Well, apart from my dad. I should probably clarify (sorry, dad). I’m just saying, if I had to pick another… I’m going with Sr.
Apparently, though, Dale Sr.’s oldest son, Kerry, didn’t even know who his dad was until he was in 9th grade. Dale Sr. and his first wife Latane (Kerry’s mom) were married when they were 18 years old, and got divorced a few years later when Kerry was just 3 years old. He said he didn’t remember much from that time at all, seeing as he was still very young when his dad left to pursue his career in racing.
Kerry sat down with his half brother, Dale Earnhardt Jr., recently on his podcast to tell the whole story, and it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s a bit complicated, though, so bear with me.
Dale Sr. And His First Wife Latane
Dale Sr. and Latane got divorced due in large part to the fact that they were so young and immature when they got married. They weren’t prepared for all of the responsibilities that come along with a marriage, and ultimately, it just didn’t work out.
Not long after Latane and Dale Sr. got divorced, she was remarried to a man named Jack Key, who eventually adopted Kerry when he was six years old. He raised him as his own child, and Kerry had no clue who his real father was for years.
His mom and stepdad intentionally kept it from him because they worried Kerry would be disappointed knowing his dad couldn’t be around much.
Kerry has fond memories of Jack, and both Dale Jr. and Kerry remember when Jack gave them $500 as a sponsorship for their street stock cars when he was the general manager for Hardee’s (a North Carolina fast food chain) years ago.
As he got older and more curious, Kerry found out he was adopted and started asking his mom more questions about his birth father and wanted to know why he wasn’t in his life. Eventually, when Kerry was in the 9th grade, his mom gave in and told him who his father was.
He says Latane first started filling him in on everything around the year 1983. He said at the time, he still didn’t fully understand how successful his dad was becoming. And, by this point, Dale Sr. would’ve won quite a few cup series races and was starting to pick up steam as one of the best in NASCAR at the time.
The first member of the Earnhardt family Kerry met was Martha, who was his grandmother. She had come to watch one of his baseball games at Jackson Park in Concord, North Carolina, and brought some of his cousins along, as well. She continued going to his games, and Kerry and his Mammaw formed a strong relationship during that time.
Eventually, with the help of some of his Earnhardt family members, there was a call set up for Kerry to talk to his dad on the phone, which he did. Then, quite a bit more time went by and Kerry still hadn’t met his dad in person. The day he got his license, he decided to drive around and go to his grandma’s house to visit.
Meeting His Father For The First Time
He drove over there to see her and talk a while, knowing that his dad’s shop was in the back of the house. He asked her if his dad happened to be out there working that day, and she said yes. At this point in the podcast, Dale Jr. wants to know:
“How long did you talk to Mammaw before you went out there?”
I’m thinking he’s gonna say something like 10 or 15 minutes, but it was much longer, according to Kerry:
“About two hours.”
Of course, it made Dale Jr. laugh to think about his brother nervously trying to stall the meeting now in hindsight.
Eventually, Kerry worked up enough nerve and headed towards the garage to meet his father for the first time in almost 13 years:
“I opened that door, and it got quiet. And I remember Tony Sr. was sittin’ there, and dad was under the hood. And he just raised up when I opened the door, and dad’s like ‘Hey, son.’ And I said, ‘Hey, dad, how are you doin’?’.
So we sat there and talked a little bit and he says ‘Come on, lets go ridin’. So we rode around town for a little bit just talkin’ about things, and he mentioned about me comin’ to the house visiting and getting to meet you and Kelley (their sister).”
They set a date for Kerry to come to his dad’s house and visit. Kerry also mentioned how natural his connection was with his father and how special that moment was. He said Dale Sr. explained how much he regretted every minute of being gone during the early parts of Kerry’s life, but he was chasing a dream and had to sacrifice a lot to get where he was.
A few weeks after their first meeting, Kerry went to his dads house for the first time. He said Dale Jr. was outside playing football with some other kids, though he didn’t actually meet him during this specific visit. When Kerry arrived, he walked up to knock on the front door and it wasn’t Dale Sr. who answered.
As he tells it, a women opened the door, said “hey,” and proceeded to slam it shut. He could hear his dad inside “being loud” (I’m sure there was some sort of disagreement between Dale Sr. and his wife about why she wasn’t informed about this meeting), and he finally came to the door to let Kerry in. He informed Kerry that the woman who answered the door wasn’t expecting his visit.
Pretty sure he figured that part out when the door was shut in his face.
Of course, Dale Jr.’s podcast partner, Mike Davis, wanted to know who it was that answered… it was Teresa Earnhardt. And, if you don’t know, she has a pretty strained relationship with her stepchildren, but that is a story for another article.
Not long after Kerry first went to his dad’s house, he finally got to officially meet his siblings at a family reunion at their Mammaw’s house. Dale Jr. says Kerry and his sister Kelley had an instant connection, and they basically only talked to each other the entire day of the family reunion.
Then, they backtracked on the podcast a little bit to clarify the fact that, prior to going to his dad’s house for the first time, Kerry really didn’t know anything about his siblings. All he knew was that there were other kids in the picture. He found out their names and who they were at his dad’s during that meeting. This is mainly because Dale Sr. wanted to take things slow and not put too much pressure on anything:
“He didn’t want to introduce us at that time to stir things up. Like I said, he wanted to slowly grow into it, and um, I don’t know what that meant.
I don’t think he was worried about that person who answered the door gettin’ along with it.
I think he was more worried about Kelley and how y’all were going to deal with things and accept things.”
Dale Jr. says they were pumped because:
“The vibe in that house wasn’t all that fun. And so the idea of what could this mean, introducing this new person into the whole dynamic, could make things better.
You saw how Kelley didn’t wanna do nothing but talk to you that whole day, ‘cuz she was just thinkin’, man this has gotta make things better.”
From that point forward at the family reunion, Kerry got to know everyone over time by hanging out at the race shop where he would always see the guys who worked there, along with his siblings.
He noted one of the coolest visits was Christmas Eve of the same year he’d met all of his new family. His dad invited him to spend the night there with all of them, and he remembers fondly waking up in that house on Christmas morning, finally having a relationship with the man he’d wanted to get to know for so long.
It really is an incredible story, and one that they haven’t talked about much about as a family before.
I can’t imagine being in Kerry’s position as a teenager, especially knowing that this larger than life figure in Dale Sr. is your father. I have to think it was pretty wild moment when he really got a grasp on who his dad was in terms of his legacy and the impact he had on so many people’s lives.
Also, Kerry is the spitting image of his dad to a point where it’s almost like you’re looking directly at Sr. They even talk the same way and have similar mannerisms. There is no denying who his dad is when you look at them side by side.
This whole story also makes me think about how sad and unfortunate it is that Kerry, Dale Jr. and Kelley never got the chance to run Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI). It would probably the most dominant team in racing right now had that been the case. As I mentioned before, it’s due in large part to their stepmom, Teresa, and her unwillingness to let them carry on their father’s legacy.
Regardless of all of that, it’s great to see that all of the siblings are so close and have formed such a strong bond with each other over the years. I’m sure that’s all Dale Sr. would’ve ever wanted for his kids.
If you have a few spare minutes today, watching the whole video is well worth your while:
In a previous interview with Graham Bensinger, Dale Jr. reflected back on his relationship with his dad and how Jr. got into racing to impress his dad.
“We didn’t really have a relationship… the only reason I raced was to get closer to my dad. Nothing I did would register with him.”
Also, Dale Jr. tearfully confessed that for a large part of his childhood, Dale Sr. simply wasn’t there.
“He missed graduation, I played soccer in high school and he never seen a game, but missing my graduation, I was really disappointed in that. Dad wasn’t there, they were racing somewhere.”