Thursday, August 05, 2010

NYT Mag: Dale Jr. 'wanted to get out from under being Dale Earnhardt's son'

The New York Times Magazine has a very intriguing profile on NASCAR racer and product pitchman Dale Earnhardt Jr. The piece, "In the Name of the Father," written by Pat Jordan, basically asks, "Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. Outrace His Father's Influence?"

The short answer, upon reading the piece, is that Little E has struggled mightily to do that -- with little to show for it. He does, however, keep trying. To his credit, "Junior" attempts to keep some semblance of normalcy in his life -- which is tough with 3-4 PR people around him at almost all times.

“He is very, very introverted,” a publicist says [begins the article]. “He lives alone. He plays video games by himself eight hours at a clip. He’s a multimillionaire, yet he lived alone for months in a 20-by-20 garage loft.”

The 35-year-old Earnhardt "has been the most famous driver in Nascar, and most beloved by fans, over the past eight years, and yet he has almost vanished from sight in Nascar winner circles. He has not won at Nascar’s top level since 2008. Last year, his worst ever, he finished 25th out of 72 Nascar drivers in the final standings — a sad comedown for a driver who was once a kind of Elvis of his sport, the winner of 15 races in his first five full seasons, starting in 2000. So this season would seem to be pivotal for Earnhardt, because it may well determine whether he reclaims his position as Nascar royalty — his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was one of Nascar’s greatest drivers — or sink for good into midpack anonymity, grinding out one frustrating race after another as he pushes 40, the equivalent of Elvis as a second-rate Vegas lounge crooner."

Here are some more of the highlights from the article (which you can read by clicking above).

For the past seven years, Nascar fans have voted Earnhardt Jr. their favorite driver. He has appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," hosted his own TV show, “Back in the Day,” and handed out an award at the Country Music Awards ceremony. He makes millions of dollars a year racing, and he earns another $10 million endorsing the likes of Adidas, Nationwide Insurance and Wrangler jeans, and for selling merchandise with his name, face, car number and signature on it. His crew chief, Lance McGrew, described him to me as “the Pied Piper of Nascar.” “If Dale’s not running good in a race, fans turn the channel. He’s Nascar’s most important marketing tool.” Mark Martin, Earnhardt’s racing teammate, told me, “Junior has the weight of Nascar world on his shoulders.”


His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., grew up hardscrabble in Kannapolis, N.C., dropped out of school in ninth grade, married and had kids as a teenager and spent his early race years hustling odd jobs as a mechanic, welder, anything in order to put together a stake to keep his race cars running. He was an aggressive driver, one short step from a dirty driver. His fans called him the Man in Black, Big E, the Intimidator and Ironhead. He began his career in 1975 and was the last of a line of irascible, hard-nosed, old-timey drivers going back to moonshiners outrunning revenuers over mountain roads. Earnhardt Sr. was beloved because he started poor, like his fans, was ruthless on the track and a winner. Today many of the best Nascar drivers, like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, are not Southerners at all (both are from California) and are clean-shaven, well-spoken men who never banged around dilapidated race cars on red clay tracks.


“It’s hard to maintain your cool dealin’ with three or four P.R. people [said Earnhardt]. People think I’m always pickin’ my next move. Hell, I have no marketing savvy. I just do what I’m told. It’s frustrating to hear I should decide whether I want to be a race-car driver or a marketing tool. In Nascar I have to be both.”


Nascar, like country music, likes to refer to itself as family, and in truth, it has always been dominated by families. ... Earnhardt Sr. had three families. He left his first two without much consideration. He let his first wife’s new husband adopt his son Kerry so he wouldn’t have to pay child support. His second wife struggled financially with Dale and Kelley until their house burned down and he reluctantly took in his two children when they were 10 and 12, respectively. There was tension from the very beginning between Earnhardt Jr. and his father’s third wife, Teresa. On top of that, Earnhardt Sr. was a strict, penurious and distant father. His son and Kelley had a 13-inch black-and-white TV for 15 years.

“My daddy never let us have friends over,” Earnhardt told me, “’cause he didn’t want them tearing up his new possessions. He never really did anything with me. He never told me things. We were raised by six or seven nannies. I always thought he felt I wasn’t much like him.” Kelley says that as a child, her brother was small, timid and sensitive. Kids bullied him. She tried to protect him. “We were as close as you could be,” Earnhardt said. “We still are.” He went on to say, “I feel like a child star protected by all these stage moms.”


Earnhardt is reclusive because beyond his own small world in Mooresville (what his publicist calls his playground), his life isn’t his own. It wasn’t his own when he was under the shadow of his father, and now he has found himself held hostage again, this time by Nascar. He’s too valuable for Nascar to be left on his own. So he’s constantly trailed and driven and steered this way and that by his handlers.

(Image from Mark Peterson/Redux for the New York Times)

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