Dale Earnhardt is a household name at this point, even for people who don’t know a thing about NASCAR.
But his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is surprised in a lot of ways that he really made it… mostly because he had a lot stacked against him when he started his career in racing as a teenager.
Last year on The Dale Jr. Download, Dale Jr.’s Aunt Cathy, the sister of Dale Sr., was a guest. And she went in-depth on some of their family history, sharing a few stories and memories she had from Dale Sr.’s early days in racing.
They talked about when Dale Sr.’s dad, Ralph, passed away, and how it effected their family, ultimately causing Dale to have to step up as the leader.
He dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to pursue racing, and had been married and remarried and had two kids by the time he was 21 years old.
Dale Jr. still finds it hard to believe he overcame all of that to become the icon of all racing icons:
“To put all that in front of dad in 1973, at the end of ’73, it shocks me that he became what he became. It’s not surprising, but how did he not screw that up?
He had two kids, he was a lousy dad, he was a lousy husband.”
His Aunt Cathy said he was actually great dad until his first wife, Latane, left him. From that day on, he was never the same person:
“I do wanna say, Dale was a great dad, until Latane left him.
When he came home from work that day, and she’d taken Kerry Dale and everything he owned out of the trailer, and left him with a fork and a knife, and a plate and a cup, and one sheet and one blanket and one pillow, Dale changed.
But when Kerry was a toddler, Dale Sr. would bring him to Ralph’s shop to hang out with his grandparents. Apparently, though, Latane didn’t like how Dale smelled greasy and worked on cars… she just wanted him to work a regular 9 to 5 job and come home at night, which was a big part of their relationship troubles.
Dale Jr. says his dad was absent for a lot of his childhood, as well, but that the few memories he can still recall with him from that long ago are all good.
When Dale Sr. wasn’t at home (and he was gone most of the time), though, he was out racing and raising absolute Hell:
“When he was there, he was great. I have some very faint memories of him being there, and they were good times. But I do know, through stories from different people… dad raised Hell.
Drank, out all night, running around, goofin’ off, racing, you know, workin’. When the hell did this guy sleep? I don’t know how he made it happen.”
That, in addition to everything else Dale Sr. had been through in his life, would make it seem highly unlikely for him to go on and see the kind of success that he did, according to Jr.:
“I don’t know how he got that opportunity that propelled him into what he became, because he lost his dad, he just became this… he was running 100 miles an hour at the speed of light going nowhere.”
Kelley added that her dad’s insane success was due in large part to the fact that he was so likable. Aunt Cathy added that he could sell himself like no other, and that’s a talent that proved to benefit him greatly, and is a huge reason that we all love him so much, too, I think.
The guy had a larger than life personality, undeniable raw talent, and an unwavering belief in himself that he was going to make it no matter what.
Aunt Cathy said he always knew he had what it took… all he needed was a chance to prove it:
“Because in Dale’s mind, if he could just show his talent, if he could just get the chance to get out there and show what he could do, then he’d make it.
That was his mentality. I just gotta show what I can do.”
Obviously, Dale Sr. was an imperfect human being with plenty of flaws, but I love the hell out of his attitude that he was willing to do whatever it took to make a dream a reality.
He had all the tenacity and drive in the world (pun very much intended), plus endless amounts of charisma and charm to match it.
So, technically, the odds were really not in his favor, but he had the winning combination of all winning combinations in terms of who he was as a person.
Check out their whole conversation, it’s really interesting and insightful to hear his Aunt Cathy’s take on the Earnhardt family and her brother:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Reveals The Most Important Father/Son Moment Of His Life
I’ve always been a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the track, but you have to love him off the track as well.
He’s just a likeable guy that’s engaging, entertaining and pretty open about a lot of areas of his life. And he’s especially candid when it comes to the complicated relationship he had with his father.
Dale Jr. stopped by fellow driver Danica Patrick’s Pretty Intensepodcast a while back, and while they talked a bunch of topics across the spectrum, they inevitably dove into growing up with NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt as a father.
Danica called it one of the “most open hearted honest interviews” she has done:
“This was truly one of the most open hearted honest interviews I have done. Dale Jr. told so many great stories about his personality, his goals, who his dad was, and what makes him happy.
The funny thing that happens when you work with (and for) someone as I did with Dale, is you don’t get this deep. You just deal with the current day to day issues or topics.
So, this was really fun and interesting! So glad we did this Dale.”
He also shared a story regarding a touching article he wrote about his father for the racing magazine Winston Cup Scene.
It was a heartfelt essay detailing how he felt about his father, but he had to check it over with Dale first:
“So I asked him if I could see him for a second. He’s up in his office at DEI. I go up there with that piece of paper, and I said, ‘Hey, I got this thing I wrote, and it’s about you. I want to put it in the Winston Cup Scene in a couple weeks, and I just need to make sure you’re ok with it.’
He takes it, and he reads it, and he stands up, and he starts walking around reading it… and he says, ‘You know, we never tell each other how we feel about each other, but in reading this, I know exactly how you feel.’
And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I was like, ‘Man, that’s exactly how I feel about you, and I didn’t know you didn’t know that, you know, that I thought you were this great, amazing thing.
And he was like, ‘I’m so glad you did this. I’m so glad you shared this with me.’ He doesn’t talk this way.”
And at that point, Danica admitted that she was choking up at Dale’s story which he later called the “most important moment” in his life with his dad.
“I think had that not happened, had I not had that written… that moment is the most important moment in my life with my dad, without a doubt.
We had won races together and stood in Victory Lane together, but to know that he knew how I felt about him is really important because knowing that he would pass away many months later.”