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."