Ed Negre, who fielded the car Dale Earnhardt drove in his first start in NASCAR’s premier series, died Wednesday in a hospice care center in Longview, Wash. He was 86.
Without drivers such as Negre, who started 338 races in NASCAR’s top series from 1955 to 1979, the fields in NASCAR Cup Series races would have seemed mighty skimpy during the 1970s. Negre, Baxter Price, Frank Warren, Walter Ballard and other “independents” without heavy sponsorship assured there would be full fields at most events, usually meaning competition all the way around the tracks.
Otherwise, the big layouts such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway would have seemed empty.
Negre posted four top-five finishes, 26 top 10s and earned $344,896. His best finish was fourth in a 150-lap race at Portland Speedway in Oregon in 1956, an event won by NASCAR Hall Of Famer Herb Thomas.
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Negre is perhaps best known for providing a car to a young, shy, long-haired driver from Kannapolis named Earnhardt for his first Cup Series start, at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 25, 1975, in the World 600.
Earnhardt finished 22nd that day, Negre was 32nd.
Earnhardt continued on to a storied career, winning seven championships to tie Richard Petty’s record before he was killed in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.
Negre always took pride in what he called a “small part” in helping Earnhardt get started, saying he sensed Earnhardt had what it took to make it big.
Some fans questioned why Negre and other independents expended so much time and energy toward racing when it figured they had little chance of winning against rivals such as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
“I know the answer,” the late 1973 Cup champion Benny Parsons said. “I once raced as an independent. I never started a single time that I didn’t think I somehow could win. That’s the mindset of every driver.”
Negre was born July 16, 1927, in Monett, Mo., to the late Edgar C. and Nellie Samples Negre. At the age of 16 he moved to the Northwest and joined the Merchant Marines, serving during World War II as engineer on a ship. Upon his discharge he founded a logging business in Kelso, Wash.
He began his racing career with NASCAR in 1955 in the Northwest, then moved back to Missouri in ’61 to compete in IMCA, gaining induction into the Ozark Racing Hall Of Fame. He relocated to North Carolina to be nearer the NASCAR big-time in 1967.
During offseasons, Negre sometimes returned to the Northwest and worked driving a big logging truck, a job every bit as dangerous as racing.
One area he hauled from was that near Mount St. Helens, a volcano that erupted in a deadly, devastating blast on May 18, 1980.
“I’m obviously sure thankful I wasn’t anywhere nearby, and I pity anyone who was,” Negre said.
After retiring from racing, Negre returned to the Northwest full time in 1979 and founded Bee Line Truck in Kelso/Longview.
Norman Negre followed his father into NASCAR, serving as his father’s engine builder and handling other jobs in the shop. He is head of fabrication for Stewart-Haas Racing. Norman’s son, Scott, has made it three generations in the sport as an engineer with Stewart-Haas.
He is survived by his wife of 59 years, Faye, four daughters and a son, Norman, who lives in Concord.
At Ed’s request there was to be no service, but his body cremated and the ashes placed with his Samples grandparents’ remains at Longview Memorial Park.
Memorials may be made to Community Health and Hospice, P.O. Box 2067, Longview, Wash., 98632 or to a hospice of choice.