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Dale Earnhardt’s grandson takes on mixed martial arts Opinion

Friday, Apr. 13, 2012

The mixed-martial artists run laps around the wide wrestling mats at Evolution Fitness.

    “Jeffrey Earnhardt coming around Turn 2,” somebody says. 

    No surprise. Earnhardt's great-grandfather was race car driver Ralph Earnhardt, his grandfather was the legendary Dale Earnhardt, his father is former racer Kerry Earnhardt and his uncle is NASCAR most popular driver for life, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

   “The name makes a difference,” Earnhardt, 22, says. “Sometimes you kind of expect people to want to beat you up even harder. But these guys have been really cool about it. They definitely welcomed me more than I expected. Come into somebody else’s world and you expect them to push you to the limit.”

     The name does have advantages. Dale Jr. owns a stake in Whiskey River, the EpiCenter bar, and Jeffrey never has to wait in line. 

     A fourth-generation racer, Earnhardt is training to become a mixed martial artist. He hopes to make his debut May 23, Coca-Cola 600 week, at the EpiCentre on a card promoted by Charlotte’s Fight Lab.

      For six weeks, Earnhardt has made the hour drive from his home near Salisbury to the gym, which is in the same complex as Ice House on South Blvd. (Under new ownership, the gym's name will soon be changed to South End Athletic Club.)

    Earnhardt wrestled as a freshman and sophomore at Mooresville High, and then traded wrestling for racing.

       Racing is his job and, he hopes, his career. He competes on the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car series and part-time in the NASCAR Nationwide series.

       As Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” plays, Earnhardt, who is compact and courteous and looks like a smaller version of Dale Jr., is allowed a break. We talk near a heavy bag.

         “I really enjoyed wrestling, and I’ve always been a competitor,” he says. “I watch UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) on TV and really like it, not that I’d compare myself to UFC fighters. I thought if I don’t try now, I never will, and I don’t want to get older and think, ‘What if?’ “

      Your parents OK with this?

     When Earnhardt doesn’t answer, I ask if he told his parents.

      “Not really,” he says. “I guess they’ll find out soon enough.”  

     Earnhardt came to the gym with friends who had a boxing or wrestling background. On the mat Wednesday night are a former collegiate wrestler, a professional boxer and Joey Carroll, a jiu-jitsu specialist who goes by the name El Dingo Loco.

    “He picks things up real quick,” Loco says of Earnhardt. “If you do one sport where there’s so much adrenalin, you already have an advantage. I try to break things down from a racing standpoint. I’ll say, ‘Remember how Dale Senior used to do the bait and switch, where you look like you’re going outside?’  I’m tying it into jiu-jitsu for him.”

       Jiu-jitsu is about taking body parts to places they aren’t designed to go, and attaining a submission.

        “He’s in here with a bunch of killers and we’re going to make him better and he’s going to make us better,” says Loco. “He has so much enthusiasm.”

        Many racers get out of the car and onto a boat, bike or tee box. Earnhardt might be the first to get onto a mat.

        “I’ve heard so many times that NASCAR guys aren’t real athletes,” says Michael Allen, the gym’s director of jiu-jitsu. “Come in here and grapple with the guy. He’s a natural. He’s small, he’s fast, he’s explosive and it’s going to be interesting to see what he does.”

          Isn’t it tough to come in off the street, seven years removed from high school wrestling, and tangle with these guys? 

        “I wouldn’t do it,” says Allen. “I’d stick with the race car.”

         Earnhardt asked his parents if he could start racing when he was 12. They said no.

      When he was 14, they told him he could. But he had to find sponsors.

      “They wanted me to learn the business,” says Earnhardt. “I thank them for that every day.” 

     He competed in a youth program at Wythe Speedway, a half-mile, high-banked dirt track in Rural Retreat, Va.

     He raced in NASCAR’s Camping World East circuit in 2007. He finished fifth in points and – another family trait – fans voted him most popular driver.

       In ’08 Earnhardt competed in NASCAR’s K & N Pro Series East.  

 He was selected for the DEI Driver Development program. But when DEI merged with Chip Gnassi Racing, the program was scrapped.   

       So Earnhardt races on the outskirts, learns his craft and looks for an opportunity. He also does this on the mat with Loco.  

      At 5-6 and 145 pounds, Earnhardt is the smallest man in the gym.

    “One of my grandfather’s biggest quotes is, ‘It’s not always the biggest car that wins the race, it’s the person that refuses to lose,’” Earnhardt  says. “It’s the person that wants it more. It’s the same here. These guys bust their butts every day."

      Jeffrey was 12 when Dale Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500. It was after Dale’s death that Jeffrey decided to race.

       “He was a busy man so I didn’t get as much time with him as most grandsons do with their grandfathers,” he says. “But that’s part of the sport. You have to sacrifice to make it. My dad made sacrifices and Dale Jr. does. Everybody does.

     “The times we got to spend together were great times and you kind of hate the times you missed out on. But then you start racing and understand the commitment and time it takes.”

      Earnhardt, who wears a green NVRTAP, NEVER SURRENDER T-shirt, boxes with two-time Golden Gloves champ Derek Hyatt. He does push-ups, jumping with his arms outstretched after each. A new partner with a new style enters and they grapple.

       “It’s a lot of fun and I just want to see what I can do,” says Earnhardt. “I want to do my deal, and I want to continue the family legacy.”

      When his name is called in the restaurant, when he pays with a debit card at the gas station, when he climbs out of the hauler at the race track, he’s an Earnhardt.

      On the mats, he’s another kid, trying to make a name.    


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