Brant James
Wednesday May 7th, 2008

MORE THAN 80 MILES OFF THE COAST OF JACKSONVILLE, FLA. -- The darkened innards of the stubby transport plane resonated with the shriek of metal scraping metal at high speed. The drone of twin-propeller engines was familiar by now, but of no comfort at this moment. The engines seemed to be straining again.

The pilot, as was becoming apparent to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the 13 other civilians aboard, had committed what Navy airman called a "bolter,'' a miss of the five braided steel arrestor cables that snag planes as they land on air craft carriers. His miscue was why the cloth and plastic "cranial" helmets and "horse collar" flotation device the passengers wore smelled oddly of nervous sweat.

"Here we go again!'' called the Navy airman handling the passenger compartment. All in all, just another work day in the decidedly un-mundane life of NASCAR's most popular driver.

"I figured it was some kind of thing they had up their sleeve,'' Earnhardt Jr. said after a successful landing atop the USS Theodore Roosevelt on the second attempt. "I wasn't too worried about it. I was ready to go in the drink if we had to. I thought that would be even more exciting than the typical landing. I wanted to be the one to pop that hatch and save us all. That would be awesome."

That's sort of what the Navy has planned.


The world calls him Junior. The Navy calls him Dale -- the likeable, successful, cool human face of their recruiting efforts and the centerpiece behind the newly formed 88-person Dale Jr. Division. On May 1, Earnhardt invited four reporters to tag along during his visit to a Navy vessel off the coast of Jacksonville.

"Having someone like Dale wanting to associate himself so closely with us, given the impression and appeal he has, the sailors really want to be a part of that,'' said Theodore Roosevelt commanding officer Capt. Ladd Wheeler, explaining the fervor Earnhardt Jr.'s junket had caused aboard. "Every individual here wants to contribute, to be a part of something, and to know he wants to be a part of that with us means something.''

Standard rhetoric from a commanding officer, especially one spearheading the greeting party in his state room a few levels and steep ladder descents from the flight deck. But down in the mess hall, 10 sailors, drawn from a lottery of 400, awaited their lunch date with Earnhardt.

Nearby tables were jammed and pocket cameras were positioned. Scores lined the passageway leading to a room where Junior would later sign autographs. And although a few sailors grumbled that maybe the $10 million to $20 million the Navy spent sponsoring Earnhardt's Nationwide Series car could have made their glazed carrots taste better or otherwise improved their mundane existence on this floating city of 3,600 sailors and 1,400 air wing members, most welcomed the marriage. It was money better spent than on a recruiter sitting alone at a desk in a strip mall. And most felt that Earnhardt draws attention to jobs they otherwise do in obscurity.

"It boosts morale," said Seaman Jenna Meny of Utica, Ohio, as Earnhardt later toured the bridge. "It lets us know people appreciate what we do."

It was apparent on a tour of the carrier that the 33-year-old Earnhardt was taken by the youth of those undertaking the task of making the middle-aged vessel run. He seemed to question if he could have been so responsible at that age. Seaman Keith Ketterer, 21, of Cincinnati, met eyes with Earnhardt as he handled the helm of the $5-billion craft and asked if he'd like to take control for a moment.

"You mind, man?' Earnhardt grinned, then sidled in. ".... Heavy wheel."

"I'd rather drive a race car," Ketterer smiled back.

These hundreds of brief but powerful interactions seemed to reinforce the answers Earnhardt had to find for himself when he made his deal with the Navy. Convincing consumers to patronize an energy drink or beer is a frivolous transaction. Convincing them to join the military is a matter of life and death.

"There's a whole different motive and a whole different agenda behind what the Navy does and what their job is and what success is to them,'' he said. "I had a lot of questions. I didn't have any doubts, but I had a lot of questions about working with the Navy and working with the military and what that would be like and that would have to be different. And it is."

Recruits can find a life of fulfillment, a pathway to college or what they always imagined was beyond places like Utica. But they can also give their life for their country.

"There's a huge amount of respect to the commitment that these people have ... and what they're going to be asked to do for the country and for all the citizens for the six-to-nine months they'll be away,'' Earnhardt said. "That doesn't go without saying. Even though everybody is perfectly aware of it, it is a lot clearer, I guess, when you're standing in the ship with them and you see how young they are. It's impressive to see someone at 19 years of age that is so confident and so well-schooled and tuned into the position they're in."

Earnhardt personal connections with the military began young, when he was sent to attend Oak Ridge (N.C.) Military Academy. They intensified about the same time as, but independently of, the Navy coming aboard to sponsor his team's new Nationwide Series program in 2006. One day he was cavorting with a new friend and some mutual buddies, and without any mention "Lee joined up,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. "Just took off. 'Going. See ya.' It's wild."

Without public knowledge or fanfare, Earnhardt has shipped copious and coveted care packages to his friend and his platoon in Iraq. Energy drinks, iPods, anything to shatter the dreadful monotony of a day at war.

"When I was in military school, you were homesick,'' he said. "The greatest thing was to get a care package in the mail from your parents. It had candy bars, socks, all kinds of s--- in it. That would come in the mail, and man, you were the s---. You were the hit of the dorm when you got your care package. Everyone wanted to come see what you got, check your stuff out and get what they could, or what you would give them.

"I don't know if these soldiers are that excited about it, but it's something. It has to be kind of neat to break the norm of the routine of the day. I'm sure every day for them is the same routine and they see the same thing over and over and over and they have less and less knowledge and contact with what's happening over here, whether its newsworthy or whatever. It takes five minutes out of somebody's time, when they go to Target or wherever they shop, to pick up something at Wal-Mart, if they get something else, if they bought some socks or whatever and just sent them. Pick a guy. I don't think it would be that difficult to find and address of a certain soldier if you wanted to send them something specifically. I'm sure those guys would appreciate that, sort of like a little surprise."

Capt. Wheeler keeps a collection of autographed sports memorabilia in the corner of his state room -- Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Al Kaline base balls, a Larry Murphy hockey stick -- from past "Distinguished Visitor" or "DV'' junkets. A new wing will be erected if all the Earnhardt helmets, hats, photographs are to be displayed. In the corner is a green-and-white No. 88 die cast of Earnhardt's Sprint Cup car Wheeler purchased for his father-in-law, a long-time fan of the late Earnhardt Sr.

"I graduated from Kansas, so this has been good year,'' Wheeler said, referring to a BCS-worthy football season and a national title for the Jayhawks' men's basketball team. "It just got even better."

Personal excitement contained and protocol satisfied in a warm welcome, Wheeler hurried the group to the mess hall to "interface" with the crew. JR Motorsports driver Brad Keselowski, meanwhile, was already asking questions. At 24 and peer of much of the crew, he wanted to know how things worked. As in everything, even inquiring about the piece of wood that air combat controllers kept among all their winking monitors and displays. The answer: for good luck.

"You can see an 18- or 19-year-old kid and you think about the different life paths they chose,'' said Keselowski, who is seventh in the Nationwide Series standings. "You think about a 19-year-old kid and the impression most people have of them is an undisciplined kid, and that's certainly not the case here. They're working together and making the difference between life and death with everything they do."


AO1 First Class Michael Heath leaned against a bulkhead painted thick with gray paint, staring straight ahead. A member of the ship's on-board law enforcement detail, he and three of his comrades had drawn what promised to be an equally conversation-worthy and easy assignment this midday: assuring that the line sailors stretching down a passageway remained civil as they passed a table where Keselowski and Earnhardt were seated to sign autographs.

"I was there in Richmond for his last win,'' he said, referring to the May 6, 2006, Sprint Cup race. "My wife surprised me with tickets and we just had a ball. A bunch of us First Classes go to every Richmond race, but we're going to miss this one (this past Saturday).''

They'd watch Earnhardt wreck while leading in the final laps on the big screen television they'd bought and mounted in their berth.

Heath, whose freckled face made him easy to envision as a kid back home in Altus, Okla., waited for a break in the line, and stole over to the end of the table to secure his souvenirs. He was back at his post seconds later, autographed hero card tucked into his green camouflage uniform.

"This is pretty cool," he said.

AO3-AW Tim Tuttle all but stumbled through the line, his weary eyes rivaling the bright red of his uniform top.

"Sign that one to Mr. NASCAR, if you could, please,'' he asked of Earnhardt.

"Mr. NASCAR?'' Earnhardt inquired.

"Yeah, that's my dad. He's Mr. NASCAR, not me,'' Tuttle replied, reticently.

This little piece of Sharpee-slathered cardboard could be the final salvo for Tuttle's father and namesake in the Great NASCAR Basement Bar War of Hampton, N.J. This would certainly put Tuttle's "Bristol Bar" ahead of Stan Bush's "Stanley's Sports Bar,'' and might even trump the massive collection of Rod Heft's Hot Rod Hot Dogs business just south of Hampton. Heft's stand is a stopping point for NASCAR haulers traveling Rt. 31 to Pocono from Charlotte.

"This might help [my father] beat Rod,'' said Tuttle, who should have been sleeping after a 7 a.m.- 7 p.m. shift. "I wished I'd known he was coming. I would have gotten more stuff. It's like 12:30 at night for me, but Dale Jr. came, so I had to stay up."


Every set of cryptic initials, every color has a distinct meaning on a carrier. The green shirts represent maintenance, the men and women who make sure planes fly and arrestor cables arrest. They are Earnhardt's people. He'd scarcely been aboard the Theodore Roosevelt for an hour when he was presented a green jersey with a huge '88' on the chest and a race car bearing the ship's script monogram on the back. Green shirts on the flight deck brandished 35 millimeter cameras from below their 'float coats' as he watched F-18's from the War Party and Black Lions squadrons scream off the deck. Green shirts presented him with pieces of steel cable as souvenirs as he perused the engine room. For a man who once worked in an auto repair shop and once assumed that would be his life's calling, this was like a communion.

After his presence thoroughly disrupted physical training exercises in the shaded expanse of the hangar deck below, Earnhardt was swarmed by a group of mechanics as he walked curiously up to a plane and peered in the engine. His five-minute conversation over a 2,000-pound smart bomb might have continued indefinitely if the end of the five-hour jaunt wasn't approaching.

"It's hard,'' he said. "There's just not enough time in the day to see everybody you want to see. I could stay here and talk to that crew chief over there about his plane for an hour or two, but we ain't got time. It's fun. It's fun to come here. This is one of the perks I guess to being a famous race car driver. You get to walk around an aircraft carrier, have somebody tour you and they give you a flag. It's just such an honor for me. It's humbling.''

The COD awaited as Earnhardt's microcosmic tour of the Roosevelt concluded in Wheeler's state room. Obscenely blue water glimmered through port holes as Rear Admiral Frank Pandolfe, who'd hopped aboard to thank Earnhardt for visiting, considered a collection of first-edition writings of Roosevelt writings in a book case. Earnhardt looked tired. Up early to jet to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville -- his private plane was allowed to land on the base -- he'd fly home quickly and then on to Richmond for a Saturday night Sprint Cup race.

Of 10,000 hands aboard the Roosevelt, he'd probably shaken a quarter, signed almost as many autographs, grinned for as many pictures. Jenna Meny would send one back to her sure-to-be-jealous brother and father once e-mail service was restored after the war games. The last snap caught him by surprise back at the base. An off-duty seaman dashed into the staging area just before the party disembarked, brandishing a cellular phone he aimed at Earnhardt's red-whiskered face.

"I'm sorry, Dale, but my wife will kill me if I don't get this,'' he said, fidgeting, focusing.

"Come on, jump in here,'' Earnhardt said, motioning for someone else to take the shot.

"Oh, don't worry about that,'' the man responded.

"Trust me, she's gonna want you in this," Earnhardt said before pulling the wide-grinning man in close. When the stand-in photographer didn't know how to take the picture, Earnhardt showed her how to do it, then resumed posing.

Back on the Theodore Roosevelt and barely an hour ago, Admiral Pandolfe had summed up the scene before it ever happened.

"He really is just an everyday guy, isn't he?'' he wondered out loud, almost fishing. "We're very glad to have him."

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