When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was given what is virtually a birthright for a NASCAR champion's son, a full-time ride in a car owned by his father, the occasion wasn't everything that he had hoped for. "It was handled very badly, actually," says Dale Jr., 23. Sure, he had been testing his dad's Busch series car during January, a certain sign that Dale Jr. would drive it when the season started, in mid-February, but he never heard the news straight from his old man. "He avoided talking to me about it," Dale Jr. says. "I didn't know for sure that I was the driver until the name decals came into the shop two weeks before Daytona."
So it goes when your dad is both laconic and the manager of an eponymous racing empire. Dale Jr. has proved himself this year with two poles and four top five finishes, including a win in the Coca-Cola 300 at Texas in April. Despite a 30th-place finish in the Carquest 300 at Charlotte last Saturday, he's third in the Busch series standings. "I know he just wants to teach me respect," Dale Jr. says in defense of his father's curiously cold way of welcoming him to the team. "He didn't want me to assume."
Things were never certain for the senior Earnhardt in his early days, when he raced hard because he had to win money to buy groceries. He has instilled the same work ethic in Dale Jr. and his three siblings. While the elder Dale spent his time either on the track or managing Dale Earnhardt Inc., which netted an estimated $15.5 million through endorsements and souvenir sales last year, Dale Jr. was raised by nannies (his parents separated when he was a toddler) and spent his junior high years at a military school. When he was 17, he went to a junkyard and bought a late-model stock car, which he rebuilt and raced at local tracks. In three years of NASCAR late-model competition, Dale Jr. had modest results, winning 12 poles and three races, but he did it all without his father's help.
"I'd welcome his input more," says Dale Jr. "I'd like for him to be sitting here right now, but he's probably out on the race track." There's so little discussion between the two that Dale Jr. hears second-and third-hand from people at the track how proud his dad is of him, that the Intimidator had tears in his eyes after Dale Jr.'s Texas win.
Dale Jr. says he's not bitter about his dad's distant approach to parenting. He accepts that his father, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is a man of few words and that he's busy. "Now I understand some of what he was going through all those years," he says. "There are a lot of people tugging at you all the time."
Dale Jr. is already the most popular driver in the Busch series, with the most interview requests and the most autograph seekers, but his newfound fame hasn't changed the way he lives. While his father owns a farm, boats and a Learjet with two full-time pilots, Dale Jr., who's single, lives in a double-wide trailer across the street from the Earnhardt race shop in Mooresville, N.C. He lives off his $500-a-week driver salary. He also receives a percentage of his team's souvenir sales and winnings, though all that money goes into an investment fund. His measure of success is how well he finishes in a race, not what material objects he has. "I would like to be good enough to make it into Winston Cup by the year 2000," he says. "I feel sure that Dad will still be racing."
Then maybe the son could finally be close to his father, if only on the track.