Dale Earnhardt Jr. visits Shaw High School, promotes importance of graduating

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 30, 2013 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a pit stop Friday morning at Shaw High School before Sunday night’s Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway to promote a different kind of race. Part of his two-hour visit included an assembly in the gym, where he encouraged the 1,200 students to take the checkered flag in what Shaw calls the “Race to the Stage,” to graduate high school with their class. “When I was in school, I didn’t understand how important it was to put the effort in,” Earnhardt told the students. “Up until I was a freshman, I was making D’s. If I made a C, that was a good day. But I understood once I started getting into the ninth and 10th grades how important my effort was, because after school you’re going to be defined by that graduation, by the effort you put in, and you don’t want to handicap yourself. “It’s like being on a race track and giving up 100 horsepower. I wouldn’t be able to compete. That’s what it’s going to be for you in the real world if you don’t put the maximum effort in while you’re here at school. You won’t be able to compete. You won’t be able to be as successful as you want to be. So just put that effort in.” Earnhardt’s visit was in partnership with one of his sponsors, the Army National Guard. Staff Sgt. Peter Dam, a Guard recruiter, said Shaw was chosen for Earnhardt’s appearance because 24 alumni joined the Guard the past two years, the most among Muscogee County’s nine high schools. And the visit showed reasons beyond his famous father why Earnhardt is considered NASCAR’s most popular driver: He met with local community leaders; he autographed whatever fans put in front of him; and he patiently and extensively answered students’ questions — sometimes the same ones — in three settings. First, he spoke with 100 students who were selected for having the best essays about why they wanted to meet him. Then he addressed the school-wide assembly. Lastly, he sat for a news conference conducted by students in the school’s Mass Communications Academy. Here are some of the day’s questions and excerpts from Earnhardt’s answers:

What’s your favorite car to drive (when you’re not racing)? “Well, when I grew up, my dad and my whole family really drove Chevrolets. (Applause.) You either like Chevys or you like Fords. … It’s hard to pick one. I’ve got a ’67 Camaro that I really like, and I’ve got a few other cars, too. Being a car guy, being in motorsports and driving race cars, I like to collect a few cars. They’re all Chevrolets. I’ve got a ’72 Camaro and a ’48 pickup truck and a couple of other cars I like to drive, but that ’67 is really a lot of fun.”

Did you know that you were going to do NASCAR before you graduated high school? “My family was in racing on both sides, both my mother’s and my father’s. My dad was obviously a successful race car driver, and his father was a race car driver as well. On my mom’s side, those guys were all mechanics. They built the bodies on the cars and put the cars together. So my whole family, uncles and aunts, everybody works in the sport, and every house that I was at had a garage with a race car in it. I think whatever your family’s involved in, if you really look up to your parents and kind of follow what they do, you get interested in it and you probably go down that path or at least consider it as a career choice. That’s basically what I did. It’s like getting to do your favorite hobby and getting paid to do it for a living. It’s the best job in the world. If you’re lucky enough to love what you do, it doesn’t get any better than that in the workforce. I was real fortunate. Only 43 guys get to suit up every week in this whole country. So it was a wild card and a long shot, but it worked out for me”

Who’s part of your support team and what do they do that is so important? “That’s a good question. … We fly in and out in a private plane. I’ve got a bus driver that takes our bus all over the country. He’s gone 30, 40 days at a time. We fly probably 150, 200 people to the race track. A lot of those guys are working on the race car. We’ve got another race team — basically what we call the minor leagues — I own, called JR Motorsports, and it races on Saturdays. That’s another probably 80 employees. It’s pretty busy. It’s a big industry. It’s a lot of different jobs that are part of a race team. You’ve got guys who work on the cars who are mechanics. You’ve got people in marketing, licensing. There are all walks of life as far as jobs.”

If NASCAR were an Olympic sport, who would you choose to be on the team? “I’d have to choose Jimmie Johnson; he’s a five-time champion. (Applause.) He’s my teammate, so I have to pick one of my teammates. It would be tough to pick anybody after that. There are so many good drivers in the series. Tony Stewart would probably be a lot of fun to have on the team. (Applause.) And maybe Kasey Kahne, another teammate, he’s a pretty fun guy, too and he’s pretty fast. … He has a tough (time) finishing races, but he’s one of the quickest guys.”

Has it been a burden or a blessing to have the last name Earnhardt? “I get that one a lot. It’s actually been a blessing. It opens a lot more doors than it closes on me. My father was a seven-time champion. My grandfather raced cars. … Being an Earnhardt, it’s been quite a responsibility through my father’s and grandfather’s legacy. Racing in a sport where your father was so successful, everybody really compares you to him all the time. But I live with that, gotten used to that. I’ve had success on my own, been my own person. I think that’s what’s important. … Just be your own person. Carve your own path. Do your own thing. Do what makes you happy.”

Have you made any mistakes in your career that made you doubt yourself? “We make mistakes all the time throughout the season. … We have pit stops that don’t go so good. Somebody might put a part together wrong and we have engine failure and we don’t finish the race, or I spin out and cause us a bad finish. You just kind of have to put it in the back of your mind and rebound next week. … Every time you have a problem, you try to understand what happened, try to fix it, try to solve the issue where it doesn’t happen again and just work harder next week.”

Do you ever show up on race day and just wish you were somewhere else? If so, what would you rather do? “I grew up around racing, always wanted to do that. It looked like a fun thing to do. It’s just like growing up being a rock star or a football player. It seems like it’s glamorous, glorious. The pay is good. Everybody has fun doing it. I found out it’s a lot more hard work and a lot more sacrifice, but it’s still enjoyable. It’s everything I wanted out of life, and there’s still a lot more that I want to achieve. … I’ve never been at a race track and wanted to do anything else, but when I’m not racing I like to deer hunt a little bit. (Applause.) We run 38 races in 42 weeks. Our season starts in February and ends at the end of November, so we have December off. We work a lot in January preparing for the season, so I don’t get a chance to hunt a whole lot.”

Do you ever feel the pressure being NASCAR’s most popular driver? “It’s hard to explain. I can’t really wrap my brain around what that means. … You never get used to it. You never get used to cameras sitting there, and you never get used to people wanting to talk to you and ask you questions. It just doesn’t feel natural; it doesn’t feel real. I just remember when I was sitting in the bleachers in high school, just like these kids are right now, wondering what I’m going to do in life. I still feel like that person inside sometimes, so you never get used to the success. You never understand what celebrity means. You read about it, especially those people out West in Hollywood who seem to understand what celebrity means but get pretty messed up. I stay pretty grounded here on the East Coast. I live in the same town I grew up in. I see all the same friends I went to school with. It’s hard to understand, but I get nervous in front of people, just standing up here and talking to you guys. I get nervous on the race track in front of all those people. But I guess it’s a good thing, in a way. I kind of stay grounded.”

Do the other racers’ performances affect your confidence? “The other racers’ performances don’t really affect my confidence that much because, as a driver, you’re confident that you’re the best. Every driver out there has to feel like they’re the best. You can’t go out there thinking you’re second best or you’re not as good as somebody. When somebody beats you, you come up with loads of excuses why it happened. (Audience laughs.) Cars have thousands of variables that make them drive good or bad. It’s the crew’s job to set the car up and change all these variables throughout the week and get the car as good as we can. You’ve got to tell them what the car’s doing. … So when you see somebody actually outrun you, a lot of times in your head you’re thinking their car’s doing better, doing things your car isn’t, and you never think that they’re actually out-driving you. So that’s the way you’ve got to always be. Every time you step on the race track or the football field or the basketball court, you’ve got to think you’re the best.”

What accomplishments in your life do you find the most significant? “That’s a tough question. I mean, I was really proud that I graduated high school. My father didn’t graduate; he dropped out as a 16-year-old in the eighth-grade, and he was in big trouble. That was something that was real important to him. It was something that he regretted. He was embarrassed by it. We talked about it. He wasn’t ashamed of it when he did it — he made that choice because he was doing what he wanted to do — but as he got older, it was something he didn’t like and didn’t like to talk about in front of people. I graduated and actually went to community college and got an automotive degree. I didn’t know that I was going to be a race car driver. Only 43 guys get to wear a suit and race on the weekend. It just doesn’t seem like you could get that chance, but I got lucky and made it work.”

What is your standard race-day meal? “It kind of changes. I don’t eat a lot of red meat, just chicken or fish. … You just try to stay in shape. You can’t eat what you want. I don’t really have a set meal. … I get a box this lady cooks. I just open it up and pray it’s good. (Audience laughs.)”

When you feel like quitting, what do you do to motivate yourself? “I think when you get disappointed, it’s pretty easy to get your head turned around real quick because you’ve got a lot of guys working with you. You’ve got a pit crew in the pits that’s busting their butt, and you’ve got a crew chief that’s a real good cheerleader. You’ve got a spotter, a lot of people there working to succeed with that car as a team. So you’ve got to think about your teammates. You can’t give up on them. You can’t quit on them. So it’s real easy, with that surrounding you, to kind of hold you up.”

What kind of student were you in high school, and do you have any regrets? “I was a pretty good student at the end of my high school career, but when I first started school, I didn’t try very hard. I didn’t listen. I wasn’t obedient. I caused a lot of problems, and I struggled. I was going down the wrong path. I ended up going to military school in the seventh and eighth grades, and that straightened me out. I got a lot of respect for taking care of myself, getting the job done, doing my homework, doing all those things that were important. … Then I finally went back to public school in ninth grade as a freshman, and I think I was on the up swing from there on. I took my classes more seriously. I took graduating more seriously and took a lot more pride and respect, just being in school. It wasn’t a given I was going to become a race car driver, so I had to think about what I wanted to do. … I wanted to work on cars. I loved cars and wanted to be a mechanic. So I went to school after I graduated and got a degree in automotive. I worked in a dealership as a mechanic for about four years, really, really enjoyed that. … You fix it for them and make them happy. There was a lot of camaraderie in the shop with the other mechanics. It was a lot of fun.”

How’s this NASCAR season going for you? “It’s been up and down. People tell me that we’ve run better this year than we did last year. But I just don’t feel like we’ve had the finishes. We’ve had a lot of trouble with engine failures and mechanical problems. I’ve probably made some mistakes. We’ve not finished races we should have finished, but we have been fast and we’ve had great speed, I think better speed than last year. We were sitting better in the points, but we’re getting ready to reset the points with our playoff system in a couple weeks. That’s going to be a lot of fun. I think we’re going to get ourselves prepared and do the best we can.”

Who’s the driver you admire the most and why? “Well, my father was the driver that I admired most. He was successful, but also he was my father and I enjoyed learning from him and growing up around him and sort of being introduced to the sport. … The other drivers I guess that I admired are guys that competed with him, that generation. I’ve got drivers in the series now that I’m friends with and enjoy racing with, but the guys that I really admire are the ones that raced against my father. Once my father passed away, a lot of those guys sort of started to kind of put me under their wing and take care of me and say, ‘Hey, man. This is what you ought to do when you’re in a certain situation.’ I was going to hire a motorcoach driver last year, and Kenny Schrader, one of my dad’s competitors, came up and told me, ‘This is the guy you need to hire.’ And he was right. … I just recently needed to hire a pilot, and Dale Jarrett, another competitor of my father, comes up to me and tells me, ‘This is the guy you need to hire.’ And he was right. So there are just people like that looking out for you. You don’t even know they’re there half the time until they step up and give you some assistance. Those are the guys, I guess, that I admire the most.”

Can you describe learning how to drive (a race car)? “(Earnhardt laughs.) That’s tough. A lot of people say you have it or you don’t. I don’t know many people that I’ve seen get in a car and start to try to drive a race car and really not know what they’re doing and then later on turn it into a successful career. There’s attributes, physical attributes, like peripheral vision, just physical attributes that pay off in a race car. And there’s a lot of things mentality-wise. You really have to be tenacious and fearless to do some of those things, even for the first time. … It takes a lot of practice. I know when I first started, I didn’t think I really knew what I was doing. There were things that just went right over my head. After a while, you pick up things on experience, by being out there, making mistakes and understanding what mistake you made and how not to do it again. You watch other people and be very observant, because when you’re on the race track, you get to follow people and watch other guys drive. When I was younger, I could get behind some real good veterans and watch them drive and see what they did and then go ask them why they did it.”

How did you feel before your very first race? “I was super nervous, scared to death. I was just thinking to myself, ‘Am I sure this is what I want to do? This is going to be a lot to take on.’ My father was real successful. I knew I was going to be compared to him and be under that shadow for a very long time. It was just a lot of emotions. I was real excited. ‘Man, I finally get to do this.’ I felt like I was on a leash for all this time, and finally I’ve gotten free and get to drive this car and race and compete. But I was really scared too at the same time because I didn’t want to fail.”

If you weren’t a professional race car driver right now, what do you believe you would be doing with your life? “Probably, I’d be a mechanic in a dealership — or maybe running the service department, hopefully by this point in my life. But I really, really love music. So, if I could just pick a job, I would be a scout, a music scout, just going to places in the middle of nowhere to see bands play and listen to demos. It would be fun to find talent. I don’t have any ability to play music or wouldn’t want to be in a band, but I think scouting would be fun.”

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