span. "When they first asked me, I asked them, 'Are you sure you want me up there?' I don't get really excited about too much off the race track. But really, I had trouble sleeping last night. I kept waking up and thinking about it and wondering, 'What am I going to talk to those people about?'

"I've only got an eighth-grade education and to be speaking to the National Press Club. Well, I knew I couldn't talk politics. But I can talk racing, where we come from and where we're going."

So it was that Mr. Earnhardt came to Washington and just about swept the media and guests gathered in the 13th-floor ballroom off their feet.

He talked about himself and his sport, about how he got to be a seven-time champion with more than $32 million in earnings just from races won.

That impressed the listeners.

"I've been at all of these luncheons," said Ed Ilgenfritz, a Baltimorean who works in the audio-visual department at the Press Club. "I've never seen two standing ovations for anybody else before. And most of the time, the big guys who come here are surrounded by staff that don't even allow anyone to approach for autographs."

Earnhardt, who will race with the rest of the Winston Cup Series drivers at Pocono International Raceway this weekend, was obviously enjoying himself. It was a pleasant moment in a long year in which he has had little to smile about since winning the Daytona 500 -- for the first time in 20 tries -- last February.

This was a warm exchange between Earnhardt and the crowd, which laughed easily at his jokes.

Earnhardt had his photo taken with members. He signed autographs. He answered questions that addressed everything from restrictor plates to road rage.

How would Dale Earnhardt advise area residents to avoid getting angry on the highway? That brought a laugh from Earnhardt, who just last week lost his temper when fellow driver Rusty Wallace caused him to crash during a practice session at Michigan International Speedway.

"I guess you could say I've experienced road rage," he said, sheepishly. "I guess the best thing you can do is what we're told in the drivers' meetings before races: 'You've got to give a little.' Just be nice and hope the other guy is, too."

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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