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By Dale Earnhardt
By Jade Gurss
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Copyright © 2002 by Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.,
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com.
The Warner Books name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
First eBook Edition: January 2002
To my dad, Dale Earnhardt
Big thanks go to Bill Kentling, who edited, prodded, and encouraged me for months and months while this thing took shape. He deserves some sort of "ultimate editor" title. I also offer thanks to Harold Hinson, whose photos document Dale Jr.'s efforts each weekend, to Richard Abate and Robert Lazar at ICM, and all of my friends and family who suffered through endless e-mails and discussions about each chapter along the way.
Big props to Tim Schuler at Anheuser-Busch, who gets the credit for teaming me with Budweiser and Junior and then giving the OK for this project to go ahead. Thanks to all of the Budweiser sports marketing guys, Sponsor Services, and everyone at Dale Earnhardt Inc., who were nervous about the book but supportive all the same.
The guys on the No. 8 team are the greatest. I'm looking forward to watching you guys win championships in the future. And most of all, thanks to Dale Jr. As he says, he lived it, I just typed it. Dude, the future is limitless.
The Ride of a Lifetime
I hop through the right-side window of the Budweiser Chevrolet race car. Unlike a typical racer that has only a driver's seat, this car has been prepared by the Richard Petty Driving Experience (a leading race-driving school—like a sports fantasy camp on four wheels) to give fans a feel of what it's like to go 160 miles per hour with a professional driver behind the wheel. I am strapped snugly into the passenger seat and take a deep breath.
Today the driver is no mere Petty school instructor, but one of the finest drivers in the world. Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets an ornery grin on his face as he hits the ignition switch and then throws the car into gear. Soon we are hurtling toward the high-banked Turn 1 of Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, North Carolina. From this angle, it looks like we are about to be launched up the side of a three-story building.
Dale Jr. is here today to shoot a segment for a documentary about his life that will soon air on MTV. Before he agreed to participate in the video shoot, he insisted that the Petty school allow him to take several of his buddies for the ride of their lives. I am on that short list of passengers. Through a contract with Anheuser-Busch, my company, fingerprint inc., has been in charge of Dale Jr.'s publicity for the past fifteen months. It has been the busiest, and the most eventful, time of my life.
"I want you guys to have an appreciation for what I do," Dale Jr. tells us. "I think our friendship can have another level if you understand more about what it's like out there.…"
I have that thought in my mind as we careen through the first corner of the 1.5-mile oval track. The G-forces while cornering in a 3,400-pound race car at more than 160 miles per hour are immense. My pelvis is forced downward into the form-fitted racing seat. My head, encased in a helmet that seemed to weigh next to nothing while I was sitting on the wall along pit lane, suddenly feels like it weighs two hundred pounds as it tries to launch itself off of my head and fly out the passenger-side window. While I'm trying hard to look cool and relaxed, I have to brace myself with both hands. My feet involuntarily slide toward the right side of the car. My brain flashes to scenes from NASA videos of astronauts being spun around at high rates of speed in G-force tests. While many astronauts become disoriented or sick, I am exhilarated.
On the back straightaway, I look over to see Dale Jr. still smiling broadly. Before I can turn my head forward, he shoots hard into Turn 3. He keeps his right foot pressed on the accelerator pedal while using his left foot to lightly brush the brake pedal. The brake pedal is used more to help balance or position the car for the corner rather than to dramatically slow the hurtling beast. At these speeds, physics dictate that a sudden jerk of the steering wheel or on the brakes can have dire consequences. The car seems to rotate on a center of gravity located immediately beneath my ass. So this is why they refer to a scary moment on the race track as having a "high pucker factor," I think to myself. Even if I had wanted to say it out loud, the wailing engine would drown out my screaming.
In the midst of the third turn, we travel over a series of ripples in the track surface. You would not feel these bumps in a passenger car, but in a car designed for the NASCAR Winston Cup series, they produce kidney-jiggling, teeth-rattling vibrations. As we increase speed, the track, which seems so wide from the relative safety and comfort of the grandstands or pit lane, suddenly looks to be razor thin. How in the hell can he do this while battling forty-two other cars and drivers?
As the car swings onto the front straight, the outside wall approaches fast. I wonder if Dale Jr. realizes that I am on the side that will impact this concrete barrier if we slide one or two inches closer. Both sides of my brain begin a frantic argument: the emotional side screams in equal parts terror and joy, while the rational side is comforted that one of the best drivers in the world is only twenty-four inches to my left, artfully pulling at the wheel as we hurtle toward the start/finish line.
After three laps, he slows on the backstraight, and I give him a big-ass thumbs-up. Two thumbs up, in fact. We both continue to smile as we roll slowly into the pit lane. I am confident that our high-speed laps have eclipsed the Winston Cup track record that Dale Jr. himself holds, but when we arrive in the pits, he points out that our lap times were more than three seconds slower than the pace he would maintain during a race such as the Coca-Cola 600, held here every May. His one-lap record is 29.027 seconds, an average of more than 186 miles per hour. Our best lap today is 33.4 seconds, or an average speed of slightly more than 161 miles per hour.
After three laps (less than five miles) of doing nothing but holding on, adrenaline is shooting though my veins as if propelled by a high-pressure fire hose. My ears are ringing from the heavy-metal volume inside the car, and my eyes are scratchy from the fumes and grit as I climb from the car delirious with joy. I am completely worn out. I refuse to believe that Dale Jr. has the strength, the stamina, and the concentration to do this for six hundred freakin' miles—four hundred laps— while fighting the rest of the aggressive pack of drivers who want nothing more than to get past him. There are no timeouts in racing, no time to rest or catch your breath. The ride has further convinced me what I had already suspected: this is the ultimate extreme sport.
My position as the publicist for Dale Jr. gives me unequaled access to all the action as it happens, but I have tried to keep myself out of the stories as much as possible to keep the focus on Dale Jr. and the team.
This book, though, is not a biography of Dale Jr. His life story will have to come several years from now. It is a behind-the-scenes look at his first full season on the biggest stage in American motor sports. This book looks at one year in the life of this young star, as he grows and becomes more of an adult every day. One year in his life—starting the season as a timid rookie and ending it as one of the most outspoken role models in the sport. One year after his first Daytona 500, he returns as a confident veteran, only to see his sparkling second-place finish, indeed his entire life, turned upside down by the tragic death of his father on the final lap of the race.
No matter how many races Dale Jr. wins in the future, or how many championships he grabs, there will always be only one rookie season. Only one first win. One first all-star race. And only one first motorized bar stool (but we'll tell that story later).
Hey, everyone, this is Dale Jr.
I want to tell you straight up that this book is not my life story, or about my life with my dad (Maybe I'll write those books in the coming years). Instead, this is the real story of my first season as a driver in the biggest race series in the country: NASCAR Winston Cup. It was one helluva rookie season, and my team and I experienced tons of emotions: exhilaration and exhaustion, fun and fear, triumph and tragedy, and everything in between.
This project began early in the 2000 season. The goal was to tell the story of one year in my life, beginning with my first Daytona 500 through to the finish of the same race in 2001. The last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 turned into a nightmare for me, my family, and race fans everywhere. It didn't take me very many days to decide to finish this book in honor of my dad. He was not only my father and friend, but he was also my boss, the guy whose name was on the door of the race car I drive. I miss him every day.
Sit back and enjoy the year 2000 behind the wheel with me.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Daytona Beach, Florida The Daytona 500
The Future Has Arrived
The Daytona 500 is known as the Great American Race. Some insist on referring to it as the Super Bowl of racing. I like the Super Bowl, but I think that having every team and every NASCAR superstar in one race is more compelling than a game with only two teams. No matter what you choose to call it, the 500 is the biggest race of the NASCAR Winston Cup season.
I am Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 8 Budweiser NASCAR Winston Cup car. The 2000 season is my first in American racing's biggest league. I drove five races in the Winston Cup series as a practice run last year, but now an entire season looms ahead for me and my team. Some of the media and fans are calling me the most heralded and hyped rookie in NASCAR's fifty-plus–year history. That kind of crap puts a lot of pressure on me, but no more than I put on myself.
Call me what you want. Most call me Dale Jr. Or Dale. Or Junior. Or Little E. My dad started calling me Junebug when I was young. Hell, I'll answer to any of 'em.
I am the second-oldest son of a racing legend, seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, whose skill behind the wheel and an ironhanded, commonsense approach to life created a huge self-made success on the track, in the boardroom, and in the family room.
My life is full of contradictions. On the one hand, if you believe everything you read, I'm some kind of rising superstar; I've even been called the future of NASCAR. But on the other hand, I'm really just a normal guy. I was born October 10, 1974, and like most other guys in their twenties, I like nothing more than to chill out at home, have a cold beer and hang with my buddies. Some people think of me as a hell-raising partyer, known to occasionally play the drums on stage with famous rock bands. Truth is, much of the time I'm quiet, introspective, and sometimes almost painfully shy. I think I'm a lot like other people my age, and I hope I'm also growing to be a lot like my dad. If I can ever come close to my father—being successful on and off the track and with my family—I'll be all right.
My dad has won thirty-four races here at Daytona—more than twice as many races as anyone else—including wins in the Daytona 500, the 125-mile qualifying races, the International Race of Champions, the Busch Clash, the Firecracker 400, and the Busch Series races. Yet he lost the Daytona 500 nineteen times before winning in his twentieth start in 1998. I thought Dad was just as great before he won that race as he was after he won, but some say your career is incomplete without winning it at least once. It's like someone saying an athlete was unsuccessful in their career—no matter how great their stats were—if they didn't win the Super Bowl, World Series, or Olympic gold. I guess, because I saw Dad try so hard and still not win it so many times, I feel differently. Sure, I want to win it right now, but it's not everything.
When Dad finally won the Daytona 500, it was one of his greatest victories. People remember that race for the way every crew member from every team ran out on pit lane to give him a high five after he had won. I think that showed how much he was liked and respected among his competitors despite his "Intimidator" nickname and reputation. After slapping hands with hundreds of crew guys, he went out in the grass and did donuts for a few minutes. It was a great moment and I remember how happy he was afterwards.
This is my first Daytona 500. Literally. I've never even seen one in person. I was always in school each February and couldn't travel to watch my dad race until the summer months. Just driving into the infield of the track through the tunnel underneath Turn 4 is exciting. The history and the prestige of this place are just so immense that I can't wait to say I've raced in the Daytona 500. No matter what else I do in life, no one can ever take that away from me.
Or, should I say, I hope this is my first Daytona 500. As a rookie driver with a rookie team, there is no guarantee at all that our car will even be in the starting field. More than fifty teams are trying to gain one of the forty-three starting positions, and just because my team and I have won the last two Busch Series championships (NASCAR's version of Triple-A baseball), that doesn't help us at all now.
I can't imagine not making the starting lineup. There has been so much buildup to this one event that the pressure is immense on the whole team. It's the first race of the year, and people have been talking about Daytona since an hour after the 1999 season ended. Hell, for me it goes back more than eighteen months to the day that we announced to the world that Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) was pairing up with Budweiser to move up to the Winston Cup series in the year 2000. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Every sponsor makes big plans for this race, and every team spends the entire off-season preparing their best new cars just to make it into the starting field. Anything the crew can imagine (or purchase) is put into the car to win this one race. I have a good team behind me, but strange things can happen, so you hope and hope and hope that all goes well. I don't know how I could face my fans and my sponsors if I failed to qualify. I may as well take the rest of the year off.
In the Busch Series, we always had a fast car here, but I never finished better than fourteenth place in the two races at Daytona. My first race was in 1998, and it ended with my car flipping down the back straightaway at something like 170 miles per hour. As I was flipping, all I could see was earth, sky, earth, sky, earth, sky.… When I flipped for the final time, the ground looked as if it was being thrown at me like a giant prop from the movie Twister. Only after the car came to a stop did I realize I had landed upside down. It was as wild and exhilarating as any ride I've ever taken. When you clear your head and realize you're not seriously hurt, you think, Hell yeah! That was wild!
The Daytona 500 is the climax of two weeks of practice and qualifying, as well as other special races like the Bud Shootout (reserved exclusively for last year's Bud Pole position winners), two 125-mile qualifying sprints, an IROC race, which is a fight between twelve champion drivers in identical cars (I'll be racing against Dad in that one, too), a 300-mile Busch race, a NASCAR truck series race, and a helluva lot more.
The track seats almost 170,000 people and you can add about half that many in the infield as well. (Let's see the Super Bowl try to match that.) Many of those people are around for the whole two weeks, living in their RVs, cooking on the grill, drinking Bud, partying, watching the races, buying souvenirs, and trying to get close to the drivers.
Being a Winston Cup driver means being accessible to the fans. This accessibility is the basis of NASCAR's popularity, and a huge tradition that goes back to when there was no fencing around the garage area and fans were able to wander around and talk to the drivers before the race. This still happens, but you need to know someone who is a sponsor or on a race team to get a garage pass. I cannot imagine any other professional sport that would allow you into the locker room or dugout so close to the start of the game.
The drivers have known for years they weren't anything without the fans. So they signed autographs, they did interviews, and they let the fans get close and see them. The fans felt like they knew the drivers personally, and the result was fan loyalty. This continues today. When a lot of other sports see declining loyalty among fans and players, NASCAR fans remain faithful. Young drivers learn early to treat the fans right. I learned it from being around racetracks for my entire life.
There is no telling how many autographs a NASCAR driver will sign during Speedweeks. Thousands, for sure. And someone like my father or Richard Petty will sign millions in his career. In fact, I often joke that Richard Petty ruined it for all of us because he was known to sign anywhere and anything for anybody. Now fans expect that from all of us! I say that half-jokingly, because I'm happy to sign most of the time, but sometimes the constant crush gets overwhelming.
I used to feel strange about signing autographs, because I thought people were just asking because of who my dad was. But sometimes it's really cool to sign an autograph. For instance, Kenny Mayne of ESPN's SportsCenter interviewed me on the day before the 500. He teased me that I looked like some college kid on spring break and then he asked me to sign the cover of his copy of the latest ESPN magazine. (It didn't hurt that my photo was on the cover, along with my buddy and longtime rival Matt Kenseth.) Mayne meets all kinds of athletes but he still wanted me to sign the magazine, and he even asked me to go out and race karts with him after the race. I thought he was just kidding, but I heard later he was pissed off that I didn't show up.
One of the first nights in Daytona, I did a radio show at the local shopping mall with Benny Parsons, a guy who went from driving a taxi in Detroit to winning a Winston Cup championship. Benny is a good guy and everyone likes talking to him, so I enjoy doing his show. The producers told all of the drivers that they didn't have to sign any autographs for the hundreds of fans packed into the mall for the show. Some guys took that seriously, and walked in and out of the security entrance without signing a thing.
I'm not comfortable just walking past, especially since there are many people packed three, four, and five rows deep along a roped-off area behind the stage. They couldn't see or hear the radio show—they are there for one thing: autographs.
They are all holding or waving something to be signed: a die-cast collectible of my race car, life-size cardboard cutouts of me that they "borrowed" from their local bar or convenience store, T-shirts, hats, trading cards. Hell, I have signed just about everything except checks or money orders.
I have fun on the air with Benny, but I'm tired. I'm in a bad mood. I just want to get back to my own motor coach for some peace and quiet and video games. But these fans are the people who pay my salary, so I remember Richard Petty and I venture out into the middle of the walkway. Somehow, especially early in his career, Dad has always been able to walk right through a line like this without signing a thing. He'd say, "I gotta go! I'm late for [insert excuse here]!" and the crowd would go crazy. "Go get 'em, Dale!" or "Kick their ass, man!"
Nowadays fans are much more aggressive and much more demanding. They think you owe it to them to stay and sign every last one. If I walked out without signing, they'd all yell, "Fuck you, Junior!" and "You suck!"
So I take out a black Sharpie—it's the NASCAR tool of choice for this job—and I start signing. My dad and Petty use a long, complex signature to sign their names, but I prefer the immediate approach. I almost always sign "Dale Jr." and sometimes I'll put a small "#8" below it. Tonight there are so many people here, I can't possibly sign for everyone, so I look for the official merchandise first—my hats, jackets, T-shirts, model cars—because I know the fans with that stuff had to go find it and buy it and that they are really my fans. (Plus I get a few nickels and dimes from that stuff too.) I always try to seek them out first.
The biggest secret to signing autographs in a big crowd is to keep moving. While I sign (left-handed of course), I keep moving slowly toward the door. When you stop moving, the crowd can surround you and things can get out of hand. As I inch closer to the exit, the people at the back get more impatient and start pushing. This is when it gets tense and I worry about people getting knocked over—especially little kids.
I sign for about thirty minutes, when my publicist Jade Gurss and I finally reach the doorway. When we turn to leave, the ones who got an autograph are cheering and the rest are saying, "Fuck you, Junior" and "You suck!" See, I told you so.
In a perfect world, I could sign for all of them, but it's late and I have to be in the race car early the next day.
At Daytona, being a rookie dictates many things, including your location in the garage. Teams are placed according to their position in the point standings in last year's Winston Cup, and since we ran only five races in 1999, we didn't accumulate many points. The top ten point-earners get the biggest garage stalls as well as other perks. Each team uses stacks and stacks of Goodyear Eagle racing slicks, and it takes a lot of time and effort to mount all of those tires for each of the teams. They are mounted for the successful and winning teams first, so we have to wait patiently for them to stack our tires.
My team is parked way down in one of the last garage stalls—all dusty and cramped. Right next to us is Matt Kenseth, who is driving a Ford for team owner Jack Roush. Matt and I became buddies off the track during the last two years, when we were both running the Busch Series and competing hard for the championship. He was always my toughest competition and for some reason I think it made us closer. Matt is a good guy and a great driver, and the media who cover NASCAR are saying that the two of us are natural rivals for the Rookie of the Year award. As much as I like Matt and enjoy hanging with him, I really want to beat him. I know he's also gunning for me, since I won the last two Busch titles. NASCAR rivalries and friendships are like that. When you are out on the track, it doesn't matter who is in the other car— you want to beat him. I feel that way when the guy driving the other car is my friend, like Matt, or when the other car is a black No. 3 and the driver is my dad. I want to beat him and I know he wants to beat me. Badly.
Having Matt so close in the garage is cool because it gives me someone to talk to and relax with. Because we are both new and have similar backgrounds, we learn a lot from each other. I'll talk with Matt about a lot more things than I will with my father. Dad is one of those guys who doesn't give detailed lessons or tips. But Matt and I can ask, "Is your car doing this?" or "What did you do here in Turn 3?" We even discuss off-track pressures and expectations. Our motor coaches (our homes-away-from-home) are parked side by side in the drivers' lot, so we hope to talk at night.
I don't want to make it sound like my dad doesn't offer any advice, but he always wants me to learn things for myself. When I was getting started in racing, he'd tell me things like "Be smooth" or "Be careful," but he really didn't give me a lot of specific racing hints. The one I remember most, though, is when I was just getting started in late-model stock cars at a small local track in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For three Saturday nights in a row, the same guy had spun me out. Each week, I'd try to pass him on the inside and he would cut across the track and spin my inexperienced ass around. I told Dad that the same damn guy had wrecked me three times and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever pass anyone ever again. Dad asked for more specifics about each incident. He thought for a second, and then he turned and said, "Here's what you do. The next time you come up to pass him, you know he's going to do that to you. And he will keep doing it as long as you let him do it. So you come up on the inside like before, but when he starts to cut across, you put on the brakes and keep your steering wheel straight. That should do it."
- On Sale
- May 30, 2009
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing