Back in 1979, before he was the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt was a hard-driving, hard-living 27-year-old rookie with obvious talent who was in dire need of taming. That's when he met Jake Elder. On April 1 of that year Earnhardt won his first career race, in his third start with Elder. Afterward Elder told him, "Stick with me, kid, and we'll both be wearing diamonds as big as horse turds." The next year Earnhardt won the first of his seven NASCAR championships. Elder wasn't around to celebrate; he had left the team in the middle of the 1980 season.
A peripatetic garage savant who never learned to read or write, Elder, who died last week at 73 after a lengthy illness, bounced around so many teams that he picked up the nickname Suitcase Jake. Though autocratic, Elder was at his best working with young drivers. His charges exacted revenge at the dinner table; because Elder couldn't read a menu, they occasionally tricked him into pointing at and thus ordering a dish such as liver and onions.
At race time, though, novices paid attention, because Elder had a gift for setting up a car. "When you got in and you went around the racetrack, you drove the car, the car didn't drive you," says Darrell Waltrip, another future champion who worked with Elder. Suitcase Jake carried two tape measures: one for when a car was racing on short tracks, another for longer tracks. On the blank side he made a series of markings with a felt-tip pen that corresponded with various points on the vehicle. Elder would unroll the tape measure, hold it up against the car, tinker with the body a little, and the end result would be a perfect setup—of a car and a young driver. "Jake made my career," says Waltrip. "And he made Dale's too."