Danny “Chocolate” Myers comes to his passionate love of stock car racing naturally.
After all, it’s been just about the only thing he’s known and embraced—the good, the bad, the unspeakably tragic—for most of his 72 years.
He was just 8 when his 30-year-old father, Bobby (pictured below left), died in a multi-car backstretch accident driving for Lee Petty in the 1957 Southern 500 at Darlington. Seven months later, his 33-year-old uncle, 1954 NASCAR Modified champion Billy, died of a heart attack while racing at Bowman Gray Stadium in the family’s hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. Those deaths seemed to have forged an even stronger bond between the family and racing.
There’s been at least one Myers competing at Bowman Gray almost every weekend since it opened in 1949. Brothers Bobby and Billy were first, followed by second-generation driver Gary (Billy’s son), and continues with Gary’s sons, third-generation stars Burt and Jason. And there are teenage and pre-teen Myers kids waiting to extend the family tradition.
Records are sometimes sketchy, but it’s generally accepted that the family has upwards of 200 victories and maybe a dozen championships at the quarter-mile bullring inside a football stadium. Perhaps surprisingly, none of them came from Chocolate, the eldest of Bobby’s sons. (BTW: the nickname came at age 12 from a football coach in recognition of his dark complexion from Cherokee bloodlines. Nobody calls him Danny more than once).
“Yeah, I wanted to be a race-car driver, too, so I tried it,” Myers says of his short-lived career in the mid- to late-’60s. “And I can’t use the excuse that I didn’t have anybody to show me what to do. I enjoyed it and had a good time, but I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing. I started in the $99 Claiming Division, then went straight to the (infamous and highly competitive) Modified class. That Modified car lasted about two weeks before it was destroyed.”
Despite that early setback, Myers went on to make quite a name for himself as perhaps NASCAR’s most famous over-the-wall crewman. For two decades he worked at Richard Childress Racing, earning the unofficial title “America’s Gasman” for refueling the No. 3 Chevrolet for seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt. Myers was there for all of Earnhardt’s 65 victories at RCR and each of their six championships together. He retired in 2002 after watching his close friend die on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
He’s currently curator of the RCR Museum in Welcome, N.C. and daily co-host on “Tradin’ Paint” for Sirius Satellite radio. He’s done race commentary for ESPN2, appeared in a handful of television commercials, and worked with Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham on their “Smokey and the Bandit” films. His expansive Wikipedia page calls him “a NASCAR personality.”
People in the garage know him as a big-hearted, gregarious, fan-friendly, easily approachable man who’s fervently proud of his family’s name.
Perhaps appropriately, he and Childress met and became friends working at Bowman Gray. As teenagers, they got in free by selling peanuts and programs in the grandstands. Shortly after Childress began racing a $99 Claimer car, Myers began racing one as well. When Childress went to Modifieds, Myers (briefly) followed suit. In 1969, when Childress made the leap to NASCAR’s fledging “pony car” Grand American class, Myers tagged along to help.
Years later, after briefly drifting from racing, Myers landed a crewman’s job at RCR.
“Richard needed a gasman for this Earnhardt fellow,” he says. “I’m a pretty big man (he easily goes a burly 6-4 and 250), so I got the job. I worked in the shop as a general mechanic all week, then refueled Dale’s car on weekends during the years we won races and championships. Back then, things weren’t as specialized as they are now. I did a little of everything.”
Indeed… he’s seen it all and done it all, and has strong opinions about the state of modern-day NASCAR. Almost without fail, he says racing today is better than ever because the playing field is more level and parts and pieces are almost bullet-proof. That forces drivers to run hard from the start rather than riding somewhat leisurely until they have to get serious.
“I get in a lot of trouble with old-timers who tell me how great racing used to be, and they ask why can’t it be that way anymore,” Myers says. “I tell them that, yes, racing was great back then; it really was. But also tell them that what worked back then would not work today. What we have now (stage points, double-file restarts, “lucky dog” wave-arounds, overtimes, and green-flag finishes) gives us drama and excitement the whole race. Back in the day you might have only one car finishing on the lead lap.
“Passing wasn’t that hard when Richard Petty was racing. You know why? Because Richard might have been 50 miles an hour faster than some of the cars he was passing. When you look at today’s teams, the good teams, the well-funded teams, and the underfunded teams are all running pretty close to each other on the track. That’s because the playing field is so much more level than it’s ever been.”
Myers contends that the most successful drivers of decades ago had it relatively easy compared to today’s best.
“David Pearson, a man I loved, a great racer … what was he known for?” he asks. “He was famous for not racing hard until he had to. He didn’t race hard all the time. In today’s racing world we have cars and parts that simply do not break. You can run as hard as you want from the start of the race to the end of the race, and nothing breaks. Throw in stage points and now you’ve absolutely got to race as hard as you can right from the start. There is no time to take a break and ride along like there used to be.”
Speaking of never taking a break…
Myers unabashedly stands behind Earnhardt as the sport’s greatest driver. Maybe surprisingly to some, it has as much to do with how he won seven Cups, 76 races, and amassed his enormous fan following, a following less showy but more authentic than Bill Elliott’s. One gets the impression Myers will argue that Earnhardt was the most important driver in Cup Series history.
“It’s got as much to do with everything he did off the track,” he says. “Everything we do today – and I mean everything – comes back to ‘what would Dale think about this?’ or ‘what would Dale do about this?’ Everything goes back to what he accomplished and how he did it. He put on a show. He kept people excited and interested; there was always drama around him. He’d win a race—or maybe not win—and the next day people would still be talking about what he’d done in that race.
“For building this sport and making things happen and moving this sport forward, Dale Earnhardt is the one who did all that. A lot of what they did back then was based on Dale Earnhardt and a lot of what’s going on today is still based on what he thought or did.”
And, finally, this from Chocolate:
“I wasn’t at Darlington the day my father got killed in 1957. I was only 8, but I remember listening to the race on the radio at my grandmother’s house. They talked about the wreck and my grandmother began crying, and I’m thinking that my dad had been hurt a lot and maybe he’d been hurt again. I didn’t think much about it at the time he wrecked.
“Even before that, I had dreamed (growing up) about being a race-car driver and going to Darlington and winning the Southern 500. And being able to go there as a crewman with the team that won that first Southern 500 with Richard and Dale in 1986, was really a dream come true. For me personally, it was one of the most emotional races I’d ever been part of.”
Do you have a Chocolate Myers story to share? Do you remember him at Dale Earnhardt’s side whenever things got tough at RCR? Join in the conversation below. Never a bad time to share a Dale story from back in the day!