The newest addition to the NASCAR library is “Earnhardt Nation: The Full-Throttle Saga of NASCAR’s First Family,” by Yahoo Sports writer Jay Busbee.
Touching on what many consider the first family of NASCAR, the 352-page book published by HarperCollins, highlights the Earnhardt’s rise in the sport. From Ralph Earnhardt’s success on the dirt tracks to Dale Earnhardt Sr. becoming one of the greatest drivers the Cup Series ever saw, followed by his death and subsequent demise of Earnhardt’s empire, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Busbee also touches on the emotional relationship between Teresa Earnhardt and her stepson, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Busbee sat down with POPULAR SPEED to discuss his book, which hit newsstands on Feb. 16. Now 15 years since the passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 2001 Daytona 500, the Earnhardt family is still as popular as ever, leading to the book’s early success.
The following is a Q&A with Busbee.
How did the idea of “Earnhardt Nation” come about and what made you want to do a project like this? I’ve always been an Earnhardt fan and of the drivers, both Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. I enjoyed them long before I was a NASCAR writer and I’ve loved any kind of southern sport, southern story, and all of that is kind of the precursor to this. When I started looking around for book projects and talking to my agent about things to do, I realized there had never been a complete biography on the Earnhardt family.
There’s never been one that encompassed Ralph, Dale Sr., Dale Jr., Kelley, Kerry, all of them, and that’s the only thing that’s a real hole in American sports literature because I think NASCAR can get relegated to the sidelines of sports because people focus more on football, basketball, baseball, golf, especially from a literary perspective. But NASCAR has every bit the drama of every other one of those sports, and it has these drivers that are every bit as compelling as anyone in those other sports. So it was kind of high time that some NASCAR drivers get their due respect amongst all of America’s sports, not just amongst the wheels and gears fandom.
There are already so many details of the Earnhardt’s life that are well known and that some media members or fans can quickly recite. But with a project like this how much time did you have to spend talking to sources and doing research? You don’t want to take anything for granted. I spent more time on (the website) Racing Reference than I did talking to my dog. It was constantly checking everything. You want to check, re-check. You don’t want to assume that race happened at Talladega in 1996 and find out it was 1997. You want to dig in and investigate every single fact of this and make sure it’s verified and make sure that it’s all correct. I talked to well over 100 people for this project. Just everyone from every facet of their lives. People that raced against Ralph Earnhardt back in the old days; people that raced against Dale Jr. at Myrtle Beach when he was just starting out. People that are fans, people that are celebrities that met the Earnhardt’s in a different context.
Everybody has the sense of the big picture, everyone knows all the big moments – 1998 Daytona 500, 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Jr.’s wins in 2004 and 2014 – but what you want to find out is what led up to those, what was going on. We all know what we saw on TV or on YouTube, but what you want to do is find out what happened behind the scenes while all of that was going on. That’s what I tried to do and to give a full picture of these people as are more than faces on our screens or numbers on the side of a car.
“Earnhardt Nation” has already made it to the Top 25 on Barnes & Noble, the Top 100 on Amazon, but it’s been 15 years since we lost Dale Earnhardt. After all this time, why do you think he’s still as popular as ever when it comes to people clamoring over what’s said and written about him? Dale Earnhardt Sr. is an American icon, there’s just no other way to put that. He was the last of the uncompromising, do it yourself, do it your way drivers, and that’s something that resonates with people even if you don’t know what direction the cars drive around the track. You understand what it means to be a guy who built his own empire, who built himself up from nothing to being at the top of his profession. You understand what it means to be someone who is uncompromising and takes what you want from the world and does it in a way that is not unjust, but if he rubs people the wrong way, that’s more their problem than it is his.
So there’s something about Earnhardt that we all want to channel in ourselves, that side of Earnhardt that makes you rise above what you are. He’s the kind of guy that will always be an inspirational figure.
Then once you get to Dale Jr., he’s the absolute embodiment of what we want a celebrity to be, which is not just good at his job but very approachable, very human. You love to think of Dale Jr. as being a regular guy despite all expectations to the contrary. You see two very different figures here, but two people that are very compelling in their own right and I think that it all radiates out from those two, and that’s what keeps the Earnhardt’s popular.
What were some details and aspects of the Earnhardt family you came across that you said you had to absolutely include in the book? There was one point – the eureka moment – where it all clicked and for me it was in the Concord (N.C.) library. I was doing some research on the family history, and I go looking back into the Ehrenhart’s, which was the way their name was spelled when they got here from Germany in 1744, and this was back in the 1700s, and under occupation it was listed wagon maker. I was like you got to be kidding me. These guys were working with wheels for centuries; it’s like it’s in the blood. I was just thrilled by it because it doesn’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things, but it seems to hold everything together from a more symbolic perspective.
Then just hearing everybody’s stories about meeting Dale Sr. He was the guy who every time that he met someone it was the most memorable day in that person’s life. For him, it was just another day but for them, it was the day they met Dale Earnhardt. So hearing those stories are always so much fun.
There’s a part in the book where you talk about Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Teresa getting married and you write, “Earnhardt, certainly not NASCAR, would ever be the same.” How important was she not only to Earnhardt but her role in the family? Teresa has been labeled the greatest villain in NASCAR. People really come down hard on her, and I’m always suspicious about labeling anybody as all good or all evil. What I tried to do was look at Teresa from a fairer, non-fan perspective. There were a lot of people who were very mad at what she did, but I tried to take all the emotion out of it and think, why did she make the decisions that she made? What led her to do this? Not a lot of people who knew the Earnhardt family would have taken the approach that she took, especially after his death. But it was her right to do that, and obviously, she upset millions and millions of fans, but again, if you think of why she might have made a decision to focus more on branding than on the race team, that was an outgrowth of the way she had been during Dale Sr.’s life. She had been more focused on the branding of Dale Earnhardt’s trademark, rather than the actual human being going around a track.
She was tremendously important. I don’t think that is overstating it to say that Dale Earnhardt wouldn’t be the icon that he is without her influence and her assisting the branding of who he was because she helped with that whole effort of having contracts that favored Earnhardt. Making Earnhardt’s image very, very specific and not on everything. She was very, very dedicated to that and remains very dedicated to that through DEI and that was the choice that she had made. A lot of folks would have preferred that she keep the race team alive, would have preferred that she put Dale Jr. in the 3, something like that, but that was not the way she decided to go with it.
A lot of fans are fascinated by the relationship between Teresa and Dale Jr., especially towards the end, how did you approach laying that out in “Earnhardt Nation”? You have to be fair to both sides. You can’t say Dale Jr. is the good guy here and he deserves to have (DEI) because Teresa was Dale Sr.’s wife. She had every bit of much a claim to DEI as he did. Family is family, and business is business, and you don’t just get to have a company – even if that company has your name – just because you want it. Trying to balance fairness with accuracy was the tricky part. I think that the key was Dale Jr. said his relationship with Teresa never progressed past the point where it was a parental – child relationship; stepmother, stepson relationship. And that happens a lot because a lot of parents can’t see their kids as anything more than kids, even when those kids grow up to be adults. Especially when you mix in business and family like that, and when you’ve got one of the two principles involved looking at the other as a subordinate, obviously that just makes it that much more difficult.
Having Teresa negotiate with Dale Jr., this kid she had seen hiding cereal bowls under his bed, and he was now saying I deserve 51 percent of the company or whatever his requests were, I’m not in any way saying that she was right to do this, but you can understand where her perceptions may have been in dealing with him.
And this is a key point – she was slow to recognize that Dale Jr. had a lot more value than the shell of DEI did. As another writer put it to me, she owned the team but he owned the sport, and I think that she was slow to recognize that.
There will always be the ‘what if’ factor surrounding Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the sense of how different their lives and careers would have been if Dale Sr. had not passed. Do you ever wonder about that? I think Harvick would have really benefitted from the tutelage of Dale Sr. Harvick right from the start, literally from the very first press conference that he had, was rebelling against being the next Dale Sr. He said something to the effect of ‘if you expect me to be him, I’m not, I’m me.’ Which is the right thing to say because no one is going to step into Earnhardt’s shoes, but if the actual Earnhardt had been around to guide him, obviously he wouldn’t have come up that early, but he might have had a little bit more measured approach. He would have been able to develop more on his own. Now, it’s ridiculous to say Harvick didn’t develop well; he’s a championship driver.
It’s interesting to think if perhaps he and Dale Jr. had the benefit of Dale Sr.’s knowledge whether they have been able to take a couple of Jimmie Johnson’s championships away from him. I think that’s entirely possible because both those guys have the capabilities to do it. The current Chase makes it much more of a crapshoot – but under the earlier Chase system, I think either one of those two guys could have captured some championships if Earnhardt had been around to show them the way.
What do you want readers to take away from “Earnhardt Nation” after they close the cover on it? I want them to come away with an appreciation of this family, not just characters on a t-shirt but as actual human beings who had a tremendous impact on a major American sport. This was a family that against all odds rose to the top of the sport. To some extent did get torn apart, to some extend stayed together, but this is one of the great stories in American sports. I’m not just talking NASCAR; I’m talking all of American sports. It’s one of the great sports stories.
I’m hopeful people will come away with a renewed appreciation for Dale Sr.’s ability; for Dale Jr.’s resolute determination after his father died; how courageous Ralph Earnhardt was to go and step out into the unknown. He was a full-time racer when nobody was a full-time racer. So all of that together, just a greater appreciation of everything that these people went through. We know who they are on the screen and on a t-shirt, I just hope people want to know a little bit more about how they got there.