In an exclusive interview with the Observer this week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. laid everything on the table.
NASCAR’s former Most Popular Driver, who retired from the sport in November 2017, will make his return to Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend for the track’s inaugural Roval race. But instead of competing, like he did last weekend in a one-off Xfinity Series race, Earnhardt will be in the NBC broadcast booth, his new home on race weekends.
In his interview with the Observer, Earnhardt talked about that Richmond race, as well as a number of other topics ranging from his hopes for his broadcast career, adjusting to home life with wife Amy and daughter Isla Rose, and whether retiring when he did was the right decision.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. You mentioned one of the reasons for your racing in the Richmond Xfinity Series race as still having an “itch to scratch.” Did that one race fully satisfy that itch, or is there still some urge to race from you?
A. That’s a tough one to answer (laughs). I really had a lot of fun at Richmond. My habit is to get real competitive and make racing probably more work than it is enjoyable, and I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I feel like there’s pressure from the outside — it’s probably not real, but it’s something I imagine.
And so I make it harder than it has to be. I make it more high-pressure than it has to be, and I build things up in my mind to be tougher, more challenging.
So a lot of times, especially throughout most of my career, I didn’t foster a positive experience for myself. I would always kind of assume the worst, in a lot of situations. And hope for the best, but always expect, ‘Ah, well I knew this would happen,’ if it went bad.
My wife’s the opposite. She believes in the law of attraction. ‘You’ve gotta believe good things are going to happen to you, you’re going to win this race, make it happen, will it into existence,’ and I never felt that way — I was the complete opposite.
But I told myself when I went to Richmond, I’m going to have fun. I’m not going to worry about how good I’m running or how bad I’m running, I’m just going to race and love, whether I’m battling for 30th or first, I’m gonna just enjoy the pure part of racing, of competing, and love the feel of the car and being on the track again. For the most part I was able to do that. So that encourages me to go do it again.
We have four teams at JR Motorsports that run every single week. They aren’t fully funded for next year — there’s a few openings here and a few openings there. The only reason that I run these races are to put together deals. If a company calls and says, ‘Man, you know we want to do a PSA with Dale, you think you could drive a race for us? Is that something you’d be interested in?’
And we say, if he’s going to be in a race car, it’s going to be packaged with sponsorship for X amount of races on one of the other four cars. I’ll never run a race where it’s just one race for me and doesn’t benefit the other teams.
So that’s the whole driving force behind me ever going back to the race track again. If I go to the race track next year, that’s what makes it happen or pushes that into motion.
Q. When was the last time you had that level of enjoyment driving a race car?
A. You know, I don’t know. I can’t remember ever racing without any pressure.
Q. Really? That had to have been a huge breath of fresh air then.
A. Oh it was incredible.
Imagine like ... every time you write a story or put something out there, there’s that expectation of what you think you’re capable of, and then there’s the perception of whether people liked it or didn’t like it, you’ve got what your boss thinks about it, and all this sort of decides and determines your future, right? Everything you do.
Imagine being free of that for one article. Being able to write whatever you want about anything you want, without any repercussion or perception and just enjoying the experience. That’s kind of what I got to do.
I don’t think I ever would have been able to do that, even if I tried racing in the Xfinity Series in the ‘90s, racing in the Cup Series all of my career — the pressure to compete and perform, to get points, to win championships, to win races, to please sponsors, to please my expectations, to please my team’s expectations, fans’ expectations — all that’s always going to be there.
At Richmond, it wasn’t. I told everybody, I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to go have fun, let’s not sit here and think where should we finish, I don’t want the fans feeling that way or thinking that way.’ And everybody that I saw as far as the feedback on social media from people who went to the race, they were just like, ‘Hey man, go enjoy yourself. Go have fun, don’t even worry about it.’ So I did.
Q. So then what was it like having your daughter, Isla Rose, there at the track with you for the first time?
A. You know, I was sitting there months before I was going to run this race, and I would talk to people about her, and doing interviews and stuff, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, she is never going to experience what my life was like,’ or experience her dad as a racer. So I just assumed that the only way I was kind of going to be able to help her understand who I was, was by pictures and videos and so forth, and the trophies and whatnot. But even then, she wouldn’t really understand what the experience was like.
And she’s not going to remember this weekend, but I think that when she looks at pictures and sees herself in them, that may help her connect to it when she’s an adult. If she was to look at photos and videos and not see herself in them, she’d go, ‘Who is this person? Who is this life?’
I talked to Chase Elliott about it with his dad (Hall of Famer Bill Elliott) and he was like, ‘I don’t remember going to the track. I don’t remember Dad in the Coors car.’ There’s part of his dad’s life that doesn’t even seem real to him.
And so, he can’t even imagine what it was like. He’s like the rest of us, he looks at it in videos and pictures and that’s all he knows.
So I was thinking that would probably be the way it is for her, but we went to the race track and we’re standing out on pit road, having the anthem and all that, she’s sitting there in Amy’s arms and I held her for a little bit, and for her to have that moment and for us to get it in photographs and video and be able to show her when she’s 15 or whatever and go, ‘Hey look, you were at this one race,’ it might connect her to my career a little tighter.
Otherwise, I doubt it would even register.
Q. What has fatherhood been like overall for you, especially now that you’re balancing it with the broadcasting?
A. The broadcasting has been a perfect fit for me and where I am with my life and fatherhood. The broadcasting doesn’t come with the pressure and the stresses that racing the car did.
I still want to do well, I still want to make my bosses proud, I still want to get great feedback and people appreciate what I’m doing, but it definitely isn’t anywhere near the stress level that racing a car was and feeling the pressure of performance in that. That’s made me more of an easy person to be around.
That’s also allowed me to not ... you know, when I was in the race car, I couldn’t ever stop thinking about it. Even when I’d go home, I couldn’t let loose of it. I couldn’t let it off my back. And it was always there hanging over me. So with broadcasting, I can kind of disconnect for a couple of days. So it’s great, and I’m enjoying it.
Isla’s been great, Amy’s doing well. Isla’s 5 months now. It’s just going so well, and we’re just trying to be great parents, whatever that is. Just trying to do everything everyday that gives her the best opportunity of being whoever she wants to be.
Like I said, I want to keep working and I want to have a purpose. And me and my wife talk about that all the time, what our purpose is, and having value, and feeling valuable. Even if it’s a small role, having some value to something, to a team or to a process. The broadcasting checks all those boxes for me.
Q. You mention purpose, and I’m sure being a father also gives you a sense of that. Have you had any ‘welcome to fatherhood’ moments? Something you might not have expected or anything like that?
A. It happens multiple times. You’ll be sitting there with your wife, and I’ll do it, and I’ll do it a week from now, and I’ll do it two weeks from now, and she’ll also have these little moments where we’re sitting there, and it just dawns on me. Like, I cannot believe I have a kid. I cannot believe I’m raising a child.
I sit there and look at Isla all the time thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m responsible for this,’ and ‘Do I have what it takes? Will I be enough of a parent and a father to help her become something great?’ That happens all the time.
As far as the mechanics of being a dad — feeding the baby, changing diapers, and those kinds of things — those things haven’t been a wake-up call at any moment. It’s all been what I expected. (But) I’m scared to death. Am I doing everything I’m supposed to be doing? Am I giving her what she needs? Even at this little tiny 5-month-old baby age, you’re like, ‘Oh, am I leaving a bad impression on her? Is what I’m saying, doing, acting, how I’m talking to my wife, is anything we’re doing around her, in front of her, like is that ... she’s impressionable, how are we shaping her?
It’s kind of scary.
And I’m the worst, too. I’m super worried about everything. You just kind of have to forget about it and just let it go. Trust the process.
Q. OK, last question then. During your last season in NASCAR, you said one of the primary reasons you wanted to retire was so you could spend more time with Amy and start a family. Now you’ve got all that — is it what you expected, and does it validate the choice you made to retire?
A. Yeah. It did. The last couple of things that I kind of had any doubt about were cleared up at Richmond, believe it or not. Being able to get in the car, drive, race, compete, go in the booth that weekend, and do all those things together kind of reaffirmed that decision. Like, ‘Yep, I made the right choice.’
I love being in the booth, I want to be in the booth. I enjoyed driving, but I damn sure don’t want to do it every week. And I do want to be at the race track calling the races, talking about what’s happening. It’s such an incredibly interesting sport, so I’m loving that.
I don’t know how to say this, but I felt like if I kept going back to the well and taking those risks that I was taking with my health ... I was just delaying the chance to enjoy my family.
And when I got hurt in 2016, my wedding was New Year’s Eve, and I was telling the doctor, I said, ‘I have to get well. I have to be well for this wedding. I can’t go through my wedding with my head screwed up, I just can’t do that. That’s such an important day and my wife deserves me to be well. This whole thing is such a special day. We’ve got to get to work here and fix this.’
So going through that experience, it made me think: Man, I don’t want to ever get sick again and have to be sick with a daughter or trying to raise a daughter, trying to help and support my wife.
That was six months of me just being ineffective and not a part of the process. I was on the sidelines for six months, in professional life and in personal life. And I didn’t want to be on the sidelines any more.
I’m 43, I can’t afford to give away half a year in whatever years I’ve got left. It was just the right choice for me at the time.
Every day I get further away from that decision, I feel better and better about it. I feel more confident in what future I have in broadcasting. I would love to do that for a long time.
And that’s going to be as rewarding to me — and has been as rewarding to me — as driving was. You know, driving cars is great. The wins ...
Nothing will ever feel like winning a Daytona 500. I’m never going to do anything in broadcasting, probably anything in any other professional job that will feel like winning the Daytona 500.
But that was one race in hundreds of races that were disappointing, frustrating. I mean, the highs and the lows in racing are something I’ll never experience again.
And I’m good with it. That’s great.