We are all fans of certain drivers for different reasons. The reasons can be and are as diverse as each individual fan of Nascar can be. We've all got different backgrounds, we all do different things, we all have different dreams and wishes. I can speak only for myself, and I am a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr., and I will try once again to explain why.
I do not see Dale Jr. as a superstar, or even really as a celebrity. I see him as a guy who is passionate about his job, and he's good at that job, but other than that, despite the fact that he's in a very high profile business, he seems about as down to earth as many of my friends are, and hopefully as down to earth as I am. What you see is what you get, and in Dale Jr.'s case, I think there's a lot to like.
Dale Jr. grew up isolated from his mother, in large part. Mother Brenda was there, but after a devastating fire, he and sister Kelley went to live with their dad, who was just making a name for himself on the tracks of Nascar's Winston Cup Series, and daddy wasn't home a lot. Dale Jr. was mostly raised by his sister, and his step-mom Teresa. As it turned out, life with Teresa was not all that grand for Dale Jr., but Kelley sacrificed a lot to be there for her younger brother. Dale Jr. was sent to military school, and Kelley followed him there just so she could take care of him. Later in his life, Dale Earnhardt began to spend more time with his kids, and appreciate them more and more. Dale and Teresa's daughter Taylor Nichole probably benefited the most from her dad's presence, because by the time Taylor came along, Dale was pretty much established in the world of racing, and found more time to stay at home and be more involved in his children's lives. One of the most touching pictures that I've ever seen of Dale Earnhardt is his young daughter Taylor giving him a kiss in victory lane. It showed even old Ironheart had indeed, a real, beating heart.
When Dale Earnhardt died, he was a happy man. He was proud of his family, including his son Dale Jr. In the last years of his life, Dale and Dale Jr. became closer in their relationship. Dale was indeed Dale Jr.'s hero, and always had been, and it was good that they had those last few years together in a close relationship as father and son. When Dale died suddenly one February afternoon in 2001, suddenly all the spotlight was on the son. The son handled that sudden switch with grace and courage, even though he was hurting so badly inside.
Watching Dale Jr.'s career has had much of story book feel to it. He's had his highs and his lows, but he's always been honest and forthright with his fans. Once again, what you see is what you get. After yesterday's race at Pocono, an obviously exhausted Dale Jr. climbed out of the race car and faced the cameras and microphones. As a fan, I was proud of his straight and to the point answers, but felt a bit of brotherly concern over the fact that his face was so red, and he had a hard time conducting the interviews without showing just how exhausted he was. Kasey Kahne, who won the race, expressed his feelings about the new car, saying it was hotter inside than the old car was. The evidence of that was clearly visible on Dale Jr.'s face in the post race interviews. Watching Jeff Burton's face, who finished 5th just behind Dale Jr., showed just how hot and tired that old tried and true veteran was too. It's obviously hot inside these cars, and with the East Coast facing record temperatures, this trend will likely continue until the crews figure out how to keep the driver cooler inside the car.
Driving one of these race cars is not all money and glamor. It's not uncommon for a driver to lose between 5 and 10 per cent of their total body weight during a hot race such as we saw yesterday for the long 500 miles at Pocono. Temperatures inside the cars often climb to 125 degrees and above. The next time you hear about a driver relaxing in his air conditioned motor coach, or flying on his private jet somewhere, think about what they endure to make the big bucks they make. These drivers are in physical pain sometimes when they climb out of these cars, but they commit themselves to get the job done.
Dale Jr. will be ok, after a day's rest. I know he's got obligations to his sponsors to keep this week, but I hope he'll have a little down time. Like I said, I don't look at Dale Jr. as a unreachable celebrity, but as a guy who worked his tail off yesterday, and he's certainly feeling tired today. Most of us work 5 or more days a week, but never reach the levels of heat and exhaustion that these drivers experience in the 4 and a half hours they entertain us each Sunday.