SI Flashback: Dale Bonding
Rivalry, of all things, has brought Dale Earnhardt closer to his son. But the boy still knows to steer clear of the old man when he's behind the wheel
by Leigh Montville
Issue date: December 22, 1999
The Goodwrench dealers listened. They sure did. There must have been 400 of them, maybe 500, sitting in respectful silence no more than 30 minutes ago in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, Mich. Dale Earnhardt could have been the preacher, and they could have been his congregation. That was how hard they were listening to his descriptions of NASCAR life. So why won't a man's own son listen the same way? "Dale Jr. just won't get up in the morning," says Earnhardt, belted into the passenger seat of a Monte Carlo rental car as his publicity man, J.R. Rhodes, drives toward Michigan Speedway and the Pepsi 400 race weekend that awaits.
"You've got to get up in the morning. That's the best time of the day. I was up at 4:30 today. I'm up by 5 every day. Junior... he's backsliding. He gets up at 8, 8:30, 9. You miss so much when you get up that late, I tell him. But he just won't listen." The words come out in little bursts that fill the rent-a-car.
"Just won't get up...."
"You've got to get up...."
No meanness, no malice is intended. To the contrary. This is a father's eternal fuss. See these lines around the old man's eyes, these crow's feet? They have been accumulated by watching, looking, staring at a lot of people, things, events. My mistakes don't have to be your mistakes, son. All you have to do is listen.
"He stays up half the night," Earnhardt continues. "Working on that computer. What does he do on it, the computer?"
The father looks through the windshield at the passing cornfields, the miniature golf courses, the countryside. Every now and then on the 55-minute drive there is a billboard or a sign on a tavern or an auto dealership that features his famous name. Every now and then, but less so, there is a sign featuring his son's name.
"Stays up half the night...."
That last word, the way it is pronounced, is made to sound as midnight-illicit as a six-pack of beer wrapped in a Playboy magazine. There you go. Computer. Kids these days.
The father is nothing less than a NASCAR legend: 48 years old, the Intimidator, the Man in Black, winner of seven Winston Cup points championships, more than 70 Winston Cup races, still the most menacing sight in the rearview mirror, coming up on you in that black number 3 car, God save your soul. The son is the ultimate in NASCAR potential: 25 years old, winner of the Busch Series points championship two years in a row, already part-time on the Winston Cup circuit in 1999, full time in 2000; the Y2K Earnhardt, driving that red number 8 car, ready to rock and ready to roll.
Charging along at 180, 190, 200 miles per hour--part of the family business--the two men have already met on the racetrack. They will meet again during the coming weekend. They will meet again every week in the new NASCAR year. Son will challenge father. Father will challenge son.
"I never thought Dale Jr. was going to be a driver," the father says. "He never seemed to have the interest. He wasn't one of those kids who always wanted to be around the garage, to see how things worked. What's happened has kind of surprised me."
"I always wanted to be a driver," the son says. "There always was this idea, though, that you had to sweep the floor for a year before you ever got a chance to touch a wrench. I didn't want to sweep the floor."
Father and son. Son and father. Is there any better rivalry than that?
Dale Jr. is the second child of his father's second marriage. His sister, Kelly, a former short-track racer herself, is two years older. An older half brother--Kerry, 29, from Dale's first marriage--also races occasionally on the Busch circuit. His younger half sister, Taylor, 10, from Dale's present, third, marriage, does not race, although she does tool around in the yard in her own golf cart. It is a family story, played out to a background of exhaust and ambition and automotive commerce.
The father has followed the racer's ceaseless succession of left-hand turns toward success for more than 25 years, bumping and snarling, shoving people out of the way, building an empire that now includes speedboats and a Learjet, bulldozers and a helicopter, hydrocarbon toys of every dimension and a giant farm in Mooresville, N.C. The son, sometimes feeling left behind in the process, eventually followed the father.
"The first time I was on the track with him was in Tokyo [in November 1998]," Dale Jr. says. "I searched for him during happy hour. I tried to get up close to him. It was cool just to be there."
Being close to his father has been a problem throughout the son's life. How do you develop a relationship in fits and starts? Until he was six, Dale Jr. and Kelly lived with their mother. When they moved into their father's house, in 1980, well, that was the year he was off winning his first Winston Cup championship. From there, the father's schedule grew more and more hectic as the sport grew, as sponsorship commitments became larger, as the NASCAR race schedule was spread wider on the map, stretching across the entire country and calendar. Dale says Teresa, his third wife, basically had to raise the kids. Time with Dad had to be slipped in between the 400s and 500s of the land.
Even when they got together, miscommunication was a problem for the father and son. The father was not some Little League hugger. He was more like an old-time dad, slow with praise, every word measured. The son was shy, running about two quarts low on self-esteem.
"I always wanted Dale Jr. to get an education," the father says. "I always talked about that. My biggest regret is that I dropped out of school in ninth grade. My father told me it was a mistake. I just wouldn't listen. I wanted to make sure Dale Jr. didn't make the same mistake. It was a battle, but we got him through."
"Education," Dale Jr. says. "Yeah, it was such a big thing. So I graduated high school, and where was my father? He didn't come to graduation. He was in a race somewhere. I understand now, of course, but I was looking forward to holding that diploma in his face. Except he wasn't there. He was at some other end of the earth."
That simply was the way things had to be. Life on the road took precedence over life at home. That was the modern NASCAR grind.
The father had also grown up in a race car driver's house, but in a far different time. He remembers going to races with his father, Ralph Earnhardt, winner of the 1956 NASCAR Sportsman championship, who was selected by NASCAR in 1998 as one of the top 50 drivers of all time. Dale Sr. remembers the excitement of it all. The races were mostly in North Carolina and Georgia, mostly on Saturday nights. Ralph would win, and the family would drive home and there would be a party. Ham steaks would be fried next to eggs, a country breakfast at midnight, and his aunt and uncle, neighbors and friends would gather to talk about the race until dawn.
"That never happened with us," Dale Jr. says. "I would have loved it, I think, but that never happened. The races were on Sundays mostly and were all over the country, and even if we went and even if my dad won, he'd usually be fuming about something somebody did to him in the race. Sometimes he'd come back home from somewhere in the country, after he won a race, and he'd get on another plane to go hunting somewhere."
Back then, in the early 1980s, the son's life was modest, the father's empire not yet built. There was a normal house on a lake, school and friends, nothing extravagant. There were also trips to some races, where Dale Jr. played with kids whose last name was Petty. There was the ever-present work done every day in the garage on the cars, the ever-present talk about cars and driving, the headlines on Monday morning, the ever-present, rapidly growing celebrity of his father.
Dale Jr. was small for his age, "meek" almost, his sister, Kelly, says. She worried about him. Moments of confrontation would arise in school. You're the son of the Intimidator? Well, what did your daddy do at Daytona? Or Talladega? Or Martinsville? Being the child of a NASCAR star was a 24-hour operation.
"The thing about NASCAR fans is they either love you or hate you," Kelly says. "The ones who love you, they love you all the way. They know everything about your life, everything about your family's lives. There aren't any secrets. The fans who hate you, well, they can't stand anything about you. It can be a problem either way. Being two years older than Dale Jr., I guess I took on the role of the protective sister."
As a kid, Dale Jr. had made the obligatory trips to the go-kart track. His father would stand a few feet from the wall, making the boy drive through the tiny space between him and the wall. With each successive lap, the father would stand a little closer to the wall, make it a little harder to squeeze through. The idea was to teach the son how to get the best arc on his turns. He didn't become serious about racing, however, until 1991, his senior year of high school. By then Kerry had moved onto the scene. They hadn't known each other, hadn't even met until Dale Jr. was 13 because Kerry lived with his mother, but now the two teenagers decided to go racing. They started working on an old car, a '78 Monte Carlo, getting it ready for the track. Their father watched them for a couple of days. When he saw they were serious, he came out to lend a hand.
"I put in a good set of roll bars, a harness, straightened out all of the safety stuff," Dale Sr. says. "Then I just let 'em do the rest themselves. Safety was my one concern."
The brothers raced for a season, alternating rides every week on the short tracks in the area. The father watched and offered to buy two identical cars for the next season. Kelly raised her hand. Couldn't a girl race too? The two cars became three. For the next two years, there were three young Earnhardts rolling around the North Carolina short tracks. They usually didn't race against each other. They headed for separate tracks, separate events, then came home to report progress. Who finished higher? Who crashed? The best finisher claimed he or she was the best driver. The worst finisher blamed the car. It was a hoot.
Dale Jr. turned out to be the champion. He found he had a capacity for hard work, an interest in improvement that no one had suspected in him--certainly his father hadn't. He spent time in the garage and on the track. He developed the driving style of a veteran, picking his spots to challenge, to lay back. Four years after he first started racing, he was in the Busch Series. Five years after he started racing, he was a champ.
Kelly, frustrated at not finding people in the garage who would work on a woman's car, retired and took a job in the real world, as an account executive with a racing merchandising company. Kerry, whose driving style was hard charging, with a tendency to crash, got married, had two kids and now only races sporadically. He couldn't spend the time or give the attention to the sport that his half brother could. Dale Jr. was the one. He was given the opportunity to run five Winston Cup races this year and will run the entire schedule next year as a rookie. Against his father.
"I raced one time with my own father," Dale Sr. recalls. "One night in 1972 there was a Sportsman race at one track and a small Grand National field at another. The promoters said that the first six finishers in the Sportsman race also could run the Grand National, to fill out the field. I finished second, so I was added to the field.
"At the Grand National, I was running really good near the end, fourth. My father was in the lead, followed by another Grand National driver, then by the guy who'd finished first in front of me in the Sportsman race. I was trying to get by that guy, but I just couldn't do it. He was faster. Well, as we come to the final lap, my father comes up behind me. He's just about lapped the field. He puts his bumper against mine and he starts pushing me! He pushes me right by that other guy, and I finish third. The other guy is fourth. He was so mad. He was screaming about the Earnhardts, but there was nothing he could do. It was a great feeling, that race. I never got to do it again before my dad died [in 1973]."
The best meeting between Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. was a bit different. It came on the final lap of an IROC series race at Michigan last June. They were driving identical Pontiacs, and on the final lap Dale Jr., in the race as the Busch champion, was a surprising second, directly behind his father. He waited to pass, waited to pass, knowing he could not pass until the absolute end because there was no way he could keep a lead against his experienced father. On the final turn, he made his move. High.
For a moment, he was side by side with the old man and seemed to be moving ahead. The moment ended. Front ends bumped. The son slid sideways and finished second. The father won the race. There is still dispute about the cause of the collision.
"I show him the pictures," the father says. "I show him the angle. Is there any doubt about who hit who?"
"Are you kidding?" the son replies. "He creamed me."
The track is in sight. The same Michigan Speedway at which the IROC duel occurred. Back again. The father looks at the metal stands that run forever, room for more than 100,000 fat boys to sit on Sunday and gulp in the fumes. A tunnel leads to the trailers in the middle of the infield. Home. Home away from home. Familiar. The father thinks about the son.
"Get him on the phone," Earnhardt says to Rhodes, his publicity man. "See where he qualified for tomorrow for the Busch."
Rhodes punches out the numbers on the cell phone. He reaches Dale Jr. at his trailer.
"Third," Rhodes reports. "He qualified third."
"Is he there?" the father asks. "Let me talk to him."
"He's just leaving. Going to the mall."
"Tell him to get me a present. Tell him to get me a CD. Tell him to get me... Alison Krauss. Tell him to get me the new Alison Krauss CD. I'd like that."
Fathers and sons. They always will be different, Dale and Dale Jr. They come from different times, different situations. They even look different, not much family resemblance at all between the blocky, middle-aged legend with his trademark state-trooper moustache and the slight rookie, a new goatee and moustache growing ever so slowly, looking as if it needs some fertilizer or something.
The odd thing is that now, as competitors, they are closer than they've ever been. They talk more. They see each other more. They share more of each other's lives.
"I'm going through a lot of the things my father's been through, and I'm starting to understand him more," the son says. "I feel we're able to relate to each other easier."
"It's really exciting to watch him, to be a part of it," the father says. "I scold him once in a while. I don't think there's a dad who doesn't voice an opinion with his son. But I have to be careful, because I want him to learn."
On Saturday, Dale Jr. will win the Napa 200 in the Busch Series at Michigan, beating a field that includes Winston Cup stars Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. It will be a big push toward his second straight Busch Series championship. On Sunday, Dale Sr. will finish fifth in the Pepsi 400, running with the leaders until Bobby Labonte pulls away in the race's final laps. Dale Jr., in only his third Winston Cup race and his first on a superspeedway, will finish 24th.
Oh, yeah, and the present for dad? The CD? Alison Krauss?
"I got it," Dale Jr. reports. "I went to the record store. I like different music. Pearl Jam. Stuff my father never heard of. I found Alison Krauss. There must have been 20 CDs by her. I didn't know which one was the new one. So I bought 'em all. Alison Krauss."
The name is pronounced as if it were the name of some 18th-century German composer, some incredibly lame elevator music. Alison Krauss. There you go. Parents.
"I always wanted to be a driver," Dale Jr. says. "There was this idea, though, that you had to sweep the floor for a year before you ever got a chance to touch a wrench. I didn't want to sweep the floor."
Issue date: December 22, 1999