Though Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems like such a sweet and down-to-earth guy, back in middle school, he spent quite a bit of time at military school.
He was getting close to getting expelled from the private Christian school he was at, and he didn’t realize his dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and stepmom Teresa, already knew about it. Of course, he was oblivious to the fact that they were notified about all of it throughout the school year.
He had earned himself a large stack of demerits that semester, and the school admin told him that as soon as they processed them after break, he would be done there.
So Dale Sr. sent his youngest son off to military school, thinking it would get him more in line with the behavior he expected. Dale Jr. and his older sister, Kelley, both agreed that Dale Jr. wasn’t a bad kid, and he mostly got in trouble for talking and goofing around, but was never bad, mean or disrespectful towards anyone.
They did get the chance to go home on the weekends, though, but only if they didn’t have any outstanding demerits to work off.
Kelley eventually joined her brother at the school by choice, because she wanted to be there to protect him. And not long after she started there, it was time for her first trip home:
“One particular weekend, and this was two, three weeks after Kelley got there, I’d been there for about a month, and I am homesick. The first two weeks you’re in military school they don’t let you go home, alright. That’s foreign as hell to any kid, especially a 7th grader, right?
So you’re missin’ the hell out of your family, and then I had, if you get any kind of demerits for not shining your shoes, not polishing your brass, not being on time for something, you get written up.
You have to work those demerits off on the weekend, and so that means staying and marching or doing detail, cleaning up trash, whatever. You’re gonna do something that’s gonna work these demerits off. Every demerit, you gotta half hour of work.
In just a couple weeks I’d been there, I’d had a handful of demerits that was gonna keep me from going home. It wasn’t uncommon for a lot of kids, new kids…”
Needless to say, Dale Jr. wasn’t going to be able to make the trip home to see his family that weekend with his sister, but he still wanted a chance to see his dad when he came to pick up Kelley:
“Dad was comin’ to pick Kelley up, and I got this information from Kelley, alright: ‘Dad’s coming to get me, he’ll be up at the front of the school at X hour, if you wanna see him.’
Alright, I’ll see him. So I am in my dorm, looking at the clock, it’s ten minutes till I’m gonna walk 150 yards to the front of the school to see dad pick up Kelley.
Kelley’s gonna go home, but I’m at least gonna get to see dad.”
But as soon as he got out of the building to go see Sr., all Dale Jr. saw were the taillights of his dad’s black pick up truck. Of course, being so young at the time and missing his family already, he completely lost it:
“And I walked out of my dorm, and I could see the front of the school 150 yards away, and I see dad’s black pickup truck driving away, alright. And I lost it.
I’m talkin’ bawling, and I’m running, and I mean, they’re gone, leaving, driving out, alright. And I’m freaking out.”
I’m not a parent, but just the thought of that about rips my heart out, and I’m sure any parent would agree that it would absolutely tear them up inside if their kid thought they didn’t love them or want to see them.
For three whole days, Jr. was thinking that his dad was so upset with him that he wouldn’t even see him when he drove all the way there to get his sister.
As it turns out, it wasn’t Dale Sr. who had picked Kelley up from military school that Friday morning:
“Kelley comes back and I’m like, ‘I can’t freakin’ believe that dad left and didn’t say hey to me.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, that was Chocolate driving dad’s truck.’
I was like, ‘God, dang. Why in the hell did dad, like…’ So then I go to, why didn’t dad want to come to see me?
You know, and that says a lot about… dad was at RCR working that day, just up there doing a seat or something in Winston Salem. I was the last thing on his mind.”
Dale Jr. has spoken publicly many times about what a complex relationship he had with his dad for most of his life. A lot of it had to do with times like these, where he felt like he wasn’t always his dad’s priority.
Kelley added that it was not out of line for Dale Jr. to think it was possible for their dad to go and get her without seeing his son, because that’s the kind of disciplinarian he was. If you did something wrong, you were going to pay for it and he wouldn’t tolerate anything less.
And growing up, they received strict punishment anytime they messed up, no matter what it was, even if it was an accident. Not gonna lie, I can’t say I’m all that shocked, considering that their dad was The Intimidator:
“We had extremely strict rules, and our trouble was massive. Like, when we got in trouble, they took our TV away, they took our radio away, they took toys out of room…
I don’t know where the hell they put all this shit. But, I mean, it was massive.”
As adults, they both recognize that a lot of their dad’s parenting style stemmed from his childhood, as well as the times he’d grown up in.
And as another example of their dad’s rules, Kelley told the story of the time she lied to her dad about where she was going when she was 17. She had told him she needed to go to CVS to get something for a school project, when she was actually going to a boy’s house down the road from their farm.
Dale Sr. had left around that time to go run another errand, and just so happened to drive through the boys neighborhood and see her car in the driveway (not a route he would usually ever need go, either).
Of course, he walked up to front door and asked her what she was doing there, and grounded her for so long that she had to quit her job… she wasn’t even allowed to go to work.
I think just about every person on the planet can look back at different times from their childhood and think they probably would’ve handled a situation differently than their parents, but it’s pretty wild to hear about what kind of dad Sr. really was.
I have no doubt that he loved them tremendously, or he wouldn’t have even tried to punish them and make sure they acted right and became good, well-rounded people, regardless of who he was.
Even when Jr. started to get into racing and pursue it as a career, Sr. never let him take the easy way out. If anything, he made it a little bit harder, so his son would earn every ounce of his success and then some.
It’s a really fascinating conversation, and a neat peak into what growing up in the Earnhardt family was really like: