Editor's note: In the first and most extensive interview he has given in 2010 regarding Dale Earnhardt's upcoming Hall of Fame induction, driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked one-on-one with Charlotte Observer sports columnist Scott Fowler about his late father. The interview - conducted over two separate days in late April - has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. It has been nine years since your father's death at Daytona. As the years pass, what is it you hope people remember about him?
A. The one thing that you're always scared is going to evaporate is how he made people feel when he walked into a room. He entered a room and changed its atmosphere. He had just such a powerful personality. Not like the power of a king, but just this energy that just filled the room.
And that stuff is so easy to forget. One day, it will be hard to recall that. One day I'm worried that everybody will just be looking at pictures and stats of him and that will be it. They'll just be looking at him in a two-dimensional sort of way.
But he was three-dimensional. When he was at the track, you knew he was there, even if you couldn't see him. You could just feel it. And that was an awesome feeling.
Q. You are 35 years old now and have carried your father's name your entire life. You told me once that having that name was both a burden and an honor. What are your thoughts about it now?
A.Mostly pride. I feel a lot of pride in it. It does make a couple of things tough, but it opens more doors than it closes. I guess I will always be forever grateful for him to have wanted to do that at that moment when I was born.
Q. How often do you think of your father?
It's always kind of hovering in the back of your mind, kind of like the hum of an air conditioner. Not something that bothers you - something you can get used to living with. It's a part of who you are.
It's a good thing in most ways when I think of him because it's definitely something that keeps me making better decisions more often. I make a lot of decisions based on feeling that he's over my shoulder still, and I'm glad for that.
Q. What would your father have thought about being inducted into the first class of the new NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte?
A. I think he would have been really proud of it, but only behind closed doors. He never said much about something like that in front of nobody, but he would have thought it was a pretty neat deal.
Q. You grew up mostly in a home you shared with your father and your stepmother, Teresa. What are some of your earliest memories of your father racing?
A. I got to go to some of the races, not all of them. When I was going to the races, I was more interested in what I was going to do when I got there than in actually watching the race. There was a pretty big group of kids there - drivers' kids, crew chiefs' kids and so on - and we all just kind of goofed off.
Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to the mechanical side at a younger age. A lot of weekends, though, I spent at home because of school and stuff. And not all of the races were on TV back then. I remember having the radio going really loud, so you could hear it throughout the house wherever you were, and the race being on. I'd be listening to the race and playing Matchbox cars on the carpet. Those are good memories.
Q. What was your father like in terms of his parenting style?
A. Mainly, he didn't want you to create any problems. He had a pretty hectic schedule and his mind was full of things all the time. He didn't need you adding to it.
Q. What was the advice he most often gave you?
A. He wasn't extraordinarily going out of his way to pour advice on us every day. He was just a father who expected you to go to school, stay off drugs, not slip off and steal beer and do your chores.
Q. You have often said your father was your hero. Why?
A. He had a great knack for problem-solving. Great common sense. He was the kind of person who was easy to pull for. You just knew he was going to figure out a way to come out on the good end of everything. People were drawn to him. They liked being around him.
Q. When did you first understand how good your father was as a driver?
It was in Bristol, in the mid-1980s. I always got to go to Bristol. He always ran really good there and he was so aggressive and strong at that point in his career. He was driving that old yellow-and-blue Wrangler No. 3. That was such a good-looking race car, and that team was coming into its own at that point.
I was about 11 or 12 at that time, and that's when I started to understand how big his career was, how good he could be and would be and how it was going to impact my whole life and the life of our entire family.
Q. You're going to drive a replica of that Wrangler race car on a one-time basis at a Nationwide race in Daytona July 2. Why are you doing that?
A. Just for kicks. It's rare in this sport you get to put together opportunities like this just for fun. I've always wanted to drive one of the Wrangler-schemed cars. This is my favorite of all the ones he drove. But in the world we live in - with all the contracts and stipulations - when would you ever have that window? I feel real fortunate.
Q. Will you feel pressure climbing into a car so closely identified with your father?
A.No, not really. I feel lifted, in a way. I feel inspired. We've done some things similar to this in the past and I've been in that situation and thought that I would get nervous and buckle. But I felt inspired and more powerful instead. I got his mojo or something.
Q. Although the Nationwide race shows that you can work together with everyone in your family, you did leave the family business in 2007 - Dale Earnhardt Inc. - under strained circumstances. And DEI - which is still headed by your stepmother, Teresa - isn't what it was. Does that bother you?
It doesn't really bother me personally. You get used to things changing over time and some things not working out. You have to learn to let things go. I think maybe when I get older, I might believe it's more of a disappointment, but at this point in my life, everything is still moving so fast.
Q. On what would have been your father's 59th birthday - April 29, 2010 - you and Teresa sat beside each other at a press conference and answered questions about that No. 3 Wrangler car. The two of you hadn't been seen together in public for years. Did that appearance signify a thawing of a frosty relationship?
A. Well, we never really got very cold. I think people probably assumed we were at odds more than we ever were. We've got a lot of respect for each other. We will forever be a part of each other's lives.
When we go out there and see each other, it just feels natural. I feel very comfortable in that setting with her. She's just real private and she doesn't feel the need to tell people what's going on. And that leaves a lot of windows for people to make assumptions.
Q. You have 18 wins at NASCAR's Cup level, but you have never won a Cup championship and you have struggled as a driver for the past several years. What do you think your dad would think about how your career has progressed?
A. I think he'd be 50-50 on the racing part. He was always kind of 50-50, even when we did really good. He would be pretty proud of some of the things me and my sister (Kelley) have done - charity work and things like that.
He and I didn't agree on how a lot of things should go down. As we got older, we seemed to let each other have their own way, not to be so critical about each little thing.
I'm not sure exactly what he would think. I'd be just as interested as everyone else would be to hear what he would say. As far as my life in general, though, I think he'd be pretty proud and surprised.
Q. Your dad was never adept at explaining to reporters the essence of what made him great. He usually made his talent sound like it was just instinctive. Why do you think he won those 76 races and seven Cup championships?
A. I think it had a lot to do with the way he came up. His experience in running short tracks in those little old sportsman cars, trying to make an extra $300 or something to put food on the table that week.
If you look at pictures of him back then, he looks so rugged - it's such a contrast to how polished the racing is today.
And then, when he made it, he never really lost that drive - that willingness to be cut-throat. I don't know how he was able to do that when he got so established, but he did. He never lost that "I'm-doing-this-to-put-food-on-my-table" mentality, even when he had all the food he could ever need.
Q. When did your father stop treating you like a boy and start treating you like a man?
A. As soon as I started driving the Busch car in 1998 (at age 23). I ran about two or three races and started showing some promise. Right then, him and Tony (Eury) Sr. and Jr. and everybody started seeing what I could be.
And then everything changed - the makeup of all our relationships changed. I got taken a little more seriously. My words were a little more credible. I could see they were thinking, 'This might be pretty cool, man.' We ended up winning seven races and the (Busch) championship that year.
Q. What is your favorite all-time racing memory that you and your dad shared?
A. The 2000 all-star race I won in Charlotte when I was a rookie (at NASCAR's highest level). He was the owner of that team. It was just such a shock, I guess, to all of us that I won it. He came into Victory Lane and spent a whole lot of time with us. Normally he was very quick about getting in and getting out of Victory Lane, but he thoroughly enjoyed that one. He stayed there a really long time and soaked it up with all of us.
Q. You have turned down almost every request from the media to talk about your father. Why have you done that, and why did you choose to do this particular interview?
A. It's kind of difficult to talk about it. It's a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of labor. I feel like I'm pushing a lot of weight around when I talk about him - I don't know if anyone out there can understand that.
But I did this interview because under the circumstances, with his Hall of Fame induction coming up, I think it's acceptable to remember what he was about.
I want to try to refresh everybody about what he was like. If we were in the middle of some random year and there was no real reason to be doing it, I would feel like it's a little intrusive, a little cheap. But in this case, I want to remind people of what he was like. I don't want them to ever forget that, or to forget him.