Ralph Lee Earnhardt was born on 23rd February, 1928 in Kannapolis, Cabarrus County in North Carolina, the youngest of four sons, to John Henderson and Effie Mae Earnhardt. The family were part of the farming community and on leaving school Ralph worked in one of the cotton mills for several years. The wages and conditions were poor and one of the ways to get out of the situation was to race.
During his later teens he began to build cars in the family garage with the intention of racing one on the local dirt tracks eventually starting in 1949. In 1953, at the age of twenty five Ralph turned professional and began his quintessential career, making a huge impression in the world of racing very quickly.
His first race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series took place on the 11th of November, 1956 when he finished second to Speedy Thompson in the Grand National (now the Sprint Cup Series) at Hickory Speedway, North Carolina. Also in 1956, he won his first NASCAR Sportsman title, a year in which he gained 32 victories.
Over his career, he held track championships at seven different venues. 1961 saw Ralph have his highest finish in the Grand National point standings, at 17th, and also saw him filling in for Cotton Owens as a relief driver in the Daytona 500, covering more than 300 miles and finishing in 5th place. His awards include:- Ralph was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 1989, the same weekend that Dale Sr. won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Alabama, in 1997 and, along with his son Dale Sr., was named as one of NASCAR’s “50 Greatest Drivers”. During the 1998 celebration of NASCAR’s 50th Anniversary, in 2004 Ralph was an inductee in the Oceanside Rotary Club of Daytona Beach Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame and inductee in the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in 2007.
His son, Dale Sr. later said about the award that he shared with his father, “This has been a very special time for me and for our family. I wish he could have been here to see all of this.” During an interview with Buck Knight of the Free Lance Star, Fredericksburg, Virginia on Friday the 25th of August 1967 Ralph was asked if he would like to drive on the Grand National circuit he replied, “It would be great fun to drive on the super speedways but the Grand National league is a bit rich for my blood – meaning my pocket book. It’s quite different from driving a sportsman car on short tracks but not so great that a man can’t make the switch. The major difference that I found is that on the superspeedways a man has to stay extra cool and extra-wide-awake. No time for easing up, taking a rest”.
In the old days Ralph raced with the old veterans such as Joe Weatherly, Buck Baker and Curtis Turner and many others. “The sport is a lot different than it was in those days, when I was starting out a fellow heard about the races coming up by the grapevine, or by a phone call from a friend or the promoter. Purses were mighty small and now and then a promoter took it on the lam before the pay-off. No-one will ever know what NASCAR has meant to racing, it made a haphazard affair into a business, and brought safety to a game where there was very little if any.”
When asked if he had any thoughts of retiring from NASCAR racing, he replied, “I feel fine and I believe I am driving better than I ever did, I should be, a man learns something every race he drives and I drive three times a week. Ralph had an interest in the up and coming young guns and it was he who started Bobbie Isaacs in the racing business. Ralph provided the guidance that started his son’s career in racing while growing up in southern North Carolina and Dale Sr. from a very early age wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Sadly, Ralph Earnhardt died of a heart attack at his home on the 26th September 1973 at the age of 45. He was found by his wife, Martha, on the kitchen floor not as people like to believe, working on a car in the garage and found by his son, Dale Sr. He left behind his wife, Martha, sons Dale as Dale Sr. and Danny and two daughters, Martha Kay and Kathy Lee. He was the grandfather of Dale Jr, and Kerry Earnhardt.