Los Angeles Times

Dale Jr. carries on the Earnhardt name

of the Sentinel Staff

What drove the son so fast, so hard was not the fame and the fortune.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. became a race car driver for a much larger, far more worthwhile reason. He started racing to try to win his father's approval.

“What other reason do you race for?” Earnhardt Jr. once said.

“You race for thousands of dollars. That's good. You race to win. That's good. Those are good reasons. But there's nothing wrong with wanting to make my Dad happy. A lot of people think it's bad that I race to make him happy or wonder that what I'm doing is not for me.

“I'll get mine in the end.”

He won two NASCAR races before Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona, making his father happy and proud.

And there was something even more precious that the son was at last sharing his with Dad.


Dale Earnhardt Sr. was often distant from his family, emotionally as well as physically, as he chased his superstar career. Joining his profession was the only way that Dale Jr. knew he could get close to him --- at least as close as anybody could get to this intensely private man.

Tomorrow, a week after his legendary father was killed in a crash at Daytona, Dale Jr. soldiers on alone in a sport that brought he and his father closer and then cruelly put a distance between them forever.

Now, at 26, he is left to carry on and honor his Dad's name.

“We've had to take some very deep breaths and get everything in perspective, and it's really been a difficult time,” said Earnhardt Jr. on Friday, when he made his only comments since his father's death. “The main focus now is to try to maintain and progress with the vision my father had with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“I miss my father and I've cried for him out of my own selfish pity,” he said, soundly more like his stoic father. “But I'm just trying to maintain a good focus for the future and remember that he's in a better place that we all want to be.”

Earnhardt Jr. sat at a table with his red baseball cap on backward and orange designer sweatshirt. He still looked like the hotshot rookie who burst onto the NASCAR scene last season and won twice. But he struggled with sudden success, partying too much and letting his ego inflate. Everything has changed now, forcing Earnhardt Jr. to grow up.

“You'd probably find that Junior's maturity level has escalated a great deal over the last week,” said Larry McReynolds, Earnhardt's former crew chief. “You'll now find him to be a man on a mission to go out and win races, to run for championships, and to be everything his father always hoped for.”

Dale Jr. will have to first make it through this emotional race, the Dura-Lube 400.

Everywhere he turns there are memories of his father. Decals have been slapped on cars in his honor. Fellow drivers are wearing Dale Earnhardt caps or his Dad's famed No. 3 on their uniforms. Today, NASCAR will salute Earnhardt Sr. in prerace ceremonies.

“Dale Jr. was here early in (Friday) morning and we went over there to talk to him. It made us feel better and I think it made him feel better,” driver Kenny Wallace said.

“Dale Jr.'s going to feel OK at times, and at times he'll feel like he's having a heart attack,” said Wallace, who struggled with the death of his 2-year-old nephew some time ago. “He'll be somewhere and think, ‘Oh, my gosh!' That's going to happen. He'll never be OK. The days are going to be a little longer now.”

Retired veteran Darrell Waltrip, whose brother, Michael, won the Daytona 500 in a car owned by Dale Sr., said, “Dale Jr. looked up to his father and now he's lost his mentor. He's in a dark and lonely place.”

And fair or not, Dale Jr. must deal with the inevitable comparisons to his father's legend. “As much as Junior is like him, he may be bigger than Dale (one day), but he won't be like him,” driver Dale Jarrett said. “There are going to be differences. Dale Earnhardt was a very special individual on the race track and off.”

A hip, Generation X driver, Dale Jr. once said that he was aware of the burden placed on him as Dale Earnhardt's son, but “that pressure doesn't bother me, doesn't influence me in any way. But pressure is no fun. It's just a constant alarm clock you can never turn off.”

Dale Sr. never pushed Dale Jr. or any of his other three children into the sport. The first time his Dad took him racing, Dale Jr. drove a go-kart. He didn't know the brake from the accelerator, and when he took off, the go-kart climbed several feet up a guy wire holding a power line in place.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. grew up the son of a racer, too, destined for the life that played out for the last 25 years. His father, Ralph Earnhardt, was a late-model sportsman star.

At 17, Dale Jr. went to a junkyard and bought a late-model stock car. He rebuilt it and raced at local North Carolina bullrings, following the family tradition. His father offered guidance, but he refused to make it easy for Dale Jr., despite having vast resources. He wanted Dale Jr. to know the struggles, making sure that racing was what he really wanted to do.

L'il E won just three races in three years, but he won them without his father interfering as a Sugar Daddy or a Little League parent.

Dale Sr. had not been around as much as his son --- the product of the second of Earnhardt's three marriages --- would have liked.

“There was an absence. We had good schooling and good opportunities because of him. But when you're a kid, you don't realize all of that,” Dale Jr. said. “The family suffers but it's a part of the job.”

Dale Sr. said in an interview, “Me being in racing, it was tough sometimes doing the Friday night, Saturday night ball game thing together. But he had a good childhood, I think.”

Instead of merely supplying him with a race car and offering him the services of the powerhouse Dale Earnhardt Inc., Dale Sr. made his son wipe windshields and change the oil on cars in the shop. Although Dale Sr. was a multi-millionaire, he paid Dale Jr. $350 a week.

Dale Jr.'s first race car was a 1978 Monte Carlo that he bought with his brother, Kerry. He started working his way up in the minors, driving in the Busch Series and demonstrating the bullying Earnhardt style.

He was fined $5,000 and placed on probation for 90 days after knocking around Tony Stewart's race car. Stewart chased Dale Jr. through the pits he was so angry. “Everyone gives me crap about driving rough,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But it's like watching boxing. You don't pay to see someone throw the jab all night. You want to see the knockout.”

He won his second consecutive championship in 1999, and attracted Busch beer, which signed him to a 5-year, $10 million sponsorship contract. The company was hedging its bet that L'il E had received some of Big E's racing genes.

Dale Jr. was awarded with a full-time ride in cars built by his father, although he didn't learn about the deal until he saw a press release. Typical Dale Sr.. He didn't want his son to simply assume he would be hired because they were of the same blood. “It was handled very badly, actually,” Dale Jr. said. “Dad avoided talking to me about it. I didn't know for sure that I was the driver until the name decals came into the shop two weeks before Daytona.”

Earnhardt Sr. tried to keep his son grounded. He had bought a double-wide trailer across the street from his sprawling home for Dale Jr. to live in. He insisted that the money Dale Jr. received from the family souvenir sales go into an investment fund.

After driving in five Winston Cup races in ‘99, Dale Jr. won three events and two poles the next season to finish runnerup to Matt Kenseth as Rookie of the Year. He moved from the double-wide and into his own house, where he threw parties in a basement he dubbed, “Club E.” Success had swollen his head.

“My dad said I probably shouldn't have said anything about the nightclub, and at first I didn't think it was a big deal,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I let reporters come over to do stories and camera crews in, and after a while I was like, ‘Dad's right, what am I doing? This is my house.”'

Earnhardt Jr. toned down his image after talking with his father, realizing he might be disappointing him. It was the last thing he wanted to do. Dale Sr. wasn't an easy man to read or reach at times, not a man to openly share his feelings --- be it disgust or praise.

Don Hawk, Earnhardt's former business manager, has a picture on his desk that he thinks best captures the relationship between father and son. “Dale Jr. is getting out of the race car after the (Busch) win at Dover (in 1999),” Hawk said. “He's looking at his daddy, and he's got a look on his face where words are coming out of his eyes: ‘Daddy, what did you think?' And Dale Sr. is hugging him with a smile that says, ‘I approve.'

“Words between them, they don't come easy.”

Dale Jr. once said of Dale Sr., “It's like a never-ending process, earning his respect. It's bottomless. I get worn out by it at times. But it's something you always want. Sometimes it becomes more than the job at hand.”

But when Dale Jr. won his first NASCAR race at Texas last year, Dale Sr. called home to Kannapolis, N.C., to make sure every relative was awake to celebrate Junior's win --- just as the family waited up until 3 a.m. to salute Dale Sr. after he finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998.

Asked last year about his son, Dale Sr. said, “I felt he turned out pretty nice.”

Dale Jr. often heard how proud his Dad was of him from other people. In an open letter written by Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, and published Friday in USA Today, she offered insight into the man.

“The public Dale Earnhardt wanted to be the best,” she said. “The competitive drive that burned inside of him gave him the passion to win. If he was racing, he wanted to win the most races and championships. If he was fishing, he wanted to catch the most fish.

“The private Dale Earnhardt, the husband and father and son and brother, wanted to be the best as well. He struggled with that at times. Emotions didn't come as easy to this man who stirred so much emotion in other people. But as his children grew and began making decisions of their own, he saw that most of the time, they made the decision by asking themselves, ‘What would Dad do?”'

Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't even have to ask himself what his Dad would do on Sunday.

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