Honoring a Legend: The Story Behind the Kannapolis Intimidators

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As with most baseball stadiums, Intimidators Stadium in Kannapolis, North Carolina, has a standings board that shows up-to-the-minute league results. The board at Intimidators Stadium, home of the South Atlantic League’s Single-A Kannapolis Intimidators, however, is a bit different from what you might find at most ballparks.

“We’ve got a NASCAR Cup Series standings board in the ballpark that we update along with the South Atlantic League leader board,” said Josh Feldman, the team’s director of communications. “We embrace the motorsports racing roots here.”

Photo by Jennifer Gibson / via UNC
Photo by Jennifer Gibson / via UNC

Those motorsports racing roots run deep in Kannapolis, and not just because it’s in the heart of NASCAR country. It’s the hometown of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time Cup Series winner, who is immortalized in a nine-foot bronze statue in Kannapolis’s Dale Earnhardt Tribute Plaza.

Late in 2000, Earnhardt purchased a minority share of the Piedmont Boll Weevils. (Piedmont is the name of the region in which Kannapolis is located, and boll weevils are bugs that eat cotton plants—serious pests in a part of the world that relies on the textile industry.) The team was going through some changes, including switching affiliation from the Phillies to the White Sox, and a new name was in order.

With the hometown hero in the fold as part owner, naming the team in Earnhardt’s honor was a popular choice—not always the case when it comes to sports teams changing identities.

Piedmont Boll Weevils, 1996–2000
Piedmont Boll Weevils, 1996–2000

“Everyone for the most part knew the team’s name was going to change when the affiliation with the Phillies was ending,” Feldman said, pointing out that the Boll Weevils logo was so tied to the Phillies that it had a Phillies P on the bug’s hat. “People were open to a transition, especially with the name that we picked.”

The team’s new name was a reference to Earnhardt’s nickname, The Intimidator, which he earned in the 1980s because of his reputation for driving aggressively in races. “That nickname has a lot of meaning for the folks in this community, and NASCAR fans nationwide,” Feldman said.

While most sports teams adopt nicknames based on animals, weather phenomena, or even groups of people, it’s not typical to see a team named for a specific individual.

“There’s a very small number of minor league teams that are named for people,” Feldman said. “When you get a chance to have a team that’s named for someone who means a lot to the community, who is a sports hero, I think that’s a pretty meaningful thing.”

Photo by official NASCAR photographer Darryl Moran
Photo by official NASCAR photographer Darryl Moran

 

Earnhardt was only a few months into his new role as part owner of the team named in his honor when he was killed in a crash in the final lap of the Daytona 500 on February 18, 2001. The entire sports world felt the loss, but in his hometown and for the tiny team he had just become a part of, it was particularly hard.

“He was going to be more involved,” Feldman said. “Obviously, we never got that opportunity to fulfill that dream and to see him be a part of it.”

Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com
Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com

Earnhardt’s presence is still felt at the ballpark. There’s a number 3 tribute car in front of the stadium, a popular spot for fans to take photos. And speaking of that number 3, you won’t see it on the backs of any Intimidators players at the ballpark.

Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com
Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com

According to Benjamin Hill, who spends the summer months road tripping and writing about stadiums for Minor League Baseball’s Biz Blog, “The Intimidators have retired three numbers, only one of which is in honor of a baseball player. #50 is retired throughout the South Atlantic League in honor of John Henry Moss, who served as league president for 50 years. #42 is retired throughout the entirety of professional baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson. And #3 is, of course, Dale Earnhardt.”

4da2tu846d00k4kd0gg2o1ah6The logo was created in 2001 by Sam Bass, whose claim to fame is that he was the first artist officially licensed by NASCAR. Among much else, he’s created original paintings for nearly 80 consecutive program covers for races at the Charlotte Motor Speedway since 1985.

“I’m a race fan first, who just happens to be a NASCAR/motorsports artist,” Bass said, quoted in USA Today. “NASCAR and the fans allow me to live out my dream of painting, drawing and designing race cars and creating artwork for great drivers and sponsors.”

Bringing Bass in to create the logo for the Intimidators just made sense. “We’ve had NASCAR tied back to early management of the organization,” Feldman said, “so I think from that standpoint, it makes sense that they would use their guy.”

Because it was created by an artist from the motorsports industry, the Intimidators logo has a different feel from minor league baseball’s normal visual vernacular.

“I think it’s different. I think it’s simple,” Feldman said. “A lot of different logos, there’s so much extra meaning and you can’t see half the symbolism. Once you know what you’re looking for, you realize, oh this actually spells this or you see this symbolic meaning. We’re not really going for that.”

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The Intimidators have used the same logo since 2001, though in 2011, the team introduced an alternate logo featuring a NASCAR-y letter I and Dale Earnhardt in what Feldman described as the “victory pose.”

The Intimidators stand out from the minor league baseball crowd because the origin of their team name and the artist who created their logo come from outside the sport. It’s the sort of schizophrenic multiple-sport crossover that only works in certain communities, and Kannapolis, North Carolina, is definitely one of them.