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The Life

February 6, 2002
ESPN The Magazine

Heís appealing for the simple reason that heís hip and humble, fluent in rap and the Internet. Heís also appealing because heís had to mourn his daddyís death in public, and hasnít once told all the mini-cams to back off. His friends think heís too patient with the fans who rush at him with their sharpies, but the truth is, he has the people skills his daddy reserved for his fans, and thatís going to carry Dale Earnhardt Jr. a ways.

Not many people could handle what he has ahead of him, either. Starting with Daytona on Feb. 17, heíll be racing 38 times in 42 weeks, and that means, every weekend, heís either going to hear a question about his daddy, or a marriage proposal. He received the latter not long ago, during an autograph session, and heís fairly certain the girl was serious.

"Some chick I didnít know,íí he says. "I turned f----ní red."

The charm of it all is that he still is who he is, for better or worse. The charm of it all is that he still shops at Wal Mart. That he still sleeps in until 2 p.m. That he still drives only American cars. That he still wonít wear his seatbelt on the highway. That he still doesnít want a full-time bodyguard. That if it werenít for racing, heíd still be a mechanic.

"Thatís probably what Iíd be doing," he says. "Working at a dealership as a mechanic. Itís just a real down-to-earth, real humbling day. Every day, you knew what to expect, but every job was new and fun. If you like cars and s---, thatís a fun job. Itís real American, if you know what I mean."

The point is, his last 12 months in (literally) the fast lane have not turned him politically correct. You can take the boy out of North Carolina, but you canít take the North Carolina out of the boy, and I recently spent enough time with him to know that this is absolutely true.

Not wearing his seat belt? That is also absolutely true. While working on a piece for ESPN The Magazine, we took a ride together from Mooresville to Greensboro -- he drove; I prayed -- and he never once put on his safety device. I didnít put mine on, either, for the first time in probably 20 years, because I just figured if anyone could avoid a wreck, it was Junior.

But it dawned on me that maybe it was an Earnhardt thing. Iíd been told that his daddy, Dale Sr., used to take off his seatbelt the last lap of a race, just to say "screw you" to the racing gods. At least, thatís what the legend is. So I asked Dale Jr. about that.

"No, not true," he says. "He wasnít that f----ní stupid. Hell, no. No, thatís never happened. Ever. Iím sure thereís all kind of crazy ass stuff out there that people might say. Probably because the seatbelt teared in the crash last year. But that ainít true. I mean, Iíve taken my seat belts loose during a caution one time to take a piss. So I could get my d--- out of my pants. But I swear to you, dude, heís never done that."

Did he grow a mustache this off-season, like his dad? True, but although everyone assumed it was to honor his father, that wasnít the case. "Nope," he says. "I grew it Ďcause I liked the dudeís mustache in the movie, Almost Famous." He mightíve even kept the mustache for this coming NASCAR season, except a girl told him it made him look like Yosemite Sam, and off it went.

Do all these references to his daddy unnerve him? Also true. What happens is it gets him reminiscing, and then it gets him emotional. Itís just a raw topic -- itís only been a year since his fatherís death -- and this is why he has photographs of him all over his house. "I used to never have pictures around and now I have a lot of pictures," he says. "And thatís cool, I really like them. Sometimes youíre like, ĎGawd dang, Iíve got too many pictures of my daddy around here. Everywhere I turn, I see his face. But itís comforting most of the time."

Itís also comforting to keep his daddyís hat -- the one he wore the day he died -- in his pickup truck. "Yeah, yeah, I do have his hat,íí he says. "Howíd I get it? I went to look at the car a couple days after the wreck, and it was on the gear shift. And I asked one of the guys that was watching the car if he minded if I have it, and he said no. Iím like, ĎThis is cool to have this hat. This is the hat that was with him.í Itís just a little piece, you know. It keeps me kind of connected to him."

So does the Internet help take his mind off of it all? Very true. Heís online all night long, playing racing games with anonymous people out there. They donít even know it is Dale Jr., because he rarely tells them itís him, and if he does tell, they never believe him.

"A lot of people go, yeah, right, whatever. They always try some riddle or some question about my dadís career to see if itís really me. Theyíre like, ĎMan, whatís your dadís wifeís name then.í Itís like, anybody knows that. I mean, if theyíre a Dale Earnhardt fan theyíll know that. But theyíll go through a series of eight, 10, 12 questions, and if you answer them all correctly, theyíre, ĎWell, I still donít believe you.í Itís funny as hell. Well, I took so much crap from it that I just totally donít even go there anymore."

Does he really race these anonymous guys online? Definitely true. One guy from Buffalo was so adept at online racing that Junior suggested the guy try driving REAL race cars. They began talking on the telephone, and Junior decided to finance the guyís career. The guy -- whom Junior would like to keep anonymous -- was then rookie of the year on a local New York race circuit, and has now moved to North Carolina to pursue it further.

Is Junior really generous that way? Absolutely. He generally doesnít mind people crashing the parties at his house and only recently did he put up a gate, with a security code, in front of his driveway. He also hires designated drivers on party nights, although the people who get chauffeured home sometimes forget to come back for their cars. "I get all these strange cars sitting in my driveway sometimes,íí he says. He also takes his buddies with him everywhere. He even took them out in his racecar, one-by-one, and drove them 180 mph -- just to show them what real speed is. "Thatís the most balls-out thing Iíve done," he says.

Thatís the most balls-out thing? Well, maybe not. Heís also taken Polaroids of himself while driving his race car -- at 190 mph! Heís also attached a video camera to his dashboard during a practice run so he could film himself winking into the camera going 190, too.

So heís a little bit of a ham? Yes. Heís done music videos and commercials, and adores it so much, he actually intends to go into acting. "I may be the worst f----ní actor in a 100 square mile radius, but Iíd like to try it," he says. "Legitimately try it. Of course, thereís not a lot of credibility that comes along with being an athlete and trying to get into that business. So I donít have a lot of expectations, but Iíd like to continue to do commercials. Itís fun for me."

Will we see him in music videos, too? True. With the Canadian artist, Mathew Good. In the video, they kidnap a gnome from someoneís front yard and fly it all over the country. In one scene, the gnome -- not Junior -- is in bed with three women.

Has all of this fame affected him just a teeny bit? Maybe true. He made sure to get a new Italian suit to wear to the MTV Music Awards this year because, "I didnít want to wear some dumbass Mooresville suit."

So he canít possibly be the same old Dale Earnhardt Jr. anymore, can he? Well, okay, heís changing, maybe a little. Just recently, one of his friends, Shane Mueller, asked him to put his seatbelt on, telling Junior, "Come on, dude, I would think you, of all people, would know better."

And so Junior put the belt on. Put it right on.

Politically correct for a day.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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