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Dale Jr. on Dale Earnhardt: 'He carries his own weight'

- sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011

It was 10 years ago this week that Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

The 10-year anniversary of the Intimidator's death will prompt a hail of tributes over the next seven days. With the 2011 Daytona 500 scheduled for Feb. 20, driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been asked dozens of questions about his late father over the past few weeks.

The seven-time champion's son has been very polite but rather distant with his answers. He will say, for instance, that he remembers the 2001 Daytona 500 well. But he won't disclose those memories in detail.

That's understandable. People handle death differently. Some want to repeatedly relive the last moments of a loved one. Others believe death should be a totally private matter.

Earnhardt falls somewhere in between. He says he is happy about all of the many tributes that will be offered over the next week, but he would rather observe them than participate in them.

"I want to honor him," Earnhardt said recently, "but I don't need to do it in front of a bunch of people. He carries his own weight. He doesn't need me."

I've had several intense, one-on-one interviews with Earnhardt over the past five years. The most telling of those conversations came last May, when I sat down with him on two different days just before his father was posthumously inducted into NASCAR's Hall of Fame in Charlotte.

I've gone through interview transcripts with Earnhardt Jr. for this story, sifting through it for the best material (including some that has never before been published).

All of the quotes come from my various one-on-one interviews. I have not included anything he has said to others in the media.

I believe these conversations present an unusually intimate picture of the way the famous son perceives his legendary dad 10 years after his death.

Editor's note: The questions here were all asked by columnist Scott Fowler in one-on-one interviews with NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. - mostly over a two-day period in 2010, but also a few from interviews in 2006 and 2008. Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. What is it you hope people remember about your father?

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 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. 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. Don't be a distraction.

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?

A. 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. Tell me the story behind the first car you ever had.

A. My dad gave it to me for my 16th birthday. It was a 1986 [Chevy] S-10 pickup truck. Single cab. Short bed. Black and silver. Two-tone. Nothing tricked-up about it at all. Stock wheels and tires. I loved it. I loved that truck.

When I graduated high school, I got a full-size extended cab, short-bed truck that was two-tone brown with no carpet. And I hated that truck. And I missed my black-and-silver single-cab truck. I missed the [heck] out of that truck. I used to drive by the used-car lot where it was parked and just look at it.

Q. On what would have been your father's 59th birthday - April 29, 2010 - you and Teresa sat beside each other at a news 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. What is your favorite all-time racing memory that you and your dad shared?

A. The 2000 all-star tace I won in Charlotte when I was a rookie [at NASCAR's Cup 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. What would you do differently about your relationship with your father if you could do it over again?

A. I wish I had done more with him when I was younger so I could have accelerated in my learning about things. Everything that I've accomplished - I feel like everything is about three years behind. I spent most of my teens really doing nothing - just riding around in a pickup truck and goofing off with my buddies. Just kind of going through the motions.

If I had spent more time with him - going to his farm, doing those things that didn't interest me at the time - my racing career and all the "common sense about life" things would have been accelerated a little bit. That's what I'd do different.

But we had a real good relationship. I started racing Late Models in 1994. I worked on my cars real hard, intentionally, to try and impress him. I think he appreciated that. When I got to racing in the Busch Series [in 1998], then we could have a conversation where it was more peer to peer.

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. 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 cutthroat. 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. How often do you think of your dad?

A. 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.

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