TALLADEGA — He has raced more than 15,300 miles on Talladega Superspeedway, but he’ll never forget his first mile around the track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a six-time Talladega winner, won’t be racing in Sunday’s Alabama 500 because of continuing symptoms from a concussion. But he recently visited the speedway and reminisced about a phone call from his father that began his relationship with the track.
I was working at the dealership (Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet in Newton, N.C.) changing oil. We had a 29-minutes-or-less quick oil change, and I was doing them on the fly every eight minutes.
That was my job. I wasn’t going to be a race car driver. I ran my late model car about two years and only won once so I wasn’t expecting to be a race car driver.
My brother (Kerry) was a service writer at the dealership, and he was about 15 feet away from me, writing up service tickets. Dad called me on the phone and said “I’m in Talladega testing.” I think they were testing a new V6 (engine) for the Busch (now Xfinity) Series. He said, “I’m going to send my airplane, my KingAir, to come get you. Have your helmet and your late model suit. And don’t tell anybody where you’re going.” Because he didn’t want to upset Kerry.
I showed up, and he didn’t say I was going to drive. But he said bring my helmet, so, hell, I hope I’m driving.
I was scared to death. I had never run around anything bigger than Myrtle Beach (0.538-mile track). Dave Marcis was driving the car and Dad was driving his Cup car. (Marcis) was out there running and he came in. Dad said, “Get your stuff on.”
I got my stuff on, and I’m shaking. My hands are shaking.
And he said, “When you drive this car, you can’t lift. Don’t lift through the corners or you’ll burn the pistons driving like that.”
So, I’m thinking, “Oh, man, I’ve got to run it wide-open.” And I had a hell of a time trying to get out of the garage, onto the race track, through the garage and down pit road wide-open. It was hard. Because I took it literal. If I was going to mash the gas, it was going through the floor, because I didn’t want to tear up the motor.
I went out there and I can remember going down the back straightaway for the first time and looking at the corner. You’ve got a lot of time to think on that back straightaway for the first time. I couldn’t believe that the car was going to stick and not fly off the race track. But it did.
I had a good time. I ran a good lap. It was pretty simple by yourself, but I was right there with Dave and I was thinking to myself, “I didn’t even know what I was doing. Wait till I get out there and run this next lap. I’m going to do it different and really put a lap down.”
Dave taught me a lot of things about shortening up the race track. I learned so much. We ran the car over and over and over. It was a real treat.
I guess the rest is history, as they say.