Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s only authorized book revealing the inside track on his final year of racing and retirement from the driver’s seat.
“Time was running out on my charade… My secrets were about to be exposed to the world.”
It was a seemingly minor crash at Michigan International Speedway in June 2016 that ended the day early for Dale Earnhardt Jr. What he didn’t know was that it would also end his driving for the year. He’d dealt with concussions before, but concussions are like snowflakes, no two are the same. And recovery can be brutal, and lengthy.
When NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired from professional stock car racing in 2017, he walked away from his career as a healthy man. But for years, he had worried that the worsening effects of multiple racing-related concussions would end not only his time on the track but his ability to live a full and happy life.
Torn between a race-at-all-costs culture and the fear that something was terribly wrong, Earnhardt tried to pretend that everything was fine, but the private notes about his escalating symptoms that he kept on his phone reveal a vicious cycle: suffering injuries on Sunday, struggling through the week, then recovering in time to race again the following weekend. For the first time, he shares these notes and fully reveals the physical and emotional struggles he faced as he fought to close out his career on his own terms.
In this candid reflection, Earnhardt opens up about his frustration with the slow recovery, his admiration for the woman who stood by him through it all, and his determination to share his own experience so that others don’t have to suffer in silence. Steering his way to the final checkered flag of his storied career proved to be the most challenging race and most rewarding finish of his life.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 6.75(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is an American professional stock car racing driver, champion team owner, businessman, and television analyst for NBC Sports Group. He began his racing career at seventeen years of age with his dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr. He won consecutive NASCAR Busch Series Championships in 1998 and 1999 and the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014. Dale lives in Mooresville, North Carolina, with his wife, Amy, and their daughter, Isla Rose.
Ryan McGee, an ESPN senior writer, is a five-time National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year and four-time Sports Emmy winner. In 2007 he wrote the script for the documentary Dale, about Earnhardt’s father, narrated by Paul Newman. He lives in Charlotte with his wife, Erica, and their daughter, Tara.
Read an Excerpt
I'm not going to tell my whole life story in this book. That's maybe for another day. But before we start down the road of how I got to the end of my racing career and how concussions played a role in reaching that end, I do think it's important that you get a little perspective. I want you to understand who I am, where I came from, and the world I grew up in. Once you know a little bit about that, then maybe the hows and whys of my reactions to my head injuries — and really everyone's reactions — might make a little more sense.
I love NASCAR racing. Always have, always will. And no matter how much I got beat up in a racecar, that was never going to change. Even if I had never been fortunate enough to become a racecar driver, I would've figured out some way to be around the garage. When I was a little boy, I played with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. Me and my buddies, we were always on a nonstop scavenger hunt. My dad would be out there racing and we would sneak around the garage all weekend collecting lug nuts, stickers, pieces of sheet metal ripped off of wrecked racecars, you name it.
Now, as an adult, I'm still playing with racing stuff. Let me put it this way: if you ever find yourself on eBay in the middle of the night thinking, Man, who is this guy that keeps running up the prices on these old NASCAR programs and T-shirts and stuff? This dummy is paying way too much for this stuff! — well, there's a really good chance that dummy is me. I'm the guy with a custom-built bar in his basement that's made from an old truck and wallpapered in classic racing stickers. Heck, man, I'm the guy who has a whole section of his property littered with wrecked machines that I've collected from friends to donate to the "Racecar Graveyard."
See? I love it. And I come by that honestly. My grandfather, Ralph Lee Earnhardt, was a NASCAR short-track legend. He was as old school as it gets. Like everyone else in Kannapolis, North Carolina, he started off working in the textile mill. Soon he took a second job working at a garage, and there he got a little taste of weekend short-track racing. He was hooked. So he quit his jobs and started spending all day and night working on his racecars in a little shop behind his house on Sedan Street. My Mammaw, Martha, still lives there.
Ralph chose to go racing for a living at a time when nobody did that. It worked out. He won hundreds of races, mostly on the short tracks of the Carolinas, and in 1956 he won a national championship in NASCAR's Sportsman Division, the beginning of what we now know as the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
My granddaddy was known for two things: his calm, level-headed personality off the racetrack and his ability to kick your butt on the racetrack. He ran races nearly every night of the week, all while raising five kids, and did most of his racing close to home so he could take care of those kids. It seemed like nothing could slow him down. His motto, painted on some of his racecars, was "Go or blow." His fellow racers gave him a nickname that kind of played off our last name, Earnhardt. They called him "Ironheart." Isn't that awesome?
Everything my grandfather did was watched like a hawk by his son, Ralph Dale Earnhardt. That's my dad. When Dad was a little boy, he would watch his dad work on those racecars behind the house. By the time he was ten years old, he was going to the track with my grandfather, where he and my great uncle would serve as the pit crew. Eventually, my uncles Randy and Danny joined them. The Earnhardts — all of them — were in the racing business, running sometimes four or five nights a week. Even Mammaw raced in the occasional "Powder Puff" races they held for the wives. One time she flipped Ralph's car onto its roof. Earnhardts are tough.
When my father was sixteen, he quit school. If you knew him, then you probably aren't surprised. School felt like it was in the way of what he really wanted to do, which was to go racing. Ralph, who hadn't finished school himself, was really disappointed. Dad always regretted that decision. They got on the outs with each other for a little while but eventually reconnected, and they did that through racing, Ralph helping Dale with advice.
They only actually raced together once. Dad loved to tell that story. Ralph was leading and Dad was running fourth, stuck behind a third-place car he couldn't pass. My grandfather came flying up there, and my dad thought his dad was just going to blow by and put him a lap down. Instead, Ralph Lee got up behind Ralph Dale and physically pushed him into third place. Dad said that third-place guy was so mad, complaining about "those Earnhardts."
That race they ran together was in 1972. My grandfather died of a heart attack in '73. He was only forty-five years old. Almost exactly one year later, Ralph Dale Earnhardt Junior was born. That's me.
Dad, like my granddad, was fully focused on racing. Sometimes maybe too focused. He was gone all the time, desperate to find racecars to drive, and when he did find a ride he was desperate to make them do something big.
His reputation was way different from my grandfather's. Ralph was Mr. Even-Keeled. Dad was not. Not even close. He was cocky and stubborn and he didn't care one bit if you thought he was cocky and stubborn. So they gave him a nickname too.
"Ironheart" had been a compliment. What they started calling Dad was not, though it was still a play on words. They called him "Ironhead."
I don't care if it's your heart or your head or your entire body — if you were going to be a racecar driver when my grandfather and father came along, you had to be made out of iron. Racing seats were pretty much just regular old car seats. Seatbelts too. There were no head and neck restraints. The interiors of the cars were sparse and jagged. Helmets were tiny. Racetracks were lined with either bare concrete walls or metal guardrails just like you'd find on the local highway. They would run races, even on big speedways, when a car had ripped through the railing and sailed out of the racetrack into the parking lot, and what did they do? They just kept running. "Okay, guys, there's a big ol' hole in the fence up in Turn 2, and there's a bunch of metal sticking out all over the place up there. So ... stay away from there. Cool? Cool."
Plenty of drivers were killed. Usually, that's how the racing world learned how to fix stuff. When NASCAR Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts died from severe burns suffered during a crash in the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR mandated the use of rubber, puncture-resistant fuel cells. In the 1970 Rebel 400 at Darlington Raceway, Richard Petty barrel-rolled his car down the frontstretch, flinging the whole upper-half of his body in and out of the driver's side window on ABC's Wide World of Sports. I don't know how, but he was okay. Still, it spooked NASCAR enough to mandate the use of window nets to prevent that from happening again.
That's the world that my father and grandfather grew up in and raced in, and really, so did I. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right? Guys like Roberts and Petty and, yes, the Earnhardts — they all raced hurt, and they did it a lot. NASCAR's first champion, Red Byron, could barely use his right leg because of an injury suffered as a mechanic aboard a bomber during World War II. There was an explosion too close to the plane with the bomb bay doors still open, and it had filled Byron's leg full of shrapnel. So when he returned home after the war and wanted to resume his racing career, he bolted his leg brace to the clutch pedal. He's in the NASCAR Hall of Fame too. In 1984, Ricky Rudd, one of my father's longtime rivals, famously ran the Daytona 500 despite suffering big-time injuries at that same track just a few days before. His eyelids were completely swollen shut after violently rolling out of Turn 4. So what did he do for the big race? He got some duct tape and taped those swollen eyes open. The next weekend, wearing an army flak jacket to protect his cracked ribs, he won at Richmond.
In 1982, my father got into a wreck with Tim Richmond at Pocono Raceway, turned upside down, hit hard, and actually slid along the wall on his roof for what seemed like forever. He broke his leg, but he kept that to himself and never missed a race. Why? Because he remembered what happened in 1979, his rookie year in the Cup Series, when he wrecked at the same track and missed the next four races. The driver that subbed for him was NASCAR legend David Pearson, who won one of those four races. Dad was afraid he was going to lose the job he'd worked so hard to get. So, he made sure never to miss another race, even with that broken leg in '82.
In 1994 he broke a bone in his neck at Michigan, told no one, and went on to win his record-tying seventh championship. At Talladega in '96 he suffered a broken collarbone. The next week he had to get out of the car a handful of laps into the Brickyard 400 because the pain was just too bad. The man fans called "The Intimidator," a nickname he'd earned by being the toughest racer in the garage, nearly broke down crying on national TV when he saw his car drive off without him. The following weekend he refused to do that again, and he nearly won on the road course at Watkins Glen.
That was the mentality. You didn't get out of your racecar, no matter what. Broke a bone? Suck it up, man. Got your bell rung? Shake it off, take a headache powder, and get ready for the next race.
Racecar drivers are hardheaded. That's especially true when they are like me, the son and grandson of hardheaded racecar drivers! How hardheaded was I growing up? I was so hardheaded it inspired my father to give me a nickname that was the perfect sequel to what people had called him and his father before him.
He called me "Hammerhead," son of "Ironhead," grandson of "Ironheart."
When I started racing I earned that nickname pretty literally. People always ask me where I was when my father earned the greatest victory of his career, his slump-busting win in the 1998 Daytona 500. You know where I was? On the couch, at home in Mooresville, North Carolina, with a washcloth on my head. The day before I'd raced in the Daytona 300, the NASCAR Xfinity (then Busch) Series event. We were racing down Daytona International Speedway's long, flat backstretch when Buckshot Jones got into Dick Trickle, who got into me and sent me into a spin. My Chevy turned backward, took off like an airplane wing, and did a complete barrel roll midair. The right side of my car landed squarely on Trickle's hood, which tipped me over and slammed the left front corner of the car hard into the infield grass. It hit so violently the car bounced back up into the air and did a 360-degree turn through the grass before I finally bumped up against the big concrete wall in the infield and came to a stop.
After I got checked out in the infield care center, I walked out to chat with the media folks who had gathered outside, like they always do. I told CBS Sports that I was "just a little bit woozy." Then I turned to talk to a group of sportswriters. As I began to describe the flip, I actually fell backward — like nearly fainted — and had to be caught before I flopped onto the ground. I laughed about it, and so did the reporters I was talking to. When I went to the race shop that week we were laughing again when the guys on the crew showed me the inside of the car. When my car had slammed down on the ground, it caused my head to hit the roll cage so hard that my helmet had put a big dent into the bar. A steel bar. There was a mark on the top left corner of my helmet that matched that dent perfectly.
That same day I was up inside the car, lying on my back on the floorboard doing some electrical work under the dash, and the strangest thing happened. Suddenly, I felt like the car was being rolled across the floor of the shop with me in it. I sat up and realized it hadn't moved an inch. I shook my head, rubbed my eyes, thought, Whoa, that was weird, and went back to work.
So, after hitting my head so hard that it bent steel, had me sounding totally groggy on national television, dang near caused me to pass out in the middle of a conversation, and made a car I was working on feel like it had zipped across the room, what was my treatment of choice? To go home, lay on the couch, and put a washcloth on my head.
Ol' Hammerhead, right?
Four years later, in 2002, auto racing was in the middle of a total safety overhaul. NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One, you name it — everyone was implementing all sorts of changes, all of them overdue. Racetracks started lining their retaining walls with "soft wall" barriers, sanctioning bodies mandated the use of head and neck restraints, and drivers started changing how they built their seats and, really, how everything was situated around them inside the car. Why? Because of a stretch of terrible deaths. But really, what had finally spurred it all was the death of my father at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Entering the final turn of the race his car was turned into the wall, and he was killed by the blunt force of his car's right front corner impacting the bare concrete wall. Other drivers had died from the same injury, but this was different. If the Intimidator, the toughest man alive, could be killed, then everyone was vulnerable. Overnight every racer was either buying or inventing gear they hoped would help them avoid what had happened to my dad and all those who'd died before him. It was a lot of big changes all at once.
What didn't change was the racers' mentality of toughing it out and walking it off. It was still considered the worst thing for a driver to be perceived in the garage as damaged goods. That's why, in 2002, I chose to tell no one about what had happened to me in the season's tenth race, a 500-miler at the big, sweeping two-mile California Speedway in Fontana, California, just one week after I had taken my second consecutive win at Talladega.
Anyone watching that day knew that I had taken a huge shot late in the race. Kevin Harvick, driving my father's old ride, was cutting down toward the entrance to pit road and stuffed the nose of his Chevy into the passenger's side door of mine. I got turned toward the Turn 4 wall and slid into it so hard that it bent the entire left front of the car, so deep it looked like that whole corner had been sawed off. The hood was bowed to the point that it stuck several feet up into the air. There's no doubt that the newly redesigned interior of the car, the new seat, and the head and neck restraint I was wearing — all implemented after my father's death — kept me from getting hurt way worse than I was. But my head was ringing, a dull sensation inside my skull. The breath had been knocked out of me, my body was sore, and I thought I might've been hurt bad.
If you look at the video now, you can see plain as day that right there, just seconds after the crash, I was already worried about looking like I was hurt. I didn't want anyone to see if I was, so I basically ran past the medical team and jumped into the ambulance. On the telecast, analyst Darrell Waltrip said a couple of times that he thought I'd just had the breath knocked out of me. That was good. That's what I wanted people to think. But it was wrong. I had suffered a concussion. Unlike Daytona in 1998, I knew this one was no joke. But I kept it to myself, even when the symptoms didn't subside over the next few weeks.
I was twenty-seven and a pretty hard partier in those days, so I think most people figured that if I was dragging or looking tired, I'd been up drinking beers all night. A lot of times, I probably had, but not now. I just felt like I had. For at least a month I felt like I'd had a couple of beers all the time, morning, noon, night, and even when I was behind the wheel of my racecar. During that stretch, we ran terrible. In fact, we ran awful all summer long. Meanwhile, I managed to keep my secret all the way until the end of September. By then I was feeling fine and we were running near the front again, so in an interview leading up to the race at the year-old Kansas Speedway, I confessed that I had run several races during spring and summer while I was — and this is exactly how I put it — "feeling a little loopy."
NASCAR was not happy about that confession. It dominated the headlines all weekend. But I certainly wasn't alone. Other drivers and former drivers backed me up by adding their own stories of hiding concussions over the years. The most notable was Dale Jarrett, a series champion, future NASCAR Hall of Famer, and someone whose opinion has always been deeply respected throughout the sport. He admitted that he had no recollection of the inaugural Kansas Speedway event one year earlier, thanks to a concussion suffered in the closing laps of the race. None. His memory had been erased to the point that he said when he came back for that 2002 race people had to show him where the garage and driver motorcoach lot were. It was like he'd never been there before.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Racing To The Finish"
Copyright © 2018 DEJ Management, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Dr. Michael "Micky" Collins ix
A Lift, A Secret, and A Promise xiii
1 Hammerhead 1
2 Into the Fog 15
3 Back on Track 35
4 The Cloud Returns 53
5 The Lost Season 75
6 Hard Truths 89
7 Battleground of the Mind 103
8 To Race or Not to Race 123
9 The Return … and that Other R-Word 139
10 Send her Around One More Time 161
Don't be a Hammerhead 171
About the Authors 181