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
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
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.