Dale Earnhardt Jr. Turns 40
It can’t be true. Not him. Not the boy. Wasn’t he just a teenager? Are we really all that old?
THE RACE IS RESTARTING. It’s the first Sunday in August, and with 17 laps to go on a triangle-shaped track in Pocono, Pennsylvania, Dale Earnhardt Jr. speeds out of the caution and passes two cars, moving from fourth place to second.
Six hundred miles away, a small crowd cheers at Whisky River in uptown Charlotte. Everyone’s eyes are fixed on a large projection screen. The house speakers are all cranking the race, effectively capturing the roaring engines of the passing cars. The chicken wings are on special today, 88 cents apiece. The mechanical bull in the back corner is sleeping.
Then, with 14 laps to go, Junior, driving the No. 88 car, moves from second to first. High-fives all around. A woman says, “Come on Junior, we’ll get open bar for an hour.” She’s been here before. At Whisky River, she knows, if the bar’s owner drives his racecar into victory lane, everybody here drinks for free.
With seven laps to go, another caution flag. The people at the bar curse. They’re nervous. The prospect of free beer will do that. One guy attempts to calm his bar mates’ fears, telling the crowd, “He’s got a good car, though.” After the caution laps, the race restarts with three laps to go. When Junior holds off the charging cars behind him, the place erupts.
On the final lap, a rumble builds in the bar. People clap continuously. “One more turn!” a fan yells. The 88 car crosses the finish line as the checkered flag waves. Two female bartenders begin asking patrons, one by one, what they want.
Junior’s won the race.
It’s drinking time.
Country music begins playing from the house speakers. There were about 25 people in here at the end of the race, but now the crowd has swelled. One man, who’s been sitting at the bar for the past hour, is joined by a friend who’s just walked in. “I don’t think many people know about it,” the friend says, referring to the open-bar deal. “That’s ’cause the motherf—– hasn’t won in so long,” says the other.
Actually, the MF-er, Junior, has won quite a bit this year. This is his third victory of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season—matching his win total from the previous eight seasons combined, a stretch that spanned nearly 300 races. He’s having his best season since 2004, the year he won six races, back when he still drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc., his father’s team.
That was a long time ago. But Junior, perhaps more than any other sports celebrity around, seems like he’ll always be young. People here watched him grow up. They watched him win the NASCAR Busch Series championships in 1998 and 1999, watched him move up to the top series in 2000 and race against his father. Many of Junior’s fans still own pieces of his red No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet memorabilia from the first eight years of his NASCAR career.
Which makes it so hard to fathom that on October 10, Earnhardt—son of a legend, fan favorite since he was a teenager, owner of one of the most popular bars in Charlotte—will turn 40 years old. Fittingly, his birthday this year lands on the eve of the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his hometown track. When the green flag drops in Concord that night, he’ll be on his fifth decade, and, in all likelihood, in the best position of his career to win the championship.
Fans have voted him the most popular driver in NASCAR for 11 consecutive years. His fan base is called “JR Nation.” He’s garnered some of the most lucrative brand endorsements and business deals in sports, accumulating an estimated net worth of $300 million.
But to people who still think of him as Junior, the big numbers don’t feel like they should be here yet.
HE GREW UP in this area and with this area. And no matter how much money he makes or how many years pass by, to the people in this area, he’s always going to be just Junior from Mooresville.
Even he sees it that way.
“It’s hard to believe. You just skate through, and it’s here,” he tells me one recent morning, reflecting on his impending birthday. “I thought it would take me a lot longer to get there.”
He grew up on a road just off Exit 36 on Interstate 77.
“I remember when that was just a two-lane road,” he says. “And now there’s a movie theater and a Best Buy—we were so excited when Best Buy was gonna build down there.”
The small-town boy comes out in Junior when he talks about Mooresville, the place he’s called home most of his life (he also spent early childhood years in nearby Kannapolis). His Southern twang is evident, even after a lifetime of traveling the world and being known all around it; even as he competes at different racetracks all across the country 10 months out of the year; even as he becomes the face of major brands from Mountain Dew to Wrangler to Nationwide Insurance. During his down time, the little he has, he enjoys being home.
Downtown Mooresville remains charming, with wide streets lined with shops and restaurants, most of them locally-owned. And despite the sidewalks along Main Street filled with markers honoring racecar legends—a display called the North Carolina Auto Racing Walk of Fame—it looks like quintessential small-town North Carolina.
Along Main Street is Pie in the Sky Pizza, a mom-and-pop pizza joint that’s been here for 28 years. It’s a no-frills diner with cafeteria-style tables and chairs; the pizza is some of the best you will ever eat. The walls are filled with family photos, framed newspaper clippings, posters of NASCAR drivers, and photos of the Mooresville High School cross-country team winning three consecutive state championships.
When Junior was at Mooresville High School, he was a regular at Pie in the Sky. And now that he’s a 40-year-old multimillionaire, he still comes in a few times a year. Tim Whitener, owner of the restaurant, says Junior likes to be treated just like any other customer, and if you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t know he was a celebrity.
One afternoon this summer, Whitener was standing in the restaurant when a customer came in visibly shaken. She told the owner that her car wouldn’t start. Whitener tried to console her, telling her everything would be OK, that he’d help get it fixed.
“That’s not it,” the woman told Whitener. “I was out there trying to crank my car and this young man came out and asked if I needed help.” The man got into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition and patted the gas pedal. The car never started, but before the man walked away, the woman asked for his name.
“And of course, it was Dale Jr.,” Whitener says. “How many times have we all seen people that need some help, but we’re too busy or we don’t offer to do anything? … I think that’s a testament to the guy I know.”
While downtown Mooresville might be an ode to the area’s past, the land surrounding it has seen rapid growth over the years. Lake Norman is now lined with some of the biggest homes in the state, as well as lakeside restaurants, and the docks and marinas are filled with boats, some large enough to garner Robin Leach’s attention. A massive, mixed-use development known as LangTree Lake Norman is starting to take shape, in what will eventually be a billion-dollar project.
“You kind of take it for granted now,” Earnhardt says. “When we started getting major franchises like the Panthers and Hornets, and those types of things happening, I remember those being very exciting moments for the whole area. You had a lot of pride in the growth, and a lot of pride in how advanced we’d become.”
TOSS OUT ALL the self-help sayings you want to make yourself feel better—“With years come wisdom,” or, “40 is the new 30,” or, “We get better with age”—but if Junior’s turning 40, we’re all getting old. He’s one of those people in popular culture by whom we measure our own race through time. It seems like only a few years ago that his dad was grabbing him by the back of his neck after races.
“You look at a lot of pictures from your past, and when you were a child, a teenager,” Junior says, “and just wonder where all the time went.”
It wasn’t always easy, being Junior. As if being the son of Dale Earnhardt wasn’t tough enough, he had to endure his father’s death on the racetrack in 2001.
“The fact that Dale Sr. passed away while he was still racing, and Dale Jr. coming onto the scene at that same time … the scrutiny and the responsibility that came with that was just enormous,” says Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “And I think he’s done a tremendous job in handling that.”
Think about this: When Earnhardt Sr. crashed into the wall at Daytona that year, he was 49, only nine years older than his son is now.
As Junior’s grown, so has the region he calls home. People who’ve moved to Charlotte within the past five years don’t know uptown without Time Warner Cable Arena, where the Hornets play, or don’t realize there weren’t as many nightlife options before the EpiCentre was built. When the complex went up in 2008, though, Earnhardt jumped on the opportunity and opened the bar he’d always wanted. He was one of the first; the EpiCentre now has 40 venues for restaurants and bars and nightclubs.
“You learn, as you go through the whole process, how to structure your life better,” he says. “You get a little smarter about what your priorities are, and what’s important. You get better at handling relationships and friendships, you know. If you try, you sorta get all your ducks in a row, and organize your life a little bit better.”
Despite his obvious popularity and the power of his name, he says he was against the idea of naming the bar after himself—“Junior’s Place or whatever”—even though many of the people within his circle told him he should. He decided instead to go with Whisky River, after the name he gave the miniature Western town he built years earlier on his 200-acre estate in Mooresville. (The estate is complete with a replica, life-sized saloon, jailhouse, post office, general store, and more.)
“I wanted the bar to sort of stand on its own without needing me to be the face of it … that if it succeeded, it could succeed on its own,” he says. “At first it was, ‘Dale Jr.’s got this bar open,’ or, ‘That’s Dale Jr.’s bar.’ And now people see it more as Whisky River and its own identity, and I think that’s helped add a little bit of age to, and longevity to, the business.”
EARNHARDT'S BUSINESS VENTURES are everywhere, but throughout his life, he’s rarely let us venture into his personal business. In February, he made a pledge to his fans: If he won the season-opening Daytona 500, he would join Twitter.
It was a bold statement for someone like him. Stories of his hard-partying lifestyle are famous. Tabloids drop in every now and then with an unsubstantiated story about his love life, such as the National Enquirer’s story in May about a $2 million wedding he’s supposedly planning at Daytona International Speedway (it isn’t true).
But photos and scandals have always eluded him, and he’s mostly been guided by the privacy gene his father passed down to him.
“I sort of followed his lead about: There are certain things that are yours and that are personal to you,” he says. “And you just need to keep that personal, and that particular part of your life private. And you’ll be better off for it in the long run.”
In the weeks before he made his pledge, he sought advice from friends, including Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, about how to navigate the good and bad that can come from using Twitter.
“I didn’t know how much negative stuff I would be faced with; I didn’t know if I wanted to invite that into my life,” he says.
After Daytona, though, his fears of social media ran smack into his need to honor his pledge. He won the race, and that night, a tweeting star was born. Since then, he’s twiddled his thumbs to more than 4,000 tweets, sharing his thoughts, tastes, memories, and more.
He’s shared old family photos of himself, his dad, and siblings; tweeted jokes and wisecracks to his buddies; tweeted to—and retweeted—his girlfriend, Amy Reimann. He often responds directly to questions from fans.
He now talks in the Twitter language, and he’s become so in-tune with the social media world that he summarizes his experience with it by starting with something he learned from @UberFacts.
“On UberFacts, it says the more people find out about their athletes and celebrities or whatever, the less they like them,” he says. “So you kind of worry. But I’ve always felt that if I just be myself, and I’m honest and genuine, people can make that choice for themselves, and I’m OK with that. I’m fine if they don’t tend to appreciate the same things or they do; it doesn’t really matter to me anymore after all these years.”
IT'S A DREARY Friday afternoon, and fans are beginning to line up at many of the NASCAR race team shops throughout Mooresville and Concord. About 90 percent of Sprint Cup teams are based in the Charlotte area, and the teams have a long tradition of opening up the facilities—specific areas of the race shops, the team stores, museums—for the public to visit, free of charge.
To get to Dale Earnhardt Inc., you have to take Dale Earnhardt Highway 3. From the road, Senior’s shop is still an awe-inspiring place. The sprawling campus, with its well-manicured lawn, wrought-iron gates, and U.S. and racing flags, is an important place in racing history.
But walking up to the main entrance, it’s quiet. Solemn, almost. The staff inside has shrunk considerably over the years, and there aren’t many cars parked here, either. There are no mechanics in the back assembling stock cars for the next race. There are no drivers and crew chiefs in meetings. Dale Earnhardt Inc. doesn’t field race teams anymore. The organization slowly fell apart after Junior departed for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 after highly publicized, failed negotiations with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, for a larger ownership stake.
The only life here now is on the walls and in the showroom. The legendary black No. 3 racecar greets visitors at the entrance of the showroom, fronting four tall, lighted panels with Earnhardt Sr.’s image, showing him with his iconic ball cap, sunglasses, mustache, and stoic expression, all of which helped him become known as The Intimidator.
A few guests wander around the showroom, which is filled with trophy cases and wall displays of racing suits and other memorabilia. Nearby there’s an adjoining room, which can be viewed only from behind a glass wall, filled with about a dozen racecars once driven to championships and special wins by drivers from Dale Earnhardt Inc. A seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion, Earnhardt Sr. won 76 races on the top circuit, and sounds from one of those can be heard blaring from a television showing a competition from the early 1990s. Adjacent to the showroom is a large merchandise store, filled with No. 3 and Dale Earnhardt memorabilia. The spaces are typically open to the public three days a week, three hours per day.
About eight miles away, across Mooresville, the scene is very different.
Fans are lining up to experience a little bit of this area’s—and this sport’s—biggest star. It’s time for one of the guided tours at JR Motorsports, the race shop owned by Earnhardt Jr. The shop is home to three fulltime NASCAR Nationwide Series teams—a level below the Sprint Cup series—but the fact that it’s not the top level doesn’t bother the fans. About 35 people have gathered, comprised mostly of parents with their kids, many of them wearing an Earnhardt Jr. shirt or hat, for the 2:30 p.m. tour.
“This is one of the largest groups I’ve ever seen,” the receptionist says.
Wearing a “Dale Yeah” T-shirt, the tour guide gives brief instructions on what areas the guests will see, and he explains the photography policy. He leads the group through the behind-the-scenes places, showing them where and how the cars are assembled, painted, and tested. The 40-minute tour ends in the team store.
One of the biggest attractions on the tour is the No. 3 car. But it’s not Senior’s. It’s the special No. 3 car Earnhardt Jr. drove in a 2010 race to honor his father, who was inducted into the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class that year. The tour guide gives the crowd a five-minute break, allowing guests to whip out their camera phones and take photos in front of the racecar. Several kids line up to pose with this monument on wheels, many of them too young to have actually seen Senior race.
For years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was famous because of his father. But time does funny things, and now that he’s older, the shift is apparent: These youngsters standing in front of the car only know who Senior is because they know who Junior is.
It’s enough to make a 40-year-old man reflect.
“It’s been 13 years since he’s passed, and for him to still be relevant—things like the rollercoaster ride [at Carowinds], and he’s got a statue in Kannapolis where the old Cannon Mills used to be,” Junior says. “For him to have had some type of impact on his community, to know that he meant so much to people around Kannapolis and Mooresville, Concord, that they still recognize that today, really drives it home, and makes me feel great, and proud. And I’ve just tried to add to that. I tried to do what I could to maintain the integrity of the name.”
It’s virtually impossible to escape that name, whether it’s printed on a cutout of the man in a large Mountain Dew display case in a grocery store, or at a Chevrolet dealership, or on a television commercial for a pair of jeans, or home insurance, or when it’s tax season. Even Whisky River is about to open a location at the airport. Around here, Earnhardt is everywhere, same as it ever was.
But Junior has a favorite.
“When we drive down I-77 going toward Mooresville, there’s a billboard on the side of the road that has my face on it, and it’s a Town of Mooresville billboard,” he says. “I see that every time, and I get the biggest kick out of that because … I never imagined that I would be a part of representing the area and the town.
“I’m very proud to say where I’m from. And it’s probably where I’ll be the rest of my life.”
Even in old age.
Jarvis Holliday is a freelance writer in Charlotte and longtime contributor to this magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.