Blk3GM's NASCAR Busch Series News

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is his own man
May 20, 1999 By Rick Houston NASCAR Winston Cup Scene

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s life has changed in countless ways, ways in which even he probably doesn't yet realize. Two years ago, few pulled and tugged at him for interviews, autographs, commercials and the like. Two years from now, once he's made the jump to Winston Cup, the pressures he faces now will seem trivial, a picnic. The 1998 Busch Series champion will attempt to 990520_dearnhardtjr_h.jpg (11311 bytes)
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., growing attention also means growing responsibility.

make his Winston Cup debut in the May 30 Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and in some ways, he'll never look back. He'll compete for the Winston Cup circuit's Rookie of the Year title next year, giving the sport a highly anticipated boost in a brand-new millennium. Many consider Earnhardt racing's next mega-superstar, and he's already got the souvenir sales to prove it.

There were, of course, tremendous expectations before his spectacular title run in 1998. He's the youngest son, the namesake, of the seven-time Winston Cup champion. His seven wins and aggressive style sent people into a frenzy, wanting to see if he would be the one to topple Jeff Gordon from atop his Winston Cup throne.

Fame and fortune are great, to be sure, but with it comes a price. He's a millionaire, but not a "suit." Earnhardt's comfortable in T-shirts and slouch caps, and would seemingly choke were a tie to be placed around his neck. He's got a set of loyal friends who care not a whit about his star status. People expect him to falter, to become a hateful dolt.

For all the money and recognition, however, Earnhardt wants to remain true to himself. He's grown a lot in the last couple of years, both professionally and personally. Don't count on him forgetting from whence he came. He's asked about how his life has changed, and it takes him a second to consider. It's impossible, on second thought, to fully describe the journey he has taken.

"My trophy case is starting to fill out a little bit," Earnhardt begins. He changes pace, thinking about the question.

"It all really equals itself out," Earnhardt continues, after a moment's pause. "When I was running Late Models, I had all the free time in the world. You didn't really appreciate the time off. Now ... the time off I get, I really appreciate it and I know how much it's worth.

"I've become appreciative toward the sponsors, because I know how much they're worth. Over the past 2 1/2 years, I've done a lot of growing up. I've come the realization of a lot of different things. I've started to see a lot of different things, and started to realize how big an asset they are to me.

"When I was running Late Models, or even before that, I didn't have an appreciation for a good crew chief. I didn't know the value of a dollar. I didn't have the responsibilities of a sponsor, and didn't care. But as I started to race, started to love to race, I realized how important those things are."

Those are the on-track things ... the sponsors, the good crew chief. There's a certain inherent appreciation for those factors in most every successful race car driver, for without them, it would be impossible to reach the top.

What about Earnhardt himself, his personal, private side? For now, he faces an education on the go, so to speak. There are so many things to deal with, so many procedures, so much red tape and so little time. Soon, he plans to have a personal secretary for his JR Motorsports operation, which was incorporated last year.

"I started to realize how important and how much I appreciated the time I had to myself," he says. "Now that there's not gobs of that sitting around, when it does come, it's real enjoyable. ... (There's a) lot more things going on, sometimes complicated. I'm having to do a lot of business things, and learn a lot of business sense. I'm really at the bottom of the ladder there, as far as knowledge goes, as far as business, starting companies and getting incorporated, tax ID numbers."

Once upon a time, and it wasn't so long ago, horsepower and handling were Earnhardt's most precious commodities as he roared around bullrings hither and yon. Now, it's time. Plain and simple, Earnhardt's life is lived by the tick of the clock. Time is money, and money is time. He's busy as during no other point in life, spreading the word about himself, ACDelco and Budweiser.

"The average is two (appearances) a week, which isn't bad," Earnhardt says. "Normally, it's 50-50. Some are in town, some are out of town. A lot of times, we can do a lot of things at the shop. Some weeks, there's one appearance. Some weeks, there's three appearances. Some weeks, there's four in a row.

"(March) was real, real difficult, real busy. We had a string of about three weeks where I was home maybe one day. That's old hat for some of these guys in the Cup garage, but it was something that I didn't want to get too used to right off the bat. As I learned later, if you want to play with the big boys, you have those responsibilities."

It was a lesson that quite possibly wasn't learned easily. There were choices to make that would be extremely difficult for anyone to face.

"I was told that if I wanted to do what we're gonna do next year and in the years to come, we were gonna have to get to work and give up a lot of personal time, give up a lot of things that we were used to doing every week," Earnhardt admits. "You try it, and see if it works. If you sit at home and just screw off all the time, you lose a lot of people's interest. But if you're all the time busy and doing something, the sponsor stays fired up and everybody stays gung-ho."

Get Earnhardt going about what he likes to do with what little downtime he has, and he sounds like any other young man in his early-to-mid-20s. Forget the immense talent. Forget the last name, the bloodline. Forget his future earnings potential, the millions of dollars in T-shirts and trinkets that already bear his name and likeness.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a normal Joe, a guy who likes to have a good time with his buddies.

"I used to go to Myrtle Beach a lot," Earnhardt says. "I really like that area, used to go down there for the weekend or take a week and go down there. Man, I'll tell ya what, we had some fun doing that. I don't know whether I'll have that chance this year. We may do it. I'm not sure. I don't know whether we'll get the opportunity to do it this summer.

"Used to have a lot of parties at home. I was at the age - 23, 24 years old - where you just throw a lot of house parties, had all your friends over. I ain't had one of them in a long time. But I moved into a new place, and I'm a little more conservative about how I treat it. Everything else, pretty much, I can still do, but maybe with less regularity."

His true friends are in it for the long haul. They're not a entourage of hangers-on and stargazers, those with ulterior motives to try and take advantage of his celebrity. Basically, they're like anyone's best friends. These are companions who could care less if Earnhardt was a plumber, teacher, cab driver or waiter.

"These are friends from the neighborhood or around town that I've met or grown up with," Earnhardt says. "Those are the people that are my age, maybe a year or two younger. Those are the ones I probably enjoy hanging out with the most.

"There's a certain group of 'em that I spent a lot of time with over the past several years, and they never said, 'Hey, man, give me a ticket to the race. Can you get me a ticket to Charlotte? Hey, man, can you give me a T-shirt? Can you get this hat signed? Where's your daddy? What's your daddy doing? What's it like to go 100 miles an hour?'"

"None of that. You just go out and have a good time, joke amongst yourselves that you all know personally. You don't bug the guy that does electricity during the week about his job, and they don't bug me about mine. We just forget all about it."

There is a comfort of sorts for those who work in racing to get away from it all, and if only for the briefest moment, to not have to think about or discuss the sport and its personalities. Earnhardt, to an extent, is no different. He drives a race car. That's what he does. Being able to surround himself with friends who don't necessarily care one way or the other about his job gives him what he calls "balance."

"I feel that way when I'm around my friends or around people who aren't associated with the sport or the team," Earnhardt explains. "They (his friends) know that Junior's got just a couple of days off. They know that I don't want to think about that. They know that what I want to do is go have a good time, so that's what we all focus on. It's pretty cool."

His friends don't treat him with kid gloves. In some instances, the gloves come off, so to speak, and he gets razzed about his decidedly Southern dialect.

"I get picked on for my accent," Earnhardt admits. "All my friends do. I must have a real 'red-necky' accent or something. Ever once in a while, I'll say something, and they'll go off and start laughing."

Assumptions concerning his personality are an unfortunate by-product of his well-known status. People expect him to be his father, when, if the fact be known, they don't really know his father, either. They think he was born with a silver lug wrench in his mouth, conjuring up images of a spoiled brat who's been handed everything in life.

"I think people have preconceived ideas of what I'm like," Earnhardt says. "I think a lot of people would be surprised if they got to know me, if they just gave me five minutes to chat with 'em. I don't know what my first impressions normally are. I don't know what kind of vibe I give off. If you see me walking across the garage and somebody says, 'Hey, that's Dale Jr.,' I don't know what he thinks right away.

"But I can say that most of the people get the wrong idea, and most of the people are surprised once they spend five or 10 minutes with me. A lot of people are like, 'Man, I like you a lot more now than I did when I first met you.' I don't know if I've got a cocky look on my face, or what it is. I think they expect kind of a bratty, silver-spoon kind of attitude, real preppy."

The truth?

"The truth is totally opposite," Earnhardt continues. "In the past year-and-a-half, yeah, I have been able to experience some of the cooler advantages of doing well. But in the back of my mind, I've always questioned, 'Do I really want to get a coach? Do I really want to get used to that lifestyle? What if I become a jerk? What if I start to become less accessible?' Then you think, 'Damn, it sure would be nice at some of these tracks to get that extra hour's sleep.'

"I wear a T-shirt 90 percent of the time. I don't do a lot of collared shirts and things like that. I don't want to look dirty or nasty, but I'm not big on appearance. I'm not very picky about people. ... I don't have a certain set group that I hang out with, just whoever wants to hang out and have a good time. I think a lot of people around the garage - other drivers, other team members - would really be surprised about my personality, what they think it is and what it is."

Earnhardt's going to be himself, whether in the sunglasses and caps he wears or in his endorsements. He makes no pretenses about who he is.

"We don't want to do anything that's gonna make us look stupid, like Stone Cold (Steve Austin, a professional wrestler) did that 1-800-COLLECT commercial, ridiculous, man, terrible career move," Earnhardt says. "The way he looked in that commercial, that was pretty pathetic. You want to be careful on the things you do because that is a lot of people's first impression.

"I've never met Stone Cold, so the way he acted on that deal is the idea that I have of him. You've gotta be kinda careful. I don't want to be real picky about it, but I was wondering what my stand-ups looked like. If it don't look like me, I don't want it to stand in that damn grocery store if it don't look like me. If it looks like some preppy boy that went to Harvard, I don't want that.

"I want the people that care to know, to know the truth ... what kind of music I like, what kind of clothes I like to wear, whether I'm moody or not, what kind of personality I have, where I like to go, what I like to do during my days off, how I am at the track. I want them to know the truth, because I don't want any preconceived myths or anything."

The corporate, ivory-tower type who deems it necessary for Earnhardt to change best beware. It's not going to happen, not a chance, says Earnhardt.

"If you get involved in the hype, then you let yourself be controlled," Earnhardt says. "They can paint you up however they want and mold you into whoever they want you to be. We've went to these media training things. We've listened to everybody's ideas. I was open-minded about it. It helps me, hopefully, be more comfortable in front of the camera. I'm terrible at piecing words together, trying to explain myself.

"But I'm not gonna spit that same ol' gook everybody else does. ... I may not have this opportunity next year, but right now, I've got the opportunity to say something. So I'm gonna say what I feel, instead of what some guy gave me a list to say. I'm gonna try my damndest all my life not to ever read a script to anybody."

Earnhardt surely wasn't reading a script when he voiced his opinion in the March 29 issue of Sports Illustrated. He hadn't been pleased, to say the least, about the nearly-unbearable load of demands.

"The guy was like, 'How about it, your first Cup race, ain't this great?' I said, 'Man, it's hell. It's a pain in the ass,'" Earnhardt says of the interview. "I was in a little bit of bad mood. I was like, 'I can't enjoy it. I'm not gonna let this happen this damn early in my career. I ain't gonna be unhappy right now. Maybe five, 10 years down the road, when I've had my fun and I'm ready to be business, I'll be business. But I ain't being business today.'"

Earnhardt continues reeling off the conversation.

"I love driving, and I don't care about nothing else," he recalls telling the reporter. "I kinda want it to stay that way for a few more years, at least. I'm getting all these people shoved in front of me. I want to, but I can't remember everybody's name. It's ridiculous. It's pointless. It's doing nothing but confusing me. I ain't as focused as I used to be.' I just went on and on.

"It was the best I ever done. God, it was. Now, everybody knows how I feel. It let a lot of people close to me that didn't know me that well, know me well. A lot of people now know my personality, know how I feel, know I'm gonna say something whenever I'm upset or think differently. They know I'm not just gonna go along with it like, 'Yeah, yeah. I'll do it. Sure. Any time. Yeah, I'll be there.'

"We didn't cut anything from the schedule. We didn't just whack the schedule and start over, but we went through it and we picked three or four days out of the months that we don't book nothing. I can do whatever I want to do. Now, at least, I know, 'Yeah, I've got a lot of s--- to do from this time to this time, but I know I've got these two or three days off, and nobody can mess with it. That's mine, and I can plan what I want.'" How bad had things gotten? Very, very bad, according to Earnhardt.

"I couldn't think at all at the race track. I just could not think about nothing," Earnhardt recalls, not particularly relishing the memory. "We're 10th fastest in practice, and I'd say, 'I need to talk to Tony (Eury) Jr. We need to figure out a direction to go to get this thing going.' They were like, 'Nah, we've got this guy who needs to talk to you. We've gotta take you over here to this tent, and go to that tent.'

"There was nowhere you could go. The truck was packed. The trailer was packed full of people. The lounge was packed full of people. There was lines standing outside the trailer. There's people crowded around the race car. There was somebody everywhere. I want to be a good spokesman for our sponsor, but if we don't win on the race track, they ain't gonna hang around too damn long, no matter how much beer we sell."

Once the dust settled, everybody knew how Earnhardt felt. There are still plenty of tugs and pulls on his time, but Earnhardt can now focus on his Winston Cup debut at a saner pace. He can now focus on the task at hand ... qualifying for the race. He readily admits that he'll be nervous, but if he can get in the race, Earnhardt's fairly confident he'll do well racing against the Jeff Gordons, the Mark Martins, and, well, the Dale Earnhardts.

"I don't know what to expect as far as qualifying goes," he concludes. "Qualifying's a big deal. If we can get in that race, I feel like we'll be able to compete. I don't feel like we'll just embarrass the hell out of ourselves in the race. Qualifying's a different story. Whether we can do that speed we need to achieve for two laps is gonna be questionable. ... Right now, I'm nervous as hell about qualifying and getting in the race."

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