Given that one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers was involved, DIY Network’s “Renovation Realities: Dale Jr. & Amy” was probably always going to be a race to the finish.
The new four-episode home-improvement series — which was filmed between summer 2017 and this past March, and premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday — centers around the recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr., his interior-designer wife Amy and their efforts to turn a severely neglected 150-year-old historic home in Key West into a stunning coastal refuge.
Infestations of stray cats, termites and a truly jaw-dropping amount of bees and honey are presented early on as messy but manageable issues; instead, it’s two unforeseen challenges, both presented in the first half-hour episode, that threaten to create major problems.
One is Hurricane Irma, which tore through the Keys last September and necessitated a five-week shutdown on all work. Then in October, the Earnhardts learned they were expecting their first child.
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“We were trying (to get pregnant),” Dale Jr. says, “but we really didn’t plan that out very well, because we didn’t expect the house to take as long as it did, and getting the house finished up started to cross paths with Amy’s ability — or inability — to fly (back and forth from Charlotte to Florida). We needed to finish the home before Amy ran out of time, and she wasn’t gonna allow someone else to finish the home.
“So we crushed real hard in the last probably month to do about three months’ worth of work, to make sure the show got done and the home was finished before Amy was not allowed to fly anymore. That was really the only bad part about that, and it was difficult because it caused tons of stress, to be honest with you.”
In our exclusive interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the future NASCAR Hall of Famer provides an eye-opening look at the bumpy ride he and his wife took in front of and behind the cameras while transforming the house for DIY.
Q. So you’d been a regular in Key West for awhile before you bought this house, right?
Yeah, we have a house there that we’ve owned for about eight years, and about four years ago we bought this house. We didn’t really know whether we were gonna renovate it or not — that’s a whole ‘nother story in itself — but ... we were going down there maybe six to eight times a year before Amy got pregnant. We haven’t really been down there just for vacation and hanging out in a year and a half.
Q. When did you guys decide to take on the renovation project, and how did the show fit into it? Is that what motivated you to get going on it finally?
Well, we bought this place and, probably, we paid a little bit more than it was worth. We didn’t buy it to flip it. We just bought it to clean it up. And the backyard was a dump, really. Whoever had owned it before us just basically would pick anything up that they saw on the side of the street and throw it in their backyard. There were multiple different sets and pieces of lawn furniture, and everything was broken, but for whatever reason this person was collecting these things. So we decided, for the neighborhood’s sake, that we would buy it and clean it up. We sat on it for about three or four years thinking about whether we would renovate it.
The problem was that it was in such bad shape, it almost made no sense whatsoever to renovate it, because of how much work you would have to do. It would be more expensive to renovate it than to build a brand-new home. So we thought long and hard about how to go about that process. That’s what got us in touch with HGTV (DIY Network’s sister channel) and talking to them about maybe doing a show around it, thinking it might off-set some of the costs. That really didn’t actually end up happening, but we’re probably gonna break even on this home as far as the renovation, the overall initial investment on buying it, for what it’s worth after the renovation. It’s about to break even.
Q. Before shooting started, did you know what you were going to find in there? Had you already dug in and gotten a sense of how much of a mess it was in there? Those bees and all that honey, for instance — wow.
Well, I didn’t know how large that beehive was. We’d seen bees on the property before, but we just didn’t know how big that hive was till we got the ceiling torn out. And I know nothing about bees, so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I was gonna see a couple honeycombs in there or something, but nothing like that.
Anyway, we knew the house was in real bad shape, but I knew nothing about renovation and I know nothing about having to rebuild the floor and all the main bones of the house having to be rebuilt and torn out a piece at a time. Because of the rules and regulations of going and rebuilding in the historic district, we knew we were gonna have to go about this in an unusual way. But we didn’t really know what that meant till we got to looking at the house and started peeling away the outer shell of the home and seeing exactly just how bad this place was and how rotten it was. But it stayed under budget. We had about a $900,000 budget, and we stayed within it and made it work.
Q. So you had never done any sort of home renovation project at all?
I’ve never physically been involved in anything like that. We’ve got about 30 rental units here in Charlotte — different types of properties that we’ve bought over time, that we’ve done a lot of work on — but I’ve never been involved personally in any of that stuff before.
Q. Did you have fun?
It was a lot of fun. Obviously, we love Key West, so being down there and doing anything that’s gonna help the neighborhood — I mean, we knew that we were doing something that was gonna make a lot of folks happy, because this house had been in disrepair for a long time and it was a bit of an eyesore for the community. So it was great to be able to bring something back to its former glory.
The other part that made it fun was that we got to work with our contractor that we’ve used several times before, who’s become a great friend of ours: Steve Krieger is the contractor in the show and we’re just really, really good friends with him, so it was like hanging out with your buddies or working with your friends on the job site. Plus, I had my wife there. And the crew that we worked with for the show was very consistent; we made a lot of great relationships and friendships that made going there to do the work fun.
It was really miserable, very hot, gross and dirty, nasty and all those things, but for the most part, the experience of doing it and going through the whole process was fun because of the people that we got to hang out with.
Q. It also looked like you were having fun driving the excavator.
Yeah, for whatever reason I got very comfortable on the excavator. I dug the whole pool out and filled in the cistern. ... I did a lot of fun work in that area, and spent a lot of hours on the excavator — in total, maybe about two or three days total on the excavator doing all that. It was a lot of fun. It’s kind of like playing a video game once you figure out the controls.
Q. The not-so-fun part, of course, was Irma. We saw in the episode that the storm caused some damage to a fence. Did any of the houses in that neighborhood get hit worse?
The city of Key West where we are was very fortunate. Most of the major damage was up around Marathon Key ... or farther north, up toward Homestead. All that stuff got hit pretty hard. But Key West the town — the southernmost point of Key West — was spared of any real serious damage.
Q. Given the poor condition of the home and how much work was going to be required and the delays caused by the hurricane and all that, was there ever a point where you thought to yourself, “We’ve made a mistake”? Or “What did we get ourselves into?”
I never worried about finishing the house. I knew it would get done. The only thing that I ever worried about was the budget, because we’re paying for this out of our pocket, me and Amy. And it was gonna be a big undertaking financially to do this house. Everything that I’ve ever done in homebuilding, repair, building something brand-new, remodeling ... rarely has it ever come in at budget or under budget, and a lot of times it inflates or comes in over budget, by a huge percentage sometimes.
And when Irma came through there, materials for our home and every other home down there was scarce. We had to really just kind of sit on the sideline while those materials went to people and projects that took a higher priority than us. ... All of Steve’s guys, not to mention Steve himself, they had to take care of their own families. They had to fix their own homes, their families’ homes, their friends’ homes. Everybody in the area up and down the Keys needed some help, something fixed, something repaired — some needed simple things, like water and power. ... Other people needed their entire homes fixed. These guys were really tasked to have to do all those things. Plus, Steve has more projects than just our home that he’s building.
It was really a tough situation for everybody to be in. And we didn’t know what that meant for the show, whether the show was over, the house was over, whether we were gonna finish this home. But I was more worried about this $900,000 budget doubling, or this thing coming in at a $1.5 million investment just on the renovation, and being upside down on the house. That was the only thing that I was ever concerned about from the very start, even before we ever heard the name Irma.
Q. Well, of course, and then Amy is getting more and more pregnant as the renovation wears on. Were you worried at all about her continuing to work on the project? I mean, you said you were done in March, and your daughter was born in April, so she was pretty far along toward the end of filming, right?
Exactly, yeah, she literally was calling her doctor asking for just one more day, to be able to get a little bit done. Myself, I wasn’t too worried about it, but Amy was very stressed, and so I was trying to keep her stress levels down. My concern was more about her just being calm and cool and going easy on herself. But she was really worried about all the deadlines and the subcontractors getting what they needed to get done, so that we could get in there and finish furnishing the home, and put up drapes and all the things that needed to happen, so we could shoot the final reveals.
Like I said, a ton of work got done in the very last few weeks. They talk all the time about how these people on these TV shows don’t have a lot of time to get things done, and you wonder whether they’re telling the truth or it’s just some artificial drama for the show. I can tell you: It’s real.
Q. And finally, you said you two started this in summer 2017, so that means you were basically still newlyweds at the time. It seems like doing a project like this in front of the cameras would be a good relationship-tester. Was it more stressful than you thought it was gonna be, or did it turn out to be a bonding experience?
I think it helped us work on some of our skills in our relationship, as far as working on things together and helping each other and being supportive. We’re talking each other off a ledge when one’s getting stressed out or frustrated. But it wasn’t the test which I thought it would be. It ended up being more good practice. It was a good experience for us to go through, and it definitely made us see a lot of good positives in our relationship — because we did work really well together, and we did help each other a lot. ...
When we were uncomfortable, hot and stinky or tired, you know, biting your tongue and being patient with each other and things like that were key and critical in a lot of moments. So I think it was great practice for us, in terms of our relationship, and gave us a lot of confidence going forward.