Twenty-four hours hadn't passed since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. grinned his way through the official announcement of his new racing home when The Magazine called. It was mid-June, 2007, and no one had seen NASCAR's most popular driver so happy in years—if ever. The Mag wanted to know why.
Junior was intrigued when I approached him with the idea for a story, but quickly declined. It was midseason, and he told me that his boys on the No. 8 crew didn't deserve it. It wasn't fair to them, he said, for him to be gushing over a new team with half a season to go. I respected that. Then he told me we'd get together during the off-season.
On Jan. 18, 2008, that happened on a pair of bar stools at a dusty countertop inside the replica Unocal 76 gas station on his property. For nearly two hours he talked, in detail, about the dark emotional abyss he experienced following his father's death. He discussed his dreams, the lifelong feud with stepmother Teresa and the evolution of what pressure means to him. It was landmark stuff. Earnhardt said things no one dreamed he'd ever say—and I could tell he was aware of it and just how heavy it all was.
This story was always important to me. I consider Junior a friend and he was the favorite driver of my daddy, who felt a connection with Dale soon after he started racing Cup. So when Junior trusted me with his deepest hurt and most personal demons, I knew I had to do it justice.
Three months later, in March at Texas Motor Speedway, Earnhardt asked for an update. I told him the story was coming along, but I had no idea when it might grace the pages of The Magazine. A week before this meeting, my father had fallen ill. He'd been in the Intensive Care Unit for a couple days back home in Virginia, and on that Texas Thursday he was back in the hospital. He would remain there until his death on Apr. 25.
My ol' man, Leo H. Smith, II, always admired Junior's honesty—and his red hair. We Smiths are a family full of redheads, and Dad had a special affection for carrot tops. I sensed a little crush on Kelley, too. Dad loved her spunk, the way she directed NASCAR's most tumultuous ship while maintaining a quiet grace.
As my father's health worsened, this story took on a new meaning for me. He was looking forward to it so much—one of his favorite athletes chronicled by his boy. I'd offered bits and pieces of the story to him for months, and when the call came from my editor that we had a chance at the cover he was my first thought.
One trait I think I share with Dale Jr. is the need for affirmation. I want to do well for me, but I want people to notice. Especially my Dad. I couldn't wait for him to see it. I was in Europe on vacation. It was a Friday. My editor wanted the story by Wednesday. There were still people to interview. No matter. I wrote the bulk of the piece in the business center of an Irish castle, the Adare Manor, just before watching my friend get married there.
The creative engine ran on coffee all morning, beer all afternoon. For several days.
When my father died, this story became personal. It was about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s experience, but many of the words he'd entrusted me with suddenly applied to my life. That was a very emotional realization and made finishing the piece an exhausting, but ultimately cathartic, exercise.
It enabled me to share an indescribable hurt with someone who'd lived it, without ever saying a word.