Excitement Begins with a 'Little E'
By Mike Hembree, Inside NASCAR
June 17, 1999
Never in the history of the sport had a NASCAR Winston Cup Series debut been so eagerly
anticipated as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s.
It's December 1980. On the back roads around Lake Norman, N.C., 29-year-old Dale Earnhardt
-- just a few weeks removed from winning his first NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship
-- is roaring along in a pickup truck, spraying dirt in the turns, the speedometer pushing
70. It's a high time in Earnhardt's life. On this night, he'll entertain other members of
his championship team at a Christmas party at the lake. He's responsible for bringing the
firewood. At this moment, though, the only things on his mind are the accelerator and the
steering wheel, toys in the hands of the master.
"Boy, this is great," he says, whipping that steering wheel while grinning.
"I haven't raced in a month."
Almost two decades later, the empire Earnhardt began building in that first championship
season supplies the departure point for his son's run into the biggest of racing's
spotlights. In 1999, Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in a
Chevrolet owned by Dale Earnhardt Inc., his father's racing operation.
"Senior" and Junior race much the same, with the fire born out of thousands of
laps on hundreds of short tracks, and with hearty echoes of the racing days of the
legendary Ralph Earnhardt, Dale's father and the family's first NASCAR national champion.
The times, though, are a-changin'. It's difficult to imagine Dale Jr. running wild and
free in a moment of unbridled excess on some lonely dirt road. The long and winding
journey that has carried the Earnhardt family to the point of putting another son in the
NASCAR Winston Cup Series also has created a schedule of staggering proportions for the
newcomer, making him a star before his time, a hero before his first lap.
Two days after winning his first championship in 1980, Dale Earnhardt was in the deep
woods of McBee, S.C., hunting deer in the middle of a cold rain.
"It helped me get my thoughts together," he remembers of that soggy Christmas on
the lake. "I got out all by myself with no phones or anything and I tried to put it
For the next Dale, there is no such escape. No such shelter. It is a new world - one his
father never knew - that Dale Jr. sets sail upon.
Dale Earnhardt, arguably the greatest driver in the history of the sport, made his NASCAR
Winston Cup Series debut in relative obscurity at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 1975. He
started 33rd and finished 22nd.
Fast forward 24 years, and the son also steps forward, but in wildly different
circumstances. Dale Jr. -- the 1998 NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division champion
-- does virtually nothing in obscurity. He is in the focus of every camera, at the
business end of every microphone, in the center of a storm that has been threatening for
Without question, Dale Jr.'s debut was the most heavily publicized entry into the sport's
most popular series in its 51-year history. Never has a driver's first endeavors in the
series been accompanied by such bright lights, keenly-focused national publicity and great
pressure to perform.
Kyle Petty was in the most comparable situation in 1979. Son of Richard Petty, NASCAR's
all-time victory leader, perpetual icon and "King," Kyle was billed as the heir
apparent, racing's "Prince." But that was in another time and another place.
NASCAR had barely begun the steady rise that would eventually carry it to national
prominence and into a new world of untapped markets.
"It's worse for him (Dale Jr.) just because instead of having 50,000 people in the
stands, now we've got 150,000," Kyle Petty says. "Instead of being in six
newspapers, we're in USA Today and every national paper. We're on 'SportsCenter.' He's in
the fishbowl, and the fishbowl has gotten much tighter. There's more people looking in it
than ever before."
Full Speed Ahead
The fishbowl effect follows Dale Jr. wherever he goes. Always, somebody is watching;
often, everybody is. Not only does he carry one of racing's most famous names, he enters
the sport with one of its enduring sponsors, Budweiser, and in machinery built at one of
stock-car racing's most financially healthy factories, DEI.
One of the stark realities of auto racing in the last years of the century is that driving
is only a part of the driver's workday world, a fact Dale Jr. has learned in multiple, one
drilled into his brain months before his debut on NASCAR Winston Cup Series asphalt.
His calendar for 1999 is almost mind-numbing. In addition to a full NASCAR Busch Series
schedule, five NASCAR Winston Cup Series races and numerous tests of both cars, Dale Jr.
is working his way through a complex matrix of appearances for sponsors. They fill a large
red folder labeled "Dale Jr. Stuff" and carried with some care by Steve Crisp,
Dale Jr.'s director of public relations and his shadow. Eighteen appearances for ACDelco.
A dozen for Budweiser. Eight for Coca-Cola. A dozen other sponsors are on the list, and
other potential business partners are just waiting in the wings for their chance.
"We've got things going in and out the door, 100 miles per hour, 27 hours a
day," Dale Jr. says.
Everybody wants to ride the coattails of Jr., the man poised to inherit all that it is to
be an Earnhardt.
Anheuser-Busch was the first to step to the plate, signing a multiyear agreement to be
Dale Jr.'s first NASCAR Winston Cup Series sponsor. Among the beer company's first
initiatives: "Countdown To E-Day," launched Jan. 12 at DEI, with an eye on the
May day in Charlotte that Dale Jr. was to make his entrance.
Most drivers new to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series slip in through the back door. Jr. came
in with trumpets blaring.
For a 24-year-old who was changing oil at his father's Chevrolet dealership only a few
years ago, it has been a rapid, dizzying ride for Dale Jr. He has had to learn several
jobs at once - driver, spokesman, commercial star, public relations point man, mechanical
consultant, autograph ace.
Often, it is more than one young man can juggle. Just a few months into a hard season,
with appearances stacked in an imposing row and races to run almost every week, his head
rests on a new pillow, in a different place almost every night.
"It's getting harder to do," Dale Jr. says. "What you learned last year and
the year before that and even last week, you forget. You go off and do three or four
appearances, then you forget everything, and by the time you get in the car again it's
like it's the first time. You just feel like you're getting behind. It's sort of like
you're taking a test and everybody in the whole class except you gets to study."
Dale Jr.'s appearance schedule rivals that of any stock-car driver. One day in California,
the next in Texas, the next in New York. Then there's always a race to run on the
People pull at him. Autographs. Business deals. A minute with this executive, another with
that one. Internet sessions with fans.
"The majority of the time it's not too difficult," Dale Jr. says. "I guess
it's what you make of it. A lot of times there are things to do that you don't have a real
choice about. When you fly out of town constantly and you're 500 miles from home every
evening, it gets old real fast. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - they gobble up those days.
We've worked seven days a week for months straight now. I've probably only been in my own
bed twice in that time.
"I didn't really intend for it to get like this. There's really no stopping it or
slowing it down, though. It's a little too late to say, 'Hey, hold up.'"
Race and Learn
Dale Jr.'s arrival has become the "Next Big Thing" in NASCAR Winston Cup racing,
and it comes with appropriate trappings. Already, the gigantic fan base Jr. has inherited
from his father sees him as the answer to that most perplexing of questions: "Who
will finally stop Jeff Gordon?" It creates a turbulent rivalry for Dale Jr. even
before he has had a chance to get settled in.
"I don't really know what everybody thinks or how they perceive this rivalry (with
Gordon), so I can't let it bother me," Dale Jr. says. "Everybody that talks to
me about it sees it as a big deal, but I really don't see it like that. I'm on the inside
and I'm right in the middle of it and I'm trying to concentrate on building cars to be
competitive. I'm trying to concentrate on that job more than on anything else."
Dale Earnhardt, busy with his own driving deal and the mix of other activities underway at
his shop, sees the whirlwind forming around his son and tries to limit its fury. He's not
looking for any grand entrances.
"I want him to learn," Earnhardt the elder says. "I hope he impresses me,
but I just want him to learn. Stay out of trouble and learn something."
In some ways, Jr. is very much his father's son. The facial resemblance is strong, and he
has the same walk, the same forceful "I've-got-business-to-handle" cadence as
his dad. Yet Jr. is his own man, quieter, more subdued more open to the people who push to
enter his life.
"He doesn't remind me of me yet," Dale Earnhardt says. "He ain't that mean
yet. He's done a great job, though. There's a lot of pressure on him. There's a lot to do.
We're trying to keep some of the people around him throttled back."
Although the task is immense and the early moments of Dale Jr.'s NASCAR Winston Cup career
will be some of racing's most illuminated, the dialogue on the subject between father and
son has been limited.
"I've seen him about 15 minutes all year," Dale Jr. says. "All you can do
is all you can do. You get out there and run as hard as you can, and that's the best you
can do. No discussion or advice is going to make that any easier. We realize how difficult
Eye on Success
Probably the most common question concerning Dale Jr.'s debut in the NASCAR Winston Cup
Series is will the myriad of distractions be a handicap for him?
Steve Hmiel, technical director at DEI and a resident of NASCAR pit roads for much of
recent history, sees the future as wide open - if a bit busy - for the second Dale.
"I was around when Dale (Earnhardt) first came up, and there wasn't nearly as much
pressure," Hmiel says. "There weren't nearly as many personal appearances and
that sort of thing, the kind of stuff Jr.'s having to do. But he does it all and goes
about his business, and when it's time to focus on the race car, he focuses on the race
"He's exactly like his dad, but he's a young guy and there's certainly a lot more
pressure now than there ever used to be.
"The sport has changed so much. Jr.'s real smart. He never loses sight of the fact
that the reason he's here is that he can drive a race car. He knows what to do. I don't
see how he can miss. I know he won't put any more pressure on himself than the rest of the
Ron Hornaday, who handles the driving for DEI's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team, has
watched Jr. evolve from a kid hanging around the Earnhardt shop into a champion racer.
"That kid just likes to race and race hard," Hornaday says. "He's out there
handling it well for his age. I wouldn't want to trade places with him. You can't find him
any more now because he's gone so much on deals."
Dale Jr. jokes about starting an organization for drivers whose schedules are packed.
Drivers Against Busy Schedules (DABS) would be attractive to many, he figures. Although he
sees much of his life racing away from his control, he promises not to get lost in the
rush, not to lose his footing on ground that spins ever faster.
"I've watched a lot of people become successful," Dale Jr. says. "I've been
paying attention. I've watched a lot of television shows about guys who become famous and
ruin their lives. I've got all these notes on what not to do."
If only he had time to read them.
Mike Hembree is the motorsports editor at the
Greenville (S.C.) News.
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