Professional race car driver
Born Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr., October 10, 1974, in Concord, NC; son of Dale, Sr. (a race car driver and team owner) and Brenda Earnhardt.
Fan club —Club E JR, PO Box 5190, Concord, NC 28027. Home —Mooresville, NC. Office —Dale Earnhardt, Inc., 1675 Coddle Creek Highway, Mooresville, NC 28115.
Began racing c. 1990; competed in the street stock division, Concord (NC), Speedway, c. early 1990s; racer, NASCAR's Late Model Stock Division, c. mid–1990s; race car driver, NASCAR Winston Racing Series, c. 1995–98, winning three races; Busch Grand National Series, race car driver #1 car, 1998–99; Busch Grand National Champion, 1998, 1999. Busch Grand National Series victories: Coca–Cola 300, Texas Motor Speedway, 1998; MBNA Platinum 200, Dover Speedway, 1999; Textilease Medique 300, South Boston Speedway, 1999; Lysol 200, Watkins Glen International, 1999; Carqueset Auto Parts 250, Gateway International Raceway; NAPA 200, Michigan International Speedway, 1999; Autolite Platinum 205, Richmond International Raceway, 1999; EAS/GNC Live Well 3000, Daytona International Speedway, 2002; Funai 250, Richmond International Raceway, 2002; Koolerz 300, Daytona International Speedway, 2003; Aaron's 312, Talladega Superspeedway, 2003; Winn–Dixie 250, Daytona International Speedway, 2003; Hershey's Kisses 300, Daytona International Speedway, 2004. Winston Cup Circuit (known as Nextel Cup beginning in 2004), race car driver #8 car, 1999—; Winston Cup/Nextel Cup
When Dale Earnhardt Jr., decided to become a race car driver, he was following in the footsteps of a legend in NASCAR, his father, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., known as "The Intimidator." His son, known as "Little E" and "Junior," began racing as a teenager and within a short time he was racing professionally. Though he twice won the Busch Grand National Series and did well on the Winston Cup (later known as the Nextel Cup) circuit, it was not until the death of his father on the race track at the Daytona 500 in 2001 that he emerged from his father's shadow and came into his own both as a driver and public figure. One of the highlights of Earnhardt's career was winning the Daytona 500 in 2004, three years after his father's death.
Earnhardt was born on October 10, 1974, in Concord, North Carolina, the son of Dale Earnhardt and his second wife, Brenda. His grandfather was Ralph Earnhardt, a NASCAR race car driver who also built cars for other drivers in North Carolina. Dale Earnhardt, Sr., had been a race car driver from an early age and won a number of Winston Cup championships in the 1980s and 1990s. He went on to own his racing team, for which his son later raced. Earnhardt, his older sister, Kelly, and half–siblings, Kerry and Taylor, were raised around racing and race car operations from an early age. Earnhardt and his brother, Kerry, were especially interested in the sport.
Earnhardt and his sister lived with their mother for the first six years of Earnhardt's life, then they lived with their father and his third wife in Mooresville, North Carolina. His father was often not there, but off racing. He did not have a close relationship with his father because of the demands of his father's career, and often suffered from low self–esteem. Earnhardt only attended a few races of his father's as a child. After racing go–karts on occasion as a kid, Earnhardt became more interested in the sport by the time he was 16 years old, though his father claimed he was not interested at all. His father wanted him to start by sweeping floors at the garage before working on cars, but Earnhardt was not particularly a fan of this plan.
After Earnhardt graduated from high school—mostly because his father insisted that he do so (his father dropped out after ninth grade), though Earnhardt, Sr., did not show up at his graduation—Earnhardt became serious about racing. He and his brother, Kerry, fixed up a car and traded off racing the car for one season at local short tracks. Impressed by their efforts, their father bought them each a car to race in as well as their sister, Kelly. The siblings raced at local tracks, though not against each other.
In the early to mid–1990s, Earnhardt moved up in the racing world. After racing in the street stock division at the Concord, North Carolina, Speedway, he moved to NASCAR's Late Model Stock Division in the mid–1990s. Within a few years, Earnhardt was racing primarily on the NASCAR Winston Racing Series. He won three races on that circuit in three years. Earnhardt did well and showed he had talent. As Leigh Montville of Sports Illustrated wrote of Earnhardt in this time period, "He found he had a capacity for hard work, an interest in improvement that no one had suspected in him—certainly his father hadn't. He spent time in the garage and on the track. He developed the driving style of a veteran, picking his spots to challenge, to lay back."
In 1998, Earnhardt became a full–time driver in the Busch Grand National series, after competing in several races on the circuit on 1996 and 1997. He was racing in the Busch series in preparation of becoming a full–time driver on the Winston Cup Circuit. In 1998, he won at least one race on the Busch Grand National series as well as the series title. Earnhardt then signed a six–year sponsorship deal with Budweiser from $42–50 million. Those in the know were impressed by Earnhardt's growth as a driver. H.A. Wheeler, president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, told Liz Clarke of the Washington Post, "Dale Jr. is very deliberate, but moves when he needs to. He uses his head a lot and doesn't try to overrun his machine."
Earnhardt raced primarily on the Busch series again in 1999, winning six races and repeated as Busch series champion. That year was also the first in which Earnhardt raced professionally against his father. Competing directly against him or not, racing brought Earnhardt closer to his father. When asked if he raced to be close to his father, who was rather distant, he told Daniel McGinn and Bret Begun of Newsweek, "I wanted to impress him. I could have done other things, but no matter how successful I'd been it wouldn't have been as impressive to him as winning a race."
In 2000, Earnhardt made the jump up to the Winston Cup circuit, though he still occasionally competed on the Busch National Grand series each year. With the jump to the highest level of NASCAR competition, he faced more pressure and bigger sponsors. At the circuit's biggest race, the Daytona 500, Earnhardt finished 13th while his father finished 21st, the first time in six races that Earnhardt had beat his father. Earnhardt posted his first victory on the circuit in his 12th race, then won again the following week. In the rest of his races, he finished on average in the top 25.
Despite this impressive rookie campaign, Earnhardt was accused of being not very focused on racing all the time. One week, he went to Cancun on vacation while his crew remained at the garage working on his car. He also missed some press appearances. Earnhardt claimed that he took such actions so that he could have a normal life while dealing with pressures of being a high–profile race car driver. Earnhardt finished the 2000 Winston Cup season 16th in points and was the runner–up for rookie of the year honors. Two years later, in 2002, he a wrote book about his rookie year on the circuit, Driver #8, which was a best seller.
Earnhardt faced even more pressure in the 2001 season. His father was trying to win the Winston Cup championship that season so that he could set a record for most Winston Cup wins. Earnhardt, Sr., died in the biggest race on the circuit, the Daytona 500, which opened the season. He was in a fatal accident in the last lap of the race. Despite this tragedy, Earnhardt finished second in the race. He credited his father for his success. Earnhardt told Lars Anderson of Sports Illustrated, "The key to all the success I've had is my dad. It's that simple. He's taught me how to drive, how to live with integrity and how to be a man."
Upon his father's death, Earnhardt did not just inherit the mantle of the Earnhardt family racing legacy, but the whole company, including Dale Earnhardt, Inc., which his father had founded in 1996. His father had done a lot of merchandising and had managed the careers of three drivers racing for him. Earnhardt had to grow up fast and take charge, while his father's death followed him everywhere. He also was still improving as a driver himself, getting better with his car, learning more about how it ran, and diagnosing problems by feel.
The week following Earnhardt's father's death, the young race car driver got into an accident similar to the one that killed his father. The accident occurred at the Dura–Lube 400 at the North Carolina Speed-way, but he was not hurt. Fellow team driver Steve Park won the race. Less than five months after the fatal accident, Earnhardt was racing again at the Daytona International Speedway in a different race, the Pepsi 400. He won the race. Earnhardt won three Winston Cup races, and finished eighth in the point standings. His prize money for the year was $5.8 million.
As Earnhardt's success gave him a higher profile, he was signed to additional valuable endorsement deals that brought him millions of dollars in income. One such deal was with Drakkar Noir cologne which signed him to a three–year contract during which he would serve as the face of the fragrance. He also was invited to throw the first pitch at a baseball game and had a hand in developing video games. One reason for Earnhardt's higher exposure was that his fan base greatly increased after his father's death. Many of his father's fans became his at that time. Unlike his father, Earnhardt was able to cross over into a mainstream sensibility; he was an MTV–friendly NASCAR driver. In 2004, he was named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People." Despite this increased adulation, Earnhardt was not altogether comfortable with his celebrity.
While the 2002 season was profitable for Earnhardt off the track, he suffered on the track. In addition to clashing with his crew, he suffered injuries in a number of races. In one race at Fontana, he sprained an ankle, hurt his shoulder, and was bruised in an on–track accident. Earnhardt later suffered a severe concussion from a crash at a race at the California Speedway. He did not do well in many races at the beginning of the season, but in the season's last eight races, he finished in the top ten six times. By the end of the season, he had become more consistent as a driver and more mature as a person because of his tribulations. He also took on more responsibilities by becoming the co–owner of Chance2, a racing team that competed on the Busch series.
Earnhardt did much better as a driver in 2003, after changing some of his crew members. At the beginning of the season, he finished third in a race at Martinsville, and second at a race in Las Vegas. He began spending more time at the track, and learned more about his car and how the race preparation process worked. Earnhardt won a number of races during the season, but did not win the Winston Cup Championship. To help run the company he had inherited as well as his team, Earnhardt moved to Mooresville to be closer to Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
In 2004, Earnhardt grew even stronger as a driver and had a goal of winning the Nextel Cup (as the Winston Cup began being called in 2004, after a sponsorship change) that season. Though other drivers accused Earnhardt of being the beneficiary of favoritism by NASCAR which led to many victories at certain tracks (Daytona and Talladega), Earnhardt had improved and knew how to legally garner information about other drivers and their cars. Earnhardt's new–found strength showed as he won the Daytona 500 on February 15, 2004, the anniversary of his father's death. He told Bill Coats of St. Louis Post–Dispatch, "He was over in the passenger side. I'm sure he was having a blast."
After this popular win, Earnhardt won another race the next day, the Hershey's Kisses 300. This win made him the points leader in the standings, the first time he ever held the lead while racing on the premiere circuit. However, it was only a temporary hold on the number–one spot. In addition to winning several other races that year, Earnhardt became more involved with his own company, Junior Motor Sports.
On July 18, 2004, Earnhardt wrecked his vehicle during a warmup for an American Le Mans Series race in Sonoma, California. The accident occurred when he lost control of his car which then went into a spin and slid backward into a concrete barrier. The crash caused his car to burst into flames, leaving him with second–degree burns on parts of his body. A spokesperson for Earnhardt said he was not badly injured and planned to compete in the Nextel Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway.
Though he was proud of his father and what he meant in his life, Earnhardt wanted to be known for his own successes. He told Pam Lambert and Michaele Ballard in People, "The biggest compliment you can give me is that I remind you of my dad. But when is the day going to come when I don't have to reflect back? When will I stand on my own merit?"
Brandweek, August 19, 2002, p. 16.
Global Cosmetic Industry, August 2003, p. 50.
Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2004, p. D1.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI), February 16, 2004, p. 1C.
Newsweek, April 15, 2002, pp. 46–47.
People, March 12, 2001, p. 56; July 23, 2001, p. 75; March 8, 2004, pp. 71–72; May 10, 2004, p. 140.
Sports Illustrated, November 17, 1997, p. 60; December 22, 1999, p. 78; December 6, 2000, p. 88; February 28, 2001, p. 60; December 3, 2001, p. 34; July 1, 2002, p. 60; June 23, 2003, p. 48.
St. Louis Post–Dispatch (MO), February 16, 2004, p. D1.
St. Petersburg Times (FL), February 13, 2004, p. 8Y.
USA Today, February 6, 2004, p. 1C.
Washington Post, February 12, 1999, p. G1.
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— A. Petruso