This is not the way you'd expect the son of the Intimidator to look. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 28, is slight, with short orangish hair, small blue eyes, and wispy, indefinable facial hair (beard? goatee? mustache?). He dresses in oversize sweatshirts and baggy shorts, often with a stocking cap pulled down to his eyes. But the effect doesn't really take. He looks like Richie Cunningham impersonating a street thug.
Earnhardt has a lot of fans, some from the Eminem generation, and others from the Johnny Cash generation, inherited from his late father, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. Dale Jr. is the most famous race-car driver in NASCAR today. In 119 career NASCAR starts, he has made more than $15 million, not counting the money he's earned by endorsing Budweiser beer, Drakkar Noir cologne, and the Car No. 8 merchandise that fills convenience stores.
Earnhardt has been profiled in 'Rolling Stone' and interviewed by 'Playboy' (in which he used words like dude and fuck a lot), and has given MTV's 'Cribs' a tour of his home, paying particular attention to the dance club he constructed in his basement, which he had dubbed Club E. Recently, he was asked to photograph 'Playboy's' Dahm triplets in the garage behind his house, where he works on race cars, drinks beer, and eats beef jerky with his posse of friends.
"It was cool, dude," he says. "[The Dahms] were buck-ass naked. I was really nervous, but it was just a job to them."
When it comes to his driving, Earnhardt has been called more hype than hero, better at drawing crowds than at winning races, a driver who has failed to live up to expectations and who is being surpassed on the track by younger, less experienced drivers. Last season, Earnhardt finished 11th in the point standings. Three drivers with fewer career wins finished ahead of him. Richard Petty, the retired "King" of NASCAR, said that Earnhardt had the potential to be "as good a driver as his daddy," but Jeff Green, a contemporary of Junior's, said, "If it wasn't for his dad, he wouldn't be here." Which goes a long way toward explaining why Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most conflicted member of a family that friends charitably call "very strange, very complex." They mean "dysfunctional."
There are four Earnhardts involved in NASCAR: Dale Jr. and his half brother, Kerry, 32, are drivers; Dale's sister, Kelley, 30, runs his JR Motorsports Company; and Teresa, 44, his stepmother, runs Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI), for which Dale races under the Budweiser banner. He and Teresa live in the same neighborhood and work within a hundred yards of each other yet communicate mostly by e-mail. They describe their relationship as "professional" and "businesslike," and each other as "loner[s]" and recluses. Their conflictedness is a legacy from the Earnhardt patriarch, the most famous and successful NASCAR driver of his time. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was lean and leathery, with the mean narrowed eyes and dark brush mustache of Wyatt Earp. He was called the Intimidator, Big E, and the Man in Black and was revered by his fans for the ruthless way in which he wrecked the cars that stood in his way on the track. He won seven NASCAR championships before he died, at 48, in a crash at Daytona Speedway. His fans, mostly poor, hardworking Southerners from rural areas, were devastated. One fan commented that it was "like the death of Elvis." In commemoration, white doves were released into the air at the start of races, and fans put decals of his car's number, 3, with wings and a halo above it, on the backs of their pickup trucks. Earnhardt Jr. called such devotion "sick" and "retarded."
Dale Sr. was a cold, distant, one-dimensional man who in his personal life was as close to his racing image as a man could be. He damaged not only race cars but also the psyches of his family. He was married three times and left twice, turning his back on both families. He had a son, Kerry, with his first wife, Latane; Dale Jr. and Kelley with his second wife, Brenda; and a daughter, Taylor, with his third wife, Teresa. After he left his first two families, he had so little contact with his children that Dale Jr. says that he "hardly knew him." Dale Jr. wasn't even aware that he had a half brother until Kerry was 16. One legacy Dale Sr. left his families, says Dale Jr., is "a competitiveness among me, Kelley, Kerry, Taylor, and Teresa to be the most recognizable in his eyes, even now that he's gone."
Even as the Earnhardts strive to be "recognizable," they know that whatever successes they have in life will always be tied to their name and relationship to their father. That's why Dale Jr. is so conflicted and why his self-image is so tenuous. It changes from year to year, month to month – sometimes moment to moment. He seems to be constantly struggling to find out who he is and who he wants to be, while, at the same time, the people guiding his career (Kelley; Teresa; Dale Sr.'s former PR person and the DEI publicist, J.R. Rhodes; and Jade Gurss, Junior's personal publicist) are fighting, sometimes among themselves, to convince him to assume the persona, both public and private, that would enhance his career – as well as theirs. Everyone around him, it seems, has a great stake in the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. and what that name means to fans.
The trouble is that, of the Earnhardt children, Dale is the least like his father. He says that Kelley, who raced briefly before going to college, "was the best driver of us all." She was fearless like her father, driving deep into corners before braking, and everyone who knows her says she is most like Dale Sr. Kerry, described by Kelley as a "caring, loving person," bears a striking physical resemblance to his father in a way that Junior doesn't. Dale Jr. admits that if Kerry had been named Dale Earnhardt Jr., then he'd probably have become the most famous member of the family. (Kerry drives a Busch Series car and regularly finishes in the middle of the pack.)
"I wouldn't be where I am today," says Dale, who prefers to be called Junior or Little E, "if I didn't have my dad's name."Junior was three when his father left the family. He rarely saw him over the next three years, while his mother struggled financially. Then, in 1981, their house burned down and his single mother was no longer able to support him and Kelley. "We lost everything," Junior says. His mother handed the kids over to Dale Sr., who was living with Teresa, 24 at the time. Even then, Junior didn't get to know his father much, since Dale Sr. and Teresa traveled to races constantly, leaving the children with nannies.
"It was just the two of us," says Kelley. "It was solitary, but we had each other. I was more mature, so I did motherly things for Dale." (Kelley prefers to call her brother Dale, not Junior.) He credits Kelley with 75 percent of his upbringing. "She could always handle things, so I went to her for everything."
They lived a sort of lonely rich-kids' life that is common to urban areas but not to Mooresville, North Carolina, a small town 30 miles north of Charlotte, whose younger residents generally have more in common with Dale Sr. than with Dale Jr. Because the Earnhardts' father was so popular and rich, they were picked on by other kids, who "had this stereotype of what we were like," says Kelley. The Earnhardts went to a new school every three years and had no friends and no father who went to their games. "Dad was strict," says Kelley. "We couldn't have kids come over to spend the night. We never sat down as a family to dinner. We didn't get everything we wanted. For 15 years, we had a 13-inch black-and-white TV." The worst times, says Junior, were when their mother visited. "She'd come for a weekend, and we'd stay with her at some crummy-ass motel. When she left, she'd cry. It tore us up. I love my mother. That's why it took me a long time to have a relationship with Teresa. I didn't give her a lot of respect."
Junior himself got no respect at school, says Kelley. "Kids bullied him. He was a lot smaller than they were. He was shy and sensitive and easily intimidated. He didn't stand up for himself. I never thought he'd race cars."
Instead, Junior retreated to his room, where he played with Matchbox cars and computers while his father raced cars and hunted. It must have dawned on his father that his slight, pale son not only looked nothing like him but also had none of his fiery nature. When Junior became a teenager, his father tried to make a man of him in a way fathers often do with sons they feel are too delicate. One time, Dale Sr. gave his 12-year-old son a sex talk about rubbers and getting girls pregnant, because "that's the trap he fell into. My brother, Kerry, too," says Junior. He told his son that "pull[ing] out in time" wasn't enough protection without a rubber. "I was a little embarrassed," says Junior. "I didn't want to hear that from my daddy."
Another time, Dale Sr. took his son for a ride to teach him how to handle a car when it swerves off the road. "Here's how you do it," his father said, jerking the steering wheel, forcing the car off the pavement. "Never yank it back," he said, "just bring it back gradually." His son was screaming in fear, "All right, Daddy! I get it!" Today, Junior says, "Dad got pissed off at me. He said, 'You don't trust me? I never worried driving with my daddy.'
"I always felt that my father thought I wasn't like him," says Junior. "He was worried I didn't have what it takes to be a tough guy. He thought I was a pushover." He remembers thinking that he didn't want to be the sensitive son; he wanted to be the Intimidator. "But I didn't try to be [sensitive]," he says. "That's just me. Maybe when I get older, I'll get meaner."
"You have to understand," says Kelley, "Dad loved being Dale Earnhardt, the Man in Black, the Intimidator, and all the things that went with it: the racing, the fans." Her father, it seems, was the only member of his various families who wasn't conflicted.
By the time he was ready for high school, Junior was, in his words, "a bad kid. I lied to my parents and didn't do what I was told, so they sent me to a military school." He got kicked out and was then sent to a Christian school until he graduated and left home at 18. By then, he had befriended Kerry, and the boys lived together in a trailer, where they hung around drinking beer. Junior's first real job was as a mechanic in his father's auto dealership. It was a menial job at first – he mostly did oil changes – but he loved it. "Eating with the guys," he says, "the camaraderie, Christmas parties. Everyone was real, as opposed to famous people who don't know who their friends are. If I ever left racing, I'd go back to being a mechanic. It was a good, honest job."
Still, he got no approval from his father and realized that he'd "never forge a relationship with him if I didn't race." So he began to race late-model stock cars. Tony Eury Sr., Dale Sr.'s chief mechanic, has said, "Junior wasn't doing well, because Dale made him use his own money and get his own sponsors – just like he'd had to do." That's when Junior began to effect the first change in his personality, going out of his way to prove his manliness. He started talking about how he loved the danger of racing cars. He bragged that he drank beer only to get drunk and that he could drink a case of beer a night. And then a funny thing happened: Junior, and his father, discovered that he had a very real talent for racing.
Junior, it seems, has a race-car driver's most important physical ability: to see images at more frames per second than ordinary people do. "It didn't take long for my mind to catch up to what my eyes were seeing and then for my mind to tell my body what to do," he says. He also had the ability to maintain his composure in racing traffic. "Some guys get confused, disoriented easily," he says. "I was able to focus on what I was doing. I saw other drivers lose their composure and get frustrated, but I was good at maintaining my composure." He was also smarter than most drivers, and patient, studying his competitors' flaws lap after lap; when they were most vulnerable, he'd pass them.
By 1998, Dale Sr. was so impressed with his son's driving that he offered him a Busch Series car to race out of his DEI stable. Junior won the Busch Series Championship that year and the next, and at the start of the 2000 season, he was driving his No. 8 Budweiser car for DEI in the big leagues, the Winston Cup Series. Junior recorded his first Winston victory, at Texas Motor Speedway, in only his 12th start. Afterward, his father came over to him in the winner's circle and said, "Good job. I love you. Get the fuck out of the car."
"He didn't say he loved me often," says Junior. At the time, "he felt content with what I was doing with my life." Still, Junior says, "I had problems driving for my father. I didn't get much respect as a driver from his employees. I was the SOB, Son of the Boss." After one race, Junior got into a fight with a member of Tony Stewart's crew, who called him a daddy's boy who had everything handed to him. Junior contributed to this resentment by breaking the NASCAR protocol in the drivers' prerace meetings, at which only veteran drivers sat in the front row. In his second season, Junior began sitting in the front row beside his father. Because of Dale Sr.'s status, none of the other drivers complained openly, but the older ones resented Junior's presumptuousness. It began to dawn on Junior that the close relationship he was beginning to enjoy with his father was giving people the perception that his driving successes were more related to his father's help than to his own skill. So he began to try to distance himself, not from his father, whose affection he had coveted for years, but from his father's image, that of the typical NASCAR driver, a good old Christian boy who listened to country-and-western music, hunted, and did his shopping at Wal-Mart. He made a point of telling reporters what his favorite band was – he'd mention some obscure grunge band – and watched as they scratched their heads in ignorance. He also trashed his father's favorite pastime, hunting, telling reporters he preferred to spend his free time on his computer. During one interview, he said he hoped he wouldn't "have to go to some Wal-Mart in the middle of Texas to sign autographs for two hours." His DEI handler at the time interjected, "To all the sponsors who have taken us to Wal-Marts, we love you, too."
Junior countered, "Speak for yourself."
Since Dale Sr. was still the major moneymaker at DEI, nobody at the company (including Teresa and publicist J.R. Rhodes) cared much about Junior's attempt to stake out his own counterculture, anti-NASCAR stance. Junior's image was just his, sort of like a toy for a little boy. The Dahm triplets. MTV's 'Cribs.' Drunken parties in his basement nightclub. Talk of his sexual conquests in 'Playboy.' His penchant for dissing country music, hunting, and Wal-Mart – the NASCAR Trinity – and even his own father. If anything, Junior was just being true to himself, at least to the self he had created at the time.
Then, on February 18, 2001, his father died at Daytona.
"After dad died, Dale was thrown into the spotlight," says Kelley. "Everyone followed him now." Without Dale Earnhardt Sr., the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. became very important to DEI. Without that name and its identification with a racing legend, DEI would probably not exist in its present form. Now everything Junior said, everything he did, every race he didn't win, was magnified under a microscope for DEI to scrutinize.
When his father was alive, Junior says, "I always had him to fall back on. Now where do I fit in?" Suddenly, he was the go-to man. He had to make the decisions that affected his career and, more important to others, the success of DEI. But he wasn't used to making decisions for himself, says Kelley. "Dad liked handling all aspects of his own career," she says. "But Dale can't juggle things. He can handle only one thing at a time. Besides, before Dad died, he and Teresa made all of Dale's decisions – where he banked, all his insurance, etc." So Kelley convinced her brother he needed someone he could trust to guide his career, to handle the unpleasant details. Junior agreed to put her in charge of JR Motorsports ("JR" for "Junior"), where she could oversee the licensing of his products, fan requests, and, beyond that, help out with his day-to-day troubles, like accounting.
Now that his career had suddenly gotten hot, Junior let others control it. It belonged to DEI, NASCAR, and his growing legion of fans. His father's fans flocked to him as the dauphin of the Earnhardt dynasty. "It didn't bother me that I inherited his fans," Junior says, "but I like to think that not all my fans are my dad's. I earned some of them." At times, the devotion of his father's fans to him was mindless, and it frustrated him. At times, "I ran like crap," he says, "and still got all the attention."
The only thing in his career that got worse was his standing among drivers. They began to take shots at him in the press, potshots they never would have taken if Big E had still been there to watch his son's back. Junior no longer sat in the front row at the drivers' meetings. "I didn't want to sit up front anymore," he says. "I moved back to the sixth row. I'll go back and take my front seat again one day."
The biggest change by far in his career was that he no longer had the luxury of developing his career as a driver in relative anonymity. His role as the Earnhardt standard-bearer took precedence. And because his image was now even more tightly entwined with his father's, he inherited the much greater expectations people had of the driver they predicted would replace the beloved Man in Black on the track. Yet, despite all the articles in NASCAR magazines about how Junior had not lived up to those expectations, he actually had been advancing his career at a pace much like Dale Sr.'s. In fact, he won seven races in his first three seasons – exactly as many as his father had.
In early February, I went to Daytona speedway to talk to junior. He was testing cars there in preparation for the Daytona 500, the same race in which his father had been killed two years earlier. I wondered which Junior I would meet. The sensitive Junior? The macho, swaggering Junior? The counterculture Junior? Or maybe the new Junior that had begun to emerge – a more conventional, professional NASCAR driver?
It was bitter cold in Daytona, the coldest February on record. Junior was already out on the track testing a car. I heard a high-pitched whistle, like that of a jet plane, and his car came hurtling past me at more than 190 miles per hour on the high-banked oval. Just as quickly, it was gone.
After a few laps, he pulled off the track and drove to his garage. He parked the car and remained inside, silent and still, in his Budweiser racing suit and helmet with a black visor, while his crew bustled around the car making adjustments. I looked around for J.R. Rhodes and told him that I wanted to interview Junior over dinner.
"That's not possible," he said. "Junior doesn't go to dinner with writers."
"Can I talk to him on the track, then?" I asked.
"Junior doesn't talk to writers at the track."
When could I talk to Junior? The answer: in my hotel room, after testing.
Later that night, Junior appeared at my hotel room, trailed by two friends and Rhodes. He sat across from me in the cramped room while his friends took the floor and Rhodes sat behind me. Rhodes had told me not to ask Junior about his father, but when I did, Junior didn't seem to mind talking about him.
"It doesn't bother me that I'll be compared with Daddy all my life," he said. "My father taught me to be a man." His father had also taught him how important it was to "try to be someone that fans can relate to," he said. He heard the fans boo Jeff Gordon once. "I never want to get booed," he said.
For the next 40 minutes, Junior, leaning toward me, answered my questions in a soft voice, with a directness and intelligence that I had rarely encountered among celebrities. Maybe it was because he still didn't like to think of himself as famous.
He said one of the problems with his fame is that he can't be as amiable to people as he once was. He doesn't let his friends bring strangers to his house anymore. "I don't like people I don't know to see my house," he said. "I didn't used to be like that. But Daddy always told me I'd get like that one day. You gotta always be in control. If a situation gets outta hand in a bar, I say, 'Let's take off.' I have to worry about my image. I have to choose who to be myself with."
It had been reported recently that Teresa, representing DEI, had offered him a lifetime contract to race for DEI and that he had turned her down on the advice of Kelley. Instead, he signed a five-year contract. When I asked Junior about this, he said, "Things change in five years. This protects me. I don't want to tie myself to a tree. I'd lose a lot of credibility."
"That's it," a voice said from behind me. Rhodes stood up and motioned to Junior that it was time to leave. "We're going out to dinner," he said
"Mind if I tag along?" I asked.
"I told you, Junior doesn't go out to dinner with writers," said Rhodes. I looked at Junior, a pale young man in baggy hip-hop clothes. There was something sweet-natured about him, something he could never have hidden no matter how famous he'd become, how hard he'd tried to cultivate the various images thrust on him. But there was also a curious remove about him, as if he were always talking and acting in public outside of his real self. Junior looked away and followed Rhodes out of the room.
I was supposed to talk to Junior again in late March, in Mooresville, on the day he would pose for a photographer for this magazine. Before I left, I tried to reach Teresa, to see if she would talk to me while I was in town. She relayed a message that she "declined to be interviewed for an article about Junior," which was strange, since the future of DEI rests on its most famous driver. Junior had told me that she was "real private. I'm in the dark about that, too. She wants me to do publicity. I don't mind; it's part of being a race-car driver. But Teresa has her days when she doesn't mind coming out from behind the curtain." Kelley told me, "Teresa has a lot left to do, in her eyes, to fulfill Dad's legacy."
I arrived in Mooresville five weeks after Daytona. I was supposed to meet Junior at his house at 11:00 a.m., so at nine I drove out into the country to JR Motorsports, which is located next to DEI, to talk to Kelley. DEI is a huge complex of white concrete buildings with blacked-out windows, which NASCAR people call the Garage Mahal. The complex is the home of the Dale Earnhardt museum, the DEI corporate offices, and all the car- and engine-building facilities. JR Motorsports is in a much smaller building to the left of DEI.
Kelley met me in the front room. She told me she didn't want to be interviewed in her office, so we stayed in the waiting room, under posters of Junior in his racing suit, near the receptionist. She said Dale Jr.'s image was the result of "collective effort" by her, Dale, Teresa, Jade Gurss, and Rhodes.
Of the Dahm triplets, she said, "It's kinda weird that people think of my little brother as a sex symbol. That 'Playboy' thing – I don't agree with all the things he does." (Part of DEI's publicity strategy for Junior is to maximize photo ops and minimize in-depth interviews, which, because of Junior's innate honesty, can't be controlled.)
I asked her if she had convinced Junior not to sign a lifetime DEI contract. "A lifetime is a long time," she said. "Dale doesn't want to be Little E forever." I asked if she and Junior had plans for him to one day race for their own company. "I wouldn't know that," she said, then stood up and left.
At 11, I had to wait at the electronically controlled gate leading up the long driveway to Junior's house. The gate opened, and I drove up and parked in front of his garage. One part of the garage houses Junior's personal cars (a Humvee, a custom-made Camaro, and a Mini Cooper S); the other part holds a race car he's been working on with his friends.
While the camera crew was setting up and a stylist was laying out clothes for him to wear, Junior came into the garage with Rhodes. He wore an oversize red-and-white-striped rugby shirt, and he was smoking a cigarette and drinking from a can of Mountain Dew. The women from the camera crew fluttered around him. He smiled and seemed charming, not an attribute I'd found common in the Earnhardt clan.
Rhodes refused to let me interview Junior in his house. Instead, we would drive – in separate cars – a few hundred yards to DEI.
I asked Rhodes why he was limiting my access to Junior. MTV's 'Cribs' had filmed him in his house. A 'Rolling Stone' writer followed him around for days.
"That was a mistake," Rhodes told me. "Now we're limiting interviews to less than 45 minutes. He won't go on 'Leno' or 'Letterman,' either. They ask, but we turn them down."
At DEI, Junior sat behind a desk and smiled at me. "What's up, dude?" he said. I asked him if he was abandoning his previous anti-NASCAR image as a means of trying to position himself closer to his father's image.
"I'm getting more conventional all around," he said. "I used to be carefree and outspoken. That was me. Now I want to be more focused. If I don't win, I don't want people to pile it up to the fact that I'm not focused. Because I was carefree before, they assumed it didn't matter to me. Fuck! I drove hard all my life. It's not like I didn't give a shit." He paused. "Like I can't have a personality and be a winner, too? They never questioned my dad's determination. He had this old trick that he'd be this tough-ass dude no one would ever fuck with. But I was always worried about not pleasing everybody." He stopped for a moment. "That still matters to me.
"Earlier, I made a conscious effort to distance myself from Dad's image. It was kinda wearing me out, always makin' a statement, 'I'm not him.' Now it doesn't matter. I credit my father for giving me his name, and everything else. I didn't have the vision for all this – it's a headache, all this hype. It was much funner earlier in my career. No politics. No bullshit."
When we finished talking, he stood up, smiling widely, like a kid. "Hey, dude," he said, "you wanna see my cars?"
He led me into the big garage, where his crew was assembling all the different cars. He explained the difference between setting up an oval car and a road-racing car, how the suspension of an oval car is offset to the left because the car is turning only left, while a road-racing car's suspension has to be perfectly square for left and right turns.
Rhodes appeared and said it was time for the photo shoot. I told Junior that the stylist had laid out all these new old-looking jeans for him. He laughed. "Ain't that always the way," he said. "No one wants to pay their dues. They'd rather buy new clothes that look used than work them in."
I asked one more question, and then I left. Driving out of Mooresville, I wondered what his answer had meant. It was a simple question for a race-car driver: What did he fear the most? Failure? Dying in a crash, as his father, the man who had shaped his career and his psyche, had? Without hesitation, Junior – the product of a broken home, the son of a man who wrecked two homes – said: "Divorce."
Pat Jordan writes often about sports for 'The New York Times Magazine.' He is the author of 13 books, including 'A False Spring and A Nice Tuesday: A Memoir.'