They've got to get him a woman. They've got to make sure she's put together -- if you know what we mean -- and they've got to make sure she won't mind a little cigarette smoke, and a little bit of axle grease, and Bud on tap. They've got to make sure she won't mind listening to the rapper Ludacris, and that she can deal with eight-seater airplanes and mirrors on the ceiling and dudes hanging out in the basement and him driving 190. But most of all, she'd better be able to give him a kid, preferably a son, so he can continue the cycle. So he can bring into this world a Ralph Dale Earnhardt III.
Because right now, the boy needs a distraction, needs something to take his mind off Ralph Dale Earnhardt the first. It has been a year since his daddy died on the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500, and, as a new NASCAR season begins, he has not come to terms with it, no matter how many cartons of Camels he inhales.
Racing fans are lucky they have another Dale Earnhardt to go see in their RVs, but if they expect the second Dale Earnhardt to dominate, they need to remember that a dead man's Goodwrench cap still sits, as a memorial, in his pickup truck. They need to remember that he's been able to stomach his daddy's grave only twice. They need to understand he just spent the loneliest winter of his 27-year life. "What really sucked was f—in' Christmas," he says. "God almighty, I don't know whether it was so much because my dad wasn't there, but this off-season has been nasty, man."
Christmas was when the death finally set in. That morning, he went to his daddy's North Carolina farm for the first time since the wreck, entered his daddy's kitchen, and could smell him. He wanted out of there. "At his house, I don't feel good," Junior says. "Because he was a real private guy, and he don't like people in his s—. So I felt like I was intruding on his business. I mean, that was his f—in' kitchen, man. You better take your shoes off. I felt like that. Every time I put something in the trash, I felt compelled to empty it for him. Even if it was half-full."
He spent the rest of Christmas in his own garage, alone with his MTV, and it would only get worse at night. That week, he began dreaming of his father, and in every dream, his daddy would walk by him, never saying a word. One night, he dreamed that Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and he were on pit row before this year's Daytona 500, and out of nowhere, his father walked in, said something to Wallace and walked off. "In the dream, I'm like, 'What the hell?' " he says.
In another dream, he and a friend fly to a race and drive their rental car off a cliff. They fall 100 feet, but do not get so much as a scratch. They find their way to their hotel, and while they're checking in, his daddy walks silently through the lobby and into an elevator. "He never has a starring role in any dreams," he says. "He'll just be in the corner of some room." His closest buddies -- who own keys to his house and, for laughs, leave inflated condoms tied to his front gate -- all have the same response: "It means your daddy's looking over you, dude."
But if he can't have his daddy, he'd like to become a daddy. "People tell me I just need a good woman," he says. "Hell, yeah. I'm trying to get married before there's so much going on in my life, I won't know the difference between the truth and a lie. You know, before I can't trust 'em. But damn, there ain't no women around these races. Loud, obnoxious race cars and chicks don't mix. Chicks don't dig cars going in circles. I mean, you ain't seeing supermodels out there, dude. If there are, there's a 10-foot-tall chain-link fence making it difficult to have a conversation.
"But, yes, I do want a good woman. As corny as that sounds, that could balance everything out for me. It's been a rough year, dude. I'm still a little lost. Don't know where I'm heading. Not that I need to know, but I'm really looking forward to just getting married and having a family. I can't actually wait to have a son.
"I just want me a son. So I can show him what I do, and what my daddy did, and his daddy did."
The first place he'll take him is Daytona.
Alone on Christmas Day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got on the Internet to trace his family tree. He traced it back four generations, but the ancestor he felt most connected to was his grandfather, Ralph Lee Earnhardt, the first Earnhardt to drive a car way over the speed limit.
What's important, though, is the way Ralph Lee Earnhardt died. The 1956 champion of the NASCAR Sportsman Division (equivalent to today's Busch Series), Ralph spent his spare time fixing neighborhood cars in his garage. Then, in 1973, Ralph felt chest pain as a woman was arriving to pick up her keys, and excused himself to go to the house. When he didn't return, the woman stepped inside and, according to Ralph's wife, Martha, found him dead of a heart attack.
His son Ralph Dale Earnhardt -- who would become the legendary seven-time Winston Cup champion -- was 22 at the time, and the death left him inconsolable. His father had always harangued him for quitting the ninth grade, for blowing paychecks on new tires. And now, just as they were reconciling, just as they were racing dirt tracks together, his father was gone.
"Dale was angry at the world after that, just angry," says his wife at the time, Brenda Jackson. "Well, I conceived a child that next year, and Dale pronounced right away, 'Well, it's a boy.' And when it did come out a boy, I cried, I was so relieved. Because I don't know what he would've done if it'd been a girl. He wouldn't even consider girls' names, because it was gonna be a boy and it was gonna be a Junior. Dale Junior."
So this is how Junior came to be, and this is how the cycle began -- the cycle of Earnhardts and racing and funerals; Earnhardts and racing and funerals.
Naturally then, Dale Jr. has spent the past year trying to find his place in this Earnhardt universe. His older half-brother, Kerry, is still a marginal Busch Series driver, which means Junior is the family patriarch, involuntarily. So he has spent the year trying to find that middle ground between mischievous 27-year-old and sudden breadwinner, spent it trying to find out how much he, too, is angry at the world. He still enjoys exotic dancers ("I love strip clubs," he says) and still counts the number of beers he can suck down in one sitting ("I get a pretty good buzz after only eight, but I can drink almost near a case in one night," he says). But he also realizes that his father's funeral has forced "the punk in me to kind of have to leave."
Over the last 12 months, he has spent his evenings in the garage in Mooresville, N.C., that he and his daddy built together, although Dale Sr. never lived to see it completed. Dale Sr. had his own garage -- known as the Deerhead Shop because of the mounted deer on the wall -- and grandfather Ralph had his own garage too. And now Junior has his. His sponsor, Budweiser, has kept the fridge stocked with free beer, and his buddies -- most of whom he's known for only five years -- have stayed up with him until 3 or 4 a.m. They'd build stock cars and play online racing games, and they'd ask him questions about being an Earnhardt. Questions about what it was like to be his daddy's son. And his daddy's daddy's grandson.
As a kid, did he have to race, or else? Hell no, and honestly, no one thought racing was in his nature. He was only 5'3" when he got his driver's license, and was always the unassertive type. His older sister, Kelly, taught him to ride a bike, but he flipped it his first time down a hill. When she later tried teaching him to drive a stick shift, he nearly crashed into a barn. His daddy wanted him to have no fear, and had him steer the family car on the highway when he was 12. But the boy just seemed afraid. He had a go-cart that had been passed down from Grandpa Ralph, but his mother remembers him refusing to enter races. For fear of finishing last.
Then what got him brave all of a sudden? His daddy paying attention. After he returned from military school, he started puttering with radio-controlled cars, and says he "got a lot more attaboys" from his daddy. From then on, he intended to race. "Everybody's surprised I went into racing, 'cause I never used to spend time at the shop," he says. "But see, all I heard from my dad was, 'You got to start at the bottom, sweeping floors.' And I said, 'Hell no, I'm going straight to the driver's seat.' He'd laugh, but I meant it. I didn't show interest in driving 'til I was 18, 'til I could be a driver right away."
How tough was his daddy? Here's a story. Dale hated his rivals, like Geoff Bodine. But it just so happened that Brenda, Junior's mom, was the daughter of Bodine's car fabricator, Robert Gee. So, one day, when Gee gave Junior a toy replica of a Bodine car, his daddy whipped out his hunting gun and started firing away at it. For a good laugh.
Was there a time when one of his daddy's temper tantrums helped? Actually, about four years ago. "I was a rookie in the Busch Series at the time," Junior says, "and I wasn't confident or sure I'd make a career out of driving. So one day I wrecked my car in practice, and told my buddies, 'Screw it, let's go back to my house.' They said, 'To do what?' And I said, 'To get drunk.' So, we grabbed some beers, and I'm like, screw it, it ain't the end of my life if I don't race. I'm done.
"Well, my dad comes walking into that house, and boom! He looks at them guys and goes, 'Get the hell off my property!' And them boys couldn't get out that door fast enough. And then he starts chewing into my ass. He's like, 'Why you wasting your damn time over here? Why you drinking? You need to be tearing that car apart, getting ready for the next race.' I'm, 'Really? I'm gonna race again? I thought it was over with.' He goes, 'Hell no, man! You just wrecked, it ain't no big damn deal.' I said, 'Man, I want to show you I can do it, Daddy, and I keep screwing up, and I know you're going to give up on me.' And he's like, 'Man, I ain't ever giving up on you.' It was just one of them talks. This was '97, and, I won the next year's championship."
Did his daddy put up with his partying? Hell no, and his daddy would break up his parties any chance he could. One night, Junior was hosting a pool bash just as his daddy was arriving in his private helicopter. So his daddy shined the helicopter's spotlights toward the pool -- the way a cop would -- and everybody scattered. "Shoot, all you saw were taillights hauling ass out of my driveway," Junior says. "But I used to aggravate the snot out of him. He'd see my cigarette butts, and he'd be, 'Quit smoking them cigarettes, man.' Or if I trashed my house, he'd say, 'Clean up. What the hell you thinking, man?' So sometimes now when I'm lying around, and I'm really moping and being a bum, I go, 'My old man would be pissed off right now.' So I get up and clean my mess up.
"You know, I've got this bar in my basement that we call Club E. I can fit about 150 people down there, and there's always one fight, always a beer bottle broken over somebody's head, always some chick going on radio saying she's been naked at my club. Well, my dad raised hell at me about that club. And now I'm coming real f—in' close to taking the dance floor up and putting a pool table down and making it a room for about six people to hang out. Listen, they say 27 to 30 are the defining years of your life, because it carries over into the maturity years of your 30s. So I'm gonna spend some time dissecting myself these three years. Gonna take better care of myself. Ain't gonna be as concerned with how much beer's in the cooler. I guess I'm hearing my dad in my head now."
It took a few of these cathartic Q and A's with his buddies to get him thinking this way, but by last June -- four months after the accident -- Junior finally started feeling like an Earnhardt. An Earnhardt his daddy and his daddy's daddy would've been proud of.
What proved it? The day late last June that he walked his sister, Kelly, down the aisle at her wedding. There wasn't a dry eye in the place.
And that very night, Junior left town. Left for Daytona.
He needed to go back eventually -- back to the place where his daddy snapped his skull last Feb. 18 -- and he went with reinforcements. It was the week before July's Pepsi 400, and he and five of his garage buddies sneaked onto Daytona International Speedway in a Chevy Suburban. "Screw it, dudes, we're racing this thing," he told them. And around the track they went, high up on the banking and straight toward the wall that had finished his daddy.
The wall had been repainted, but Junior noticed that his father's black skid marks were still on the track. "This is giving me chills, dudes," he said.
He had taken the guys along "for support," not knowing how he'd react. Because back on the day his daddy died, he had not reacted well. "No kidding, man -- I had an awful nasty breakdown that day," he says. "I was screaming as loud as I could for five seconds. I was in a room full of people, and it was like, 'Baaaaaah, I can't believe it!' "
But this time he felt a surge of energy. It was peculiar because he'd felt disconnected the two times he'd visited his father's mausoleum, back on private property outside of Charlotte. Yet, at this Daytona wall, he felt almost clairvoyant.
"The actual corner in Daytona means more to me, I think," he says. "Just because that's where it happened, that's where he was last alive. So when I go to the racetrack or just to Daytona, I get more excited than I would going to the grave.
"I just feel him there. People will probably say, 'Ah, he's lost his f—in' mind now, he thinks his dad floats over the track.' But I'll tell you this: When I go to the track there, it's like I'm checking him out. I'm, 'Hey, man, what's up?' It's almost like giving him a shout."
A landscaper, mowing the infield, booted them out of the Speedway that day ("the guy was pretty f—in' arrogant," Junior says), but Dale was in too good a mood to care. He and the guys went to celebrate, and by Junior's count, the six of them drank 380 beers in the next 72 hours. Then, four days later, he was so at peace on race day that he took a power nap in his No. 8 car minutes before the engines started. His crew noticed then that his slow pulse rate -- in the 60s -- was identical to his daddy's, and that maybe that's why he could race calmly in crowded conditions. He won that Pepsi 400, and then two more Winston Cup events, and his grandmother, Martha, had no choice but to turn on her TV.
"I've lost a father, a mother and a husband, but nothing compares to losing a child," she says. "So if I had my way, I'd never watch another race. But I have to watch my grandson. Although it's so hard. I keep waiting for a No. 3 car, and it never comes."
It was a whirlwind 2001 season, as Junior traveled in his daddy's eight-seat company jet, and his popularity was such that he needed a disguise to walk the race grounds. He'd wear jeans and a T-shirt and carry a cooler -- just to slip inconspicuously into VIP tents -- because otherwise he'd be bound to his motor coach.
Which wasn't a half-bad thing. His coach had mirrors on the ceiling and an oval feather bed, though he says he only slept there "if a girl was with me." Usually, he'd sleep on a couch up front, with access to his 48-inch plasma-screen satellite TV and a 10-speaker sound system that he'd use to play everything from Mary J. Blige to Nirvana.
By year's end, Junior had risen to eighth in the standings and, in NASCAR chat rooms, the debates were usually about whether he should shave his goatee. "I know -- because I'm in those chat rooms," he says. Experts predict he'll push Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon for No. 1 in 2002, but that's assuming he can handle the pressure of being the next Earnhardt. It's no given. Others have already tried and failed to be like his daddy -- namely every driver on circuit. "Dude, you should see our race meetings," Junior says. "It's always Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace sitting up front, and I'm like, 'Yeah, y'all are sitting in my dad's seat.' It's like they relish it. Like, 'Oh, I'm in the seat now.' So I just sit back with our crew, real f—in' modest."
The way Junior sees it, those drivers all want to be an Earnhardt, and he already is. That's the good news. The bad news is that those drivers got to go home to their families last winter, and he had to go home to a lonely garage. A lonely Christmas.
So that's why he can't wait until this year's Daytona 500 -- it gets him back into circulation. It doesn't bother him that it's one year later, that Feb. 18 is one day after the race. Given the choice between the black skid marks and his empty garage, he'd choose the skid marks.
"Feb. 18 isn't a date I've thought about, dude," he says. "What meant more to me was my dad's birthday. I raced in California that day, and finished third. And I was like, 'Man, my dad would be 50 today; this is a great day.' And until then, I couldn't have told you when my dad's birthday was. But you can ask me the rest of my life, and I'll be able to tell you exactly what day his birthday is: April 29.
"How will I feel on Feb. 18? Hell if I know, dude. I'll probably just be, 'Damn, chill, slow down.' But at least I'll be in Daytona. I feel closer to him there. Like, this month, I was testing at Daytona, and a woman comes and says she was in the car with my dad. In the car with my dad? I didn't know what she meant. Then somebody explained she'd been the first EMT to get to him at the crash. I told her that was awesome, that it was a pleasure to meet her. It was just comforting. I mean, what if you met the guy who was sitting next to Abraham Lincoln when he got shot? It's just a significant person.
"I know I keep saying Daytona every f—in' five minutes, but Daytona is just cool, man. Miami? Too many weird people in that town. Orlando? It's not trashy enough for me. It's fun, but I need a little nasty every once in a while. Too many old people there. But Daytona's cool, because the roads are always under construction, and the clubs are great. It's not a place you've got to pick up behind yourself all the time.
"In fact, I'm kind of looking to buy me a house down there on an acre, acre-and-a-half, whatever. Just to chill. It'll make me feel I'm paying a little visit to my dad, you know. Yep. Gotta meet me a good woman and get me a vacation home down there. So I can get me a son and just jet on down there. So I can show my son that track, and show my son what I do, show him what we Earnhardts do. Dude, I'd like that to happen."
Preferably by Christmas.
This article appears in the February 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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