When Earl Sadler was considering starting a racing team, he sought advice from legendary owner/driver Junior Johnson. Now, Johnson advised Sadler to run a race team like a business — control costs and make careful, calculated decisions.
Sadler thanked Johnson, then went out and threw the advice to the winds.
He raced from the heart. He delighted in giving young, green drivers a chance, taking risks on kids no other owner would take.
And he was rewarded by watching more than 20 of “his boys” advance their careers, including seven who made it to NASCAR’s Big League.
Sadler, 87, died on Christmas Eve. But his legacy lives on in the lives of drivers whose careers he nurtured.
“He was a great guy who would give you the shirt of his back,” said Sterling Marlin, one of Sadler’s early drivers who went on to win two Daytona 500s.
“My dad loved racing and he enjoyed helping young guys get started,” said Sadler’s son, Check. “Dad would follow their career with pride. He called them 'my boys.' ”
The seven Sadler Racing graduates who went on to race in NASCAR’s Cup Series were Marlin, Davey Allison, Michael Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield, Jeff Green and both Bobby Hamiltons — Sr. and Jr. Another promising young driver, Mike Alexander, had his career cut short by injury.
“Dad never had any hard feelings when some big-time team took away his driver,” Check said. “He realized that we had limited resources and could take a driver only so far. He was glad to see them get a big break.”
Sadler was a history buff who traced his roots back nine generations to five Sadler brothers who arrived from England before the Revolutionary War. He was born in the quaintly named town of Bug Tussel on the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
Following a World War II hitch in the Air Force, Sadler was vacationing in Florida when he saw his first auto race, a sand-slinging battle on the Daytona Beach Course. He was mesmerized.
“It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen,” Sadler recalled years later. “I made up my mind that I wanted to be part of it.”
Sadler started his first racing team in 1983 in Spartanburg, S.C. He moved it to the Maury County racing shop of Coo Coo Marlin, then to Bristol, then in 1987 to its final location on Murfreesboro Road.
Over the decades Sadler prospered in real estate, auto dealerships and trucking but his heart remained in racing.
“I never drove anything but a truck,” Sadler said, “but I always admired race drivers. They have the ability to do something that most us could never do.”
In addition to ability, an aspiring young driver has to have some help along the way, someone who believes in him enough to give him a chance. Earl Sadler believed.