Dale Earnhardt Jr., voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for seven consecutive seasons, enjoyed a special relationship with his racing legend father and took away lessons that extended far beyond the racetrack.
“My father was the greatest person I’ve ever known,” says Dale Jr., 35, whose dad was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500—a race in which Dale Jr. finished second.
“He wasn’t just a great race car driver, he was a great man. I learned a lot from him, and I miss him,” he says. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about him.”
The senior Earnhardt was a seven-time NASCAR champion, termed by fellow Hall of Famer Junior Johnson as “the greatest stock car driver I ever saw.”
History comes back
As this year’s Father’s Day approached, Dale Jr. unveiled his plans for a unique tribute to his dad: He’ll drive a car emblazoned with Dale Sr.’s iconic No. 3 in a Nationwide Series race at Daytona Beach, Fla., in July. The car also will feature the Wrangler paint scheme made famous during three of the senior Earnhardt’s national championship seasons.
“I love the retro and the nostalgia,” Dale Jr. says. “I like going back in time or bringing the past forward. I’m not too much into the emotional part of it. I just enjoy seeing history come back and compete, albeit it in a different form.”
Dale Jr.’s sister, Kelley, is vice president/general manager of JR Motorsports, the NASCAR team he co-owns with racing veteran Rick Hendrick. She says Dale Jr. driving with their dad’s number, which required a number of cross-promotional alliances to pull off, is “a great way to honor our father.”
Special moments with dad
Dale Jr. and Kelley, who have a half-brother, Kerry, and a half-sister, Taylor Nicole, have many fond memories of their dad.
“Winning with him at the track was always fun,” Dale Jr. says. “Having him show up at my Victory Lane celebrations was the best feeling, particularly after winning the All-Star race in 2000."
Kelley says some of the best times were simple ones.
“When we were growing up, my dad was always traveling and we didn’t have a ‘normal’ family routine where he’d come home every evening and we’d all sit down for dinner and talk about how our day went,” she says.
“Sometimes we’d take trips together to the farm, not talking about anything in particular. Those times were few, however, and I suppose that’s what makes them so special. Little private moments that most families take for granted were special for us because we didn’t get to enjoy many of them.”
Because their father was busy and always on the go didn’t mean he didn’t take an interest in his growing brood.
“He spent as much time with us as he could,” Kelley says. “We always knew he cared about us and was there for us when we needed him.”
“He had a piece of land that he spent all his free time on,” Dale Jr. recalls. “Going out there with him and listening to him discuss his future plans was always interesting. He had tremendous common sense, and his plans were always well thought out, really clever.”
Dale Jr. says his father “gave me pretty much the stuff you would expect” in terms of parental advice: “School was important. Who you hung out with was important. Stay away from bad influences. Don’t drink or do drugs.”
`It gives me chills'
A lifelong bachelor, Dale Jr. says the spirit of his father is with him at all times, and he means it literally. In July 2004, he was involved in a hard crash while practicing for an American LeMans Series race in Sonoma, Calif. The car exploded into flames and a dazed Dale Jr. was trapped inside for 14 horrendous seconds before pulling himself out.
Later, in a 60 Minutes interview, he said his father “had a lot to do with me getting out of that car. I don’t know how else to put it. I swear somebody had me underneath my arms carrying me out of the car. It gives me chills.”
Having lost his father so suddenly makes Dale Jr. appreciate the fragile nature of life and relationships.
“I try to make people aware of the importance of being around your family as much as possible,” he says. “It’s so easy to take for granted. I know I did, and it’s a big regret of mine. I try to help my friends understand to take the time they have and use it wisely. I feel lucky for the time I had with my dad.”
Dale Jr., like his father, remains true to his roots, living in the same Kannapolis, N.C., area in which he was born and raised.
“My father was very down to earth,” he says. “He liked to hunt and fish and work on his farm. He was a big-time celebrity but he never forgot where he came from. I think that was a big part of his appeal and I try to follow his example.”
Dale Jr. and Kelley agree that the rough, tough racer known as “The Intimidator” had another side.
“He was compassionate and he genuinely cared about people,” Kelley says. “He did a lot of things for people that the public never knew about. He taught us to always do right by people. He was a neat person to look up to.”
“He was a good man and a good father,” Dale Jr. adds. “As I was growing up, I was always aware of what a special person he was and how he was admired by so many fans. I was so proud of him, proud to be his son and proud to carry his name. I despair that the sport will never see another man like he was.”