Editor’s note: This column originally published on May 25, 2013.
The glass doors to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s hauler open and a public relations representative summons me inside.
“Tell him we’re out here,” says a man visiting Charlotte Motor Speedway from New York. He and his buddy stand outside and hope for an autograph.
Earnhardt offers me his hand. He wears jeans, white sneakers, a National Guard T-shirt and a close-cropped beard.
I tell him I saw video of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III at the team’s Organized Team Activities workout. Washington is the NFL team Earnhardt saw on Sunday afternoons when he grew up outside Charlotte. Earnhardt is loyal to them.
Earnhardt: “Well, I just want him to get healthy, first and foremost. And to have a good long career and just make a lot of good choices out on the football field. You’re going to have games you win and games you lose. But you want to be around a while.”
Q. Who will have the better season and career – RG3 or Carolina’s Cam Newton?
“Well, I hope RG3 does.”
Q. What kind of season are you having?
“I’m pretty happy. We’ve had some really good cars and there’s a real sense of calm and confidence that we’ve been building up throughout the last two years. Last year we ran really good, too, but there was this urgency and nervous tension all the time to keep it going, to sustain this, this competitiveness.
“It’s a lot more comfortable (this season). I think the confidence is there so you show up every weekend knowing you’re going to run good and the car’s going to be fine and not have any major issues and just focus on what those last few pieces are to win. So it’s going real good. I’m really happy.”
Q. What part of your job makes you happiest?
“Just the freedom to have a little bit of control over what you do every day. I’ve worked a real job and you don’t have that freedom. You’ve got to be there at a certain time, you get to take lunch for a certain time, you can’t be 10 minutes late. I probably had a half dozen real jobs.”
Q. What was the toughest?
“The toughest job was working at the dealership.”
Q. You’re Dale Earnhardt Jr. You worked at Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet. How tough could it be?
“Man, I got no respect over there. I mean there were a lot of guys in the service department, mechanics, I got along with. Management kind of hated me and I don’t know why. We just didn’t get along.”
Earnhardt was 18- to 22-years-old at the time.
“I think that they just didn’t take me seriously. Of course I was late. I wasn’t the best worker. I wasn’t the most dependable guy. But I was there, I did my fair share of (messing around). But, you know, I’m an easy person to get along with and I don’t think that I was being a prima donna or anything. I just didn’t get along with management. Nobody seemed to be really enjoying themselves.”
Q. What do you enjoy? Do you go to movies? Rent them?
“I rent a lot of documentaries. I really like documentaries because you’re seeing something real. So I Google to find the best ones, and which have the best ratings. It’s mostly a lot of stuff I would never have heard of.
“I watched one called ‘Deep Water’ where all these guys were building yachts to circumnavigate the globe back in the ’60s, single-handed, like on solo missions. And this guy who’d never done this and had no experience bought a boat and he went crazy, like berserk, out there. And then they found the boat, I think, on the coast of Brazil on some island. It’s awesome.”
Q. Did they find the guy?
“No. He dies. He killed himself, I think. You need to watch it. It’s really freaky.”
Q. Could you do that, take off on a great adventure?
“Not comparable to the film because the film’s freaky. But nothing’s funner than a road trip. Nothing’s funner than, hey, let’s go. We used to do that. One of the funnest off weeks I had, we got a tour bus and we went city hopping. We went to Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, Louisiana. We (eight or 10 buddies) just rode around, we had a bus driver, and we just would party all night and get on the bus. And he’d drive us to the next city, we’d wake up, take a shower and party all night.”
Q. Could you do that now?
“I could do that tomorrow if we had the time off.”
Q. OK. You have a bus, a driver and the next two weeks off. Where do you go?
“I’d drive to Key West. I got a house down there and I fly down but I’ve never made the drive.”
Q. How will you spend Memorial Day?
“Me and my family are going to get together and we’re going to barbeque all day. Once the race is over we’ll go home and work on the brisket and inject it and all that stuff and put it in the refrigerator. And me and a buddy will start working on it at 9 in the morning and eat around 6.”
Earnhardt studies brisket. He might have a brisket documentary.
“It’s just like working on old race cars. It reminds me of what it used to be like to work on a late model, doing things at the right time, getting things ready, kind of like loading a car up and taking it down to Myrtle Beach to race.”
Earnhardt smiles when he talks about racing in Myrtle Beach.
Q. Do you ever wish you weren’t so well known and could just head down and race?
“I think that’s how I’ll wind my career down. If I have the wherewithal and the financial ability I’d like to go back to Nationwide then eventually back to late model and drive until I’m in my 50s and 60s.
“Back in the late model days you raced with your friends. Nobody had to really know anything. Nobody had to be perfect. Preparing the car was relatively simple; they’re really easy cars to work on. You take it down there, you run a feature, you’re in and out and it’s not a whole weekend, it’s half a day.
“You have fun. The track is kind of one big family. You see the same people every week. It’s just a really simple way of doing things.
“That would be the perfect way.”