Dale Earnhardt Jr. visited the NASCAR Hall of Fame Tuesday afternoon for a question and answer session with fans and the media. This event is designed to celebrate the drivers who are contending for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. The drivers will participate in these Q&A sessions in the High Octane Theater at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesday afternoons from Sept. 17 – Nov. 5.
The topics covered everything from the Chase, to team meetings, to pets, to girls, to girl fights and an unexpected remembrance of his late father.
Winston Kelley, Hall of Fame Executive Director, began by asking Earnhardt to assess his season and talk about the ups and downs the team has experienced this year.
“You’re gonna have some ups and downs,” Earnhardt said, “but I thought last year we were more consistent as far as just finishing where I felt like the car was capable of running. When we started this season we had more speed which was good to see. That’s the hardest thing to achieve and find in the shop, is more speed. We started off the year really strong. We came out of the gate and had a lot of top fives and top tens and was leading the points and then we started having problems; motors and different things, maybe mistakes I made or calls Steve made that didn’t go the way we wanted (them) to or getting caught on pit road under cautions and stuff like that. But the car’s been faster, like I said, which is one of the hardest things to find in the sport.”
“We’ve gotten better each year as a team since I’ve started working with Steve,” he continued. “We started off together in our first year really working hard just to crack the top ten. Last year we were a consistent team that was running in the top ten every week. This year I think we’re a little bit faster yet we just didn’t quite have the luck we had last year but it’s been good.”
Kelley then asked Earnhardt to describe a typical Hendrick Motorsports team de-brief. His explanation provides a unique perspective on the inner workings of one of NASCAR’s premier teams.
“It’s about the last race,” he explains. “We go over the whole process. It’s basically all four crew chiefs and all four drivers and a couple of guys from management sitting at a table. Each driver goes in turn and talks about the race; everything that they can remember that was unique. We’ll talk about how our cars drove and the changes we made to our cars we liked or didn’t like. The crew chiefs will pitch in if there’s something the driver didn’t think about or want to add. Then we’ll move on to the next race. The crew chiefs will talk about how they’re gonna start the first practice, whether we’re gonna be in qualifying trim or race trim.
He went on to add, “While all this is going on, on a big old projector, there are all four cars’ setups from the last race, basically how we ended the race. All four cars’ setups are on the wall so we all can see what everybody had. Then as we lead into the next event they might bring up the setups for all the other cars, how they’re gonna leave the shop and unload. Some cars might be in qualifying trim, others might be in race trim. So you can kinda see what people are doing.
Earnhardt summed up the process by saying, “it’s really an open book.”
Below are some of the highlights from the fan Q&A session.
The fan questions are always fun and this year was no exception. The first question was asked by a young boy who charmed the crowd with his enthusiasm.
Question: “Dale, it’s been kind of like a blast this year. You might not have had the luck to go to the Chase last year but it’s pretty cool that you’re in the Chase. Dale, how does this feel for you?”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “It feels good. We had such a good year last year. We were really excited about going into the Chase because we felt like we were a strong team and we didn’t get that opportunity last year due to the concussion. So this year having the chance to be in there, be in the car racing, even though we did have tough luck at Chicago, we still feel like we got a shot. We’re still gonna go to the racetrack with the attitude that we can get ourselves back into it and it’s just fun to be in the car. It’s fun to be racing. It’s fun to make the Chase. When you don’t make the Chase, that can bum you out. It’s hard being on the outside looking in; watching those guys all race for that championship knowing that you think you’re good enough and your team’s good enough to be in there, but you’re not. It feels good to make it. Hopefully if I’ve got to go through all the stuff in Vegas that they put us through during championship week, hopefully, I’m holding that trophy. We’re working real hard to do that.”
The next fan used her time to voice the sentiments of Junior Nation, amid cheers and applause.
Question: “It’s not really a question, it’s a comment. I just wanted to tell you that Junior Nation has faith in you and we believe in you. Keep the spirits up because you’re going to get it. You’re going to get it one day before you retire. I promise you, you’re going to get one!”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I appreciate it. I feel the same way. I think I got a lot of racing left. I feel like I was saying about our team, I think we’ve gotten stronger each year. I tell Steve and Steve agrees. He thinks we’ve gotten better each year. If we just stick together and keep working on the team in the off season, moving a few pieces around and keep getting the team better, it’s gonna happen. Our hard work’s gonna pay off.”
The next question took an unexpected turn and we learn how Dale Jr. used to impress the ladies.
Question: “Do you do doughnuts in your street car?”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I’ve done some doughnuts in my street cars from time to time. Yes, I have. It’s usually to show off for a girl. They make you do some crazy things. You’ll find out.”
Earnhardt’s pets are almost as famous as he is so it’s no surprise that someone asked a question about those pets.
Question: “Do you take any of your pets with you to stay in the motorhome with you at the racetracks?”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Yeah, I do. I used to have this cat named Buddy and he lived on the bus. After the race was over with he stayed on the bus. The bus driver would drive to the next race track and he’d be there on the bus. The only time he was off the bus was when the season was over.
I’ve been dating Amy (Reimann) for several years now and she has a Pomeranian. I don’t claim it. He’s pretty cool but I don’t admit it. He goes every week because he’s so small, he’s easy to carry around.
Killer, my boxer, he goes every once in a while if the grass is close to the bus. But if there’s a lot of concrete I don’t take him because you have to walk all the way across the track to get him to use the bathroom.”
The next question was about football but elicited memories of a son and a race team who were left without a father and a leader in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s passing.
Question: “I’m a big Jr fan. I’m also a two time graduate of Clemson University and I recently heard that you’re a USC fan so I’m debating if I can stay a fan. Why are you a USC fan?”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I’ll explain how that happened. I wasn’t always a South Carolina Gamecocks fan. Back when my dad passed away I was trying to think of this cool idea to boost the spirits of all the employees at Dale Earnhardt Inc. I was trying to think of something we could do. Dad wasn’t there. The whole company had no direction. I thought that I would call Lou Holtz and see if he could come talk to us and sort of get everybody fired up and give us all direction so we could go into Daytona and work hard. We’d get some encouraging words from Lou because apparently he’s really good at motivational speaking. He was the (football) coach of South Carolina at the time. So he came out and talked to us and blew everybody away. He got us all started on the right foot and we went on about our way and everything was fine. So I started watching Lou and pulling for the Gamecocks. “
One of the last questions prompted Earnhardt to tell a hilarious story about his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller.
Question: “I know you have a go-kart track at your house. Have you ever beat a woman on your go-kart track at your house?”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “We’ve always had Powder Puff races where all the women race by themselves. Normally what we do with the go-kart track is we use it about once a year. I invite all the employees from JR Motorsports and all the employees from the 48/88 shop over and we have races all night.”
He then went on to tell about one particular race that happened not long after he began racing for Rick Hendrick.
“All the women had a race. Kelley and the wife of one of the guys in management had a disagreement on the last lap. My sister’s pretty fiery plus she had raced some cars before so she thought she had a leg up on the competition out there. But this girl didn’t like what Kelley did to her in the last corner. I guess Kelley had shoved her out of the way to get by her. They threw the checkered flag and they went into the last corner, slowing down, the race is over. That lady dumped Kelley and flipped her over.
Now we had raced these karts hundreds of times and never flipped one. I looked over there and I’m like, that’s the bottom of a kart. What is one doing upside down? I’ve never even seen the bottom of one of these things before.
I didn’t know who it was. Then Kelley crawled out from under it and she was high tailing it across the racetrack to get to this lady. They were gonna have a knock down drag out.”
Earnhardt didn’t usually drive in these events. He had much more fun choreographing the races. But on this night he stood up, threw on a helmet and jumped in a kart to prevent the fight that he knew was about to happen.
He finished the story saying, “We haven’t had a Powder Puff race since.”
Please check the NASCAR Hall of Fame website for future driver appearances as the race for the championship continues.