The Earnhardt Factor

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DAYTONA - The first effects of the Earnhardt Factor were felt this past week at Daytona International Speedway.

To drum up media interest in an early-January sportscar test, speedway officials normally would have to offer more than lunch - though that goes a long way. This week, they offered a double serving of Earnhardt - both Junior and Daddy.

Therefore, a Friday afternoon press conference nearly filled the infield media room.

And unless Paul Newman isn't the only part-time actor in the field, the excitement was evident among the drivers who will make up the two Corvette entries in next month's 24 Hours at Daytona. All except Senior Earnhardt played "meet the press"' during the lunch break. He was reportedly off to the doctor to find relief for a head cold (wonder if those things hurt more when your head is made of iron?).

"The more we talked about it, and the more I looked at the car and this type of racing, the more it intrigued me," said Junior, who'll drive the No. 3 (what else?) Corvette with his dad and road-racing veterans Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins. "When my father got excited about it, it got me pumped up even more."

Junior's sportscar-racing education has a broad focus.

On the lightning-quick and powerful throttle response of the Corvette, as opposed to the carburetor-restricted power he's accustomed to at Daytona: "It's a lot of fun, but it can be your enemy in the long run."

And braking as you cross the start/finish line in order to enter the road course: "Entering Turn 1, it's a turn you have to respect. You can get the car really upset," said Junior. “I'm learning something new every lap. I'm pretty excited about it."

Not as excited as Collins, whose career includes class wins at Daytona and Sebring, two of the big three endurance races.

"Let's put it this way," said Collins. "Somewhere down the line, when I'm retired, I'll be able to say, 'I drove with these guys.' To me, that's rocking-chair equity."

Collins is also impressed by the enjoyment and professionalism shown by the two stock-car hot-rodders. On several levels, this can be considered a business decision by the Earnhardts, who figure to parlay this into a certain amount of profit. But still, they're racers, and the brutish No. 3 Corvette is a race car.

"They're very excited," said Collins. "Dale Sr. seems more excited than the kid when he gets out of the car. Junior is serious and very focused."

For Pilgrim, a native Brit, this sounds as if it's on par with sharing a ride with, say, Nigel Mansell or Graham Hill.

"It's very cool," said Pilgrim. "It's hard to put it into easy terms. I've road-raced my whole life. I was born in England, but I'm now a U.S. citizen. I've been here 20 years. I knew about Dale Earnhardt before I came to the States. He's a legend. There's no two ways about it. The guy's achieved legend status for what he has done."

As you might suspect, no one is as jacked up about the Earnhardt participation than Doug Fehan, program manager for General Motors' heavily-financed Corvette effort. It wasn't, however, a slam dunk. There were headaches and decisions to make.

"Anytime you bring in a team of two guys that are as accomplished as the Earnhardts, but who have never participated at this level of sport, there's going to be some difficulties," said Fehan. "I outlined to management all the things that I thought could go wrong. When I got done with that, they said, 'Does this mean we shouldn't do it.' I said, 'Absolutely not. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.'

"I just wanted to let them know what the rules are and what we have to overcome to succeed. I had not worked with them nor had I met them. At the first test at Sebring, I can tell you I was very surprised. These two guys are absolutely, totally dedicated to succeeding in this event."

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