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Blk3GM's Winston Cup News

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has plenty to live up to
June 2, 1999 By JULIET MACUR, The Orlando Sentinel

CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s souvenir trailer is parked just outside the main gates of Lowe's Motor Speedway, glistening in the morning sun as potential shoppers stroll by. And on that rig, there's no shortage of gear for sale. There's the obligatory Dale Jr. T-shirt and Dale Jr. hat, displayed next to pricier, perhaps more exclusive items such as $65 Dale Jr. diecast cars and $150 Dale Jr. jackets.

But Earnhardt Jr., who makes his much-anticipated Winston Cup start on Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600, doesn't care much about those high-profile goods. He's more interested in the item tucked into the corner of the display case -- a compact disc with three tracks, including a 10-minute interview of him and his friends' band, Bridge.

The other two tracks are songs performed by the band, one of which has lyrics written by Earnhardt Jr., who writes poetry from time to time. A poem he wrote about a crush evolved into the song that starts out, ``I wish you had the eyes to see what the future holds for me.''

``It's about the anticipation you feel when you first notice a girl and wonder what she's about,'' Earnhardt Jr. said coyly. ``Because the beginning part of something is always the best part, when you don't know where it's going and you don't know what to expect.''

Perhaps Earnhardt Jr. likes that unexpected part the most because he always has known what to expect, especially as the namesake of seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. Not only is Earnhardt one of the most famous drivers in history, but he is also one of the most famous sports figures, too. So, that leaves Earnhardt Jr., 24, plenty to live up to -- but he is used to it.

There always have been expectations slapped onto Earnhardt Jr., as a racer and also a person, by people who think he should be as intimidating as his father both on and off the racetrack. So, just like every other kid, Earnhardt Jr. has tried to break away from his father's image and become his own person.

And music has helped, particularly during the months leading up to his big day on Sunday -- which was the first of five Winston Cup races he plans to run this season.

As his historic debut approached, Earnhardt Jr.'s schedule sprouted interviews, personal appearances, autograph sessions and photo shoots. There were too many to count and nearly too many for him to handle, so he tried his best to cope with the massive amount of hype. He ran to his friends and his music for salvation.

``It's disguised insanity, that's the only way I can put it,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ``It's hard to sit there and try to stay focused, try to stay sane and not fall over unconscious, you know what I'm saying?

``You just couldn't survive if you didn't have a outlet, so I have music,'' he said. ``I don't have what it takes to be a musician, so I'm living through my friends for a while. I really think they can get the opportunity to make it if they can get the breaks, and I want to help them if I could.''

Earnhardt Jr. helped finance the cost of making Bridge's CD, also convincing promoters to let Bridge perform in downtown Charlotte last Friday night at a special racing festival. It also was when Earnhardt Jr. let out some tension, leaping on the stage to play the drums and jam with the four-man band.

Getting the band that gig and talking about it on the radio thrilled Earnhardt Jr., even more than his racing has lately. It was special because his dream always has been to pursue a career as a radio station DJ or music critic -- but only if his racing career flopped.

He would fit right into the music scene, too, looking the part by getting cues from musicians on MTV or VH-1, stations always on in the lounge of his team hauler. He sees what he likes, then hunts down hip clothes during any free time. Even when the pressure seems unbearable, he makes it a priority to look like a kid and dress like a kid -- even when his name and his job have forced him to mature much faster than he has wanted.

Out of his racing suit, Earnhardt Jr. looks just like any young guy, wearing baggy jeans that hang from his hips, a boxy polo shirt and a baseball cap. But his hair is what tops off the look. His sister, Kelley, convinced him several months ago to dye it blond just from the ears up. While his conservative, old-fashioned father cringed, his friends thought it couldn't be cooler.

``Look at him. You would never guess he is a famous race-car driver,'' said Terrill Hinson, the lead singer of Bridge and Earnhardt Jr.'s best friend. ``Now you know why I don't think of him as a driver, I just think of him as a buddy.''

Away from the track, the fans and the frenzy, Earnhardt Jr. hangs out in his modest, two-bedroom house when not on the road, chilling out in the refuge where music, not motorsports, is the topic of discussion.

Although his house is just across the street from his father's racing operation, which is dubbed the ``Garage Mahal'' because of its size and luxuriousness, Earnhardt Jr.'s bachelor pad is the perfect place for him to distance himself from racing. It's also the perfect place for him to escape the Earnhardt aura that engulfs him.

The place isn't hoity-toity, even though he comes from a lot of money and has a lot of money pouring in.

While the house is an upgrade from the double-wide trailer Earnhardt Jr. lived in last year, the basement is the only glitzy part. It's dark and groovy, with beveled mirrors covering the walls and black lights oozing a cool glow.

There, Earnhardt Jr. plays host whenever he can, inviting friends to hang out on the black leather couch or congregate at the circular tables carefully appointed throughout the room.

And, with accessories like a dry ice machine that spews a thick haze from the fireplace, or the machine that spits smoke onto the dizzying disco dance floor, Earnhardt Jr. never lacks company.

``This is a cool place, isn't it?'' Earnhardt Jr. said as he proudly turned on a neon sign that read ``Jr.'s Place'' behind the bar. ``I'm not a race-car driver here. I'm just a regular guy.''

Outside that basement, however, Earnhardt Jr. already is an icon -- but not only because of his father. ``Little E'' has earned fanfare of his own after winning the NASCAR Busch Grand National championship last year, in his first full Busch season. He also won seven races along the way, then ended the year at a NASCAR exhibition race in Japan, where he didn't win but still finished better than his father.

That's where the strain between the two Earnhardts began to escalate, when Earnhardt started wondering whether his son was getting too good, too fast without having to endure any of the struggles he had growing up.

So Earnhardt, a loner who doesn't express his feelings, has had trouble coping with his son's success. Lately, the perception has been that Earnhardt is jealous of his son's youth and rapid success -- especially because the elder Earnhardt hasn't been running well.

His actions after Wednesday night's qualifying didn't dispel that perception. When asked how he felt about his son's eighth-place qualifying effort for Sunday night's race, Earnhardt changed the subject and talked about his own 15th-place effort.

But away from the crowd inside his team hauler, Earnhardt bubbled and boasted about his son, while his crew members marveled. He was in the best mood he had been in all year.

Instead of his stodgy self, Earnhardt transformed into a storyteller, recounting tales of his early driving days when he had little or no money but managed to succeed anyway. He gushed about how hard it was, saying at times he only had enough money to buy one new tire instead of all four. The painful part was picking which tire to replace. He then went on about how tough he was, racing with broken bones, pulled muscles and even a banged-up head.

Then, Earnhardt said the feeling of coming this far, after starting from nothing, was immeasurable.

``Everybody wants their kids to feel something like that. I just hope Dale Jr. has that drive in him because he didn't make those kind of sacrifices,'' Earnhardt said. ``I just hope he was born with it. It's hard because he's spoiled, but every parent wants to give their kids things they didn't have. What do you do?''

While Earnhardt has been careful not to make his son's life too easy, he has given him something inadvertently -- one of the biggest fan bases in racing.

Nearly all Earnhardt fans marked Sunday on their racing calendars, including newlyweds Marty and Angi Marshall who chose to spend part of their honeymoon watching Earnhardt Jr. race -- and chose to drop nearly $225 buying Dale Jr. gear to celebrate his first Winston Cup start.

``We like him because he's an Earnhardt, almost like a young Intimidator,'' said Marty Marshall, from Benton, Ky. ``There is going to be a lot of pressure on him to live up to his dad, but that's part of the deal. We don't feel sorry for him because that's the challenge.''

The challenge for Earnhardt Jr. also has been to stay as normal as possible as he goes through the transition from self-proclaimed grease monkey to one of the most heralded young drivers in history. Just a few years ago, he performed brake and lube jobs at his dad's car dealership in Newton, N.C.

But Earnhardt Jr.'s transition from everyday guy to stock car superstar hasn't been easy, considering how much hoopla has surrounded his Winston Cup debut. Shoppers can't walk into a supermarket without bumping into something with Earnhardt Jr.'s likeness on it. There are life-sized cardboard stand-ups, panoramic posters and big, bright banners.

All of it was part of the ``Countdown to E-day,'' which started last fall when Earnhardt Jr. announced his five-year Winston Cup deal with Budweiser. The deal between Budweiser and Dale Earnhardt Inc. reportedly was for at least $8 million a year -- making it one of the heftiest racing sponsorships ever.

Just don't remind Earnhardt Jr. about that.

``It's harder for him than it was for me because there is so much more money involved and there's pressure with that. And we're not even factoring in being the son of a Winston Cup champion,'' said Kyle Petty, the son of seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty. ``But he has to remember he's his own person. He has to do his own thing to be different or he'll explode by the time he's 32. For me, I used to ride motorcycles, where nobody cared who you were, because I needed a distraction from the external pressures.

``Then again, even if he dyes his hair, the guy that's sitting in the third row still sees him as if Earnhardt Sr. just spat him out and there he is.''

Petty had that identity problem, too, so he grew his hair long and got his ears pierced to be different from his father. Earnhardt Jr., on the other hand, expresses himself through his music, which is far from his father's Brooks & Dunn or Loretta Lynn country tunes.

Earnhardt Jr. has stereos in every room of his house, including the bathroom, and a collection of 440 CDs. And his musical tastes range from hard-core Rage Against the Machine to rap's Busta Rhymes to alternative bands such as the Foo Fighters. He even admits to listening to a little retro, lately taking a liking to Juice Newton.

Listening to that music has become an art for Earnhardt Jr., who strives for the best stereo equipment on the market. But putting that equipment into the 1996 Chevy Impala his dad gave him stirred up even more tension between father and son.

To soup-up the car, Earnhardt Jr. installed an elaborate stereo system --including three 12-inch sub-woofers above the backseat and two 500-watt amplifiers in the trunk. And when he tinted the windows to ensure passers-by didn't see him rocking out, his father flipped out.

``Boy was he mad because he likes things to be stock and normal and boring,'' Earnhardt Jr. said, preening while showing off his ``jam-up'' car stereo.

It was exactly along the lines of what Richard Petty told him to do, though, when Earnhardt Jr. sought his advice about Winston Cup racing. Petty told him to be himself and not play himself off his father, which was what Kyle Petty successfully did when he started racing.

It also was exactly what Earnhardt Jr. always wanted to do after years of growing up under the careful and somewhat oppressive watch of his father and his father's wife, Teresa, who sent him to military school for two years when he was a teenager.

``They wouldn't let him go out much, maybe because he was worth so much and because he was Dale Earnhardt's son,'' said Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt Jr.'s cousin and car chief. ``When we used to go to the movies, he just stayed at home listening to music. But now he finally has the freedom to do whatever he wants because they can't protect him as much any more.''

Earnhardt Jr. certainly is aware of that freedom, taking advantage of it whenever he can before he becomes too popular even to go to the grocery store. Right now he still can go out in public and hang out like everybody else, making sure to catch Bridge when they play in local clubs, making sure to fit in with the crowd.

It's where nobody asks for his autograph. It's where he is just like everybody else.

For instance, Earnhardt Jr. made sure not to miss Bridge's gigs at a bar not far from Lowe's Motor Speedway, even while his schedule burgeoned out of control with racing-related commitments. Next to the stage where the band played, there was a life-size cut-out of Earnhardt Jr., with a similar cut-out of his dad propped beside it.

``I don't want any of this (fame) to change me,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ``I mean, I still do everything for my daddy and I still want him to be proud of me, but I have to stand on my own eventually. I've just got to do my own thing.''

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