When he's notracing almost 40 weekends a year--or meeting his obligations to fans andsponsors as NASCAR's most popular driver--Dale Earnhardt Jr. is happy justhanging out at his three-bedroom modular home on 140 acres outside Mooresville,N.C. It is both playland (as you'll read below) and sanctuary (as SI found out)for the 32-year-old bachelor, who relishes his privacy away from the track.Though around the garage Junior is typically accommodating to the media, hedoesn't allow them to dig deep into his personal life even there. But late lastseason, at Phoenix International Raceway, the son of stock car racing'smost-revered figure gave SI an exclusive one-hour interview, even agreeing tothe magazine's one condition: that there be no conditions on what topics wereopen for discussion. Junior did not disappoint.
SI: What's yourfavorite thing to do away from racing?
Earnhardt: I liketo mess with computers. Tear 'em apart and put 'em back together. You gottahave the latest and greatest of everything. I've probably got 10 systems justsitting in my office. You know, every once in a while something will be screwedup on one, and you got to dig into an old system and borrow a part. It's a lotof fun.
SI: Do you playcomputer racing games? Earnhardt: I do. Aside from just straight goofing off,that's my Number 1 hobby. You know, around my house we build all this crap tohave fun with. We built a five-hole par-3 golf course. It's compacted in atight little area, but the greens and tees are real nice. So we can go outthere and chip away and drink beer. We've got a 4,000-square-foot saloon thatwe can goof off in. It's a couple hundred yards from the house. We also got ago-kart track with a fake old 76 gas station. It's full scale. We park thego-karts out there and drink and carry on.
SI: Do you hangout with guys you grew up with?
Earnhardt: Mostof my friends are younger than me by about four or five years. [Growing up] Inever really had a group of friends that I hung out with. I had three or fourbuddies that I saw every day in high school, and we hung out a little bitafterward, but for the most part I went home. You see, I was kind of sheltered.My daddy didn't let me go out much. I couldn't go out with my buddies to themall. I couldn't skip school. My dad wouldn't put up with that crap. So Igraduated from college [a degree in automotives from Mitchell CommunityCollege, in Statesville, N.C.] and got a job [as a mechanic at his father'sChevrolet dealership] and met a couple friends, and we all have been buddiessince.
SI: You cook?
Earnhardt: I'm ahell of a cook. I love making cheeseburgers. I learned to cook French toastwhen I was little. I can cook anything. Ain't nothing but trial and error.
SI: What's yourfavorite dish to cook?
Earnhardt: Whodon't like Hamburger Helper? Yeahhhhhhh.
SI: And yourfavorite food?
Earnhardt:Italian. Just a straight-ass plate of spaghetti.
SI: What's thenastiest thing in your refrigerator right now?
Earnhardt: I gotsome bacon in there that I'm not sure how old it is. I'll be taking a shot inthe dark if I eat it.
SI: What's thebest part of your life as a NASCAR driver?
Earnhardt: Havingso many days off during the week. Getting paid a lot of money to work a fewhours on the weekend. There's a lot of s--- obviously that I have to do forsponsors, but it will never get to the point where the bad will outweigh thegood. I mean, the best part about my job is knowing that I got every Mondayoff. I can't party on the weekends like my friends do, but I have most Mondays,Tuesdays and Wednesdays off to do basically what I want. I got enough money inmy pocket that I don't have wait on my tax return to buy the new PlayStation. Ican go right out and get it.
SI: What's theworst part of your life?
Earnhardt: Mysocial life is really sporadic. My friends think that I disappear for months ata time. They just think I'm punking out on my couch at home. But I'm reallybusy. I can't go and do things with them at certain periods of the year. Therewill be two months when I hang out with my friends all the time, and they'relike, "Hell, yeah, this is awesome." Then I disappear for two months,and they're like, "What the f---?" That's the worst part about beingme. I can't ask a girl out to dinner next Thursday because I don't know whereI'm going to be next Thursday.
SI: Is it hardfor you to maintain a relationship with a woman?
Earnhardt: Yeah,it is. My schedule is part of the problem, but if I really had the toolsmentally, I could make it happen. There's a part of me that really enjoys beingsingle. I like having that freedom where I don't have to answer to s---. And ifI want to go to a buddy's house and drink beer all night, I don't got to asknobody for permission. There's a lot to be said for that. You know, I'm not thekind of guy who will just go head over heels and get married. I don't thinkthat's ever going to happen to me. I've had relationships where I reallyenjoyed the person I was with, and if not for one situation or one littlething, it might have worked out.
SI: Do you hopeto get married one day?
Earnhardt: If ithappens, it happens. It's a hell of a commitment. Can't you just hang withthem? Do you have to get married? I imagine marriage changes the atmosphere ofthe relationship for the worse.
SI: Do you wantchildren?
Earnhardt: Yeah,I want to have a son. I think that would really be fun. There's no greateraccomplishment than procreation. You put something out there that is yours. Iimagine that person being your best friend. That would be really, reallycool.
SI: Are youreligious?
Earnhardt: Alittle. Just run-of-the-mill religion.
SI: Do youbelieve in an afterlife?
Earnhardt:Hopefully, if there's an afterlife, I'm something cool. The only thing I reallyfeel strong about is that I'm going to see my daddy again. Somehow, someway,I'm going to see my daddy again.
SI: How often dothink of your dad?
SI: Do youremember your last conversation with him?
Earnhardt: He wastelling me on pit road [at Daytona] that I had a good enough car to win therace, and that me, him and Michael [Waltrip] could finish one-two-three.
SI: Do you have afavorite childhood memory?
Earnhardt: Goingto races when I was 12. Everything in life was all about getting to theracetrack. My daddy left early in the morning to get to the race shop, and Icouldn't wait for summer vacation so I could go with him. But you didn't gounless you were asked. So the night before you'd hang out with him while hewatched television, just hoping he might say something. Everything was aboutgetting next to a race car. Because when you're little, standing next to racecars is really kick-ass. As ridiculous as that sounds, it's true.
SI: Did youalways know that racing was what you wanted to do?
Earnhardt: No,man. When I was a little kid, I played with Matchbox cars and I always mademyself a winner. I raced against Daddy's competitors, but there was a smallthought in my mind that racing was never going to be a reality for me. As akid, I'd look at my daddy and look at how badass he was. How the hell am Igoing to do that? Look at me, I'm 4'10" as a freshman in high school. Howam I going to become some kick-ass race car driver? Then when I started drivinglate models, I felt like I could drive, but even at that level I wasn't verysuccessful.
SI: What were yougoing to do if racing cars didn't work out?
Earnhardt: I wasgoing to be a mechanic. Seriously, man. I didn't find nothing that I didn'tenjoy about it.
SI: So why aren'tyou a mechanic today?
Earnhardt: I wasworking as a mechanic at my dad's dealership, and they fired me because Iwouldn't stay for a meeting after work. We were clocking out and having to stayan hour late, so I told them it was bulls---. I was the only one who stood upand said anything, and I got fired.
SI: What did yourdad say about that?
Earnhardt: He putme to work on [older sister] Kelley's late model. That's when I really started[thinking about getting into the sport]. I had to make a decision right then:If I really want to be a race car driver, I have to start working on it. So Itold myself that I was really going to check into this. I worked on Kelley'scars and [older brother] Kerry's cars a little bit, and eventually I got towork on my own. You see, working on your own car came last with my dad becausethat was a privilege. I helped Kelley on Friday, and I raced my car onSaturday. If I showed a real initiative on Kelley's, I might get somewhere. Andthat's what happened.
SI: Are you closeto your sister?
Earnhardt: Very.She's a great sister. Her life is devoted to me, man. Totally. She runs mycompany, lives on my property. She took her marriage and her kids andeverything and moved it to be where I am.
SI: Here are somefill-in-the-blanks. My secret passion is ...
Earnhardt:Collecting movie posters.
SI: My mostoverused expression is ...
Earnhardt:"F-----' a." Can you print that?
SI: I'll send itin.
Earnhardt: Let'sgo with, "What the hell, man." A lot of times that's my hello toyou--"What the hell, man!"--so it can be a positive or a negative.
SI: My childhoodidol was ...
SI: My favoritemovie is ...
Earnhardt: TheBig Lebowski.
SI: My favoritehousehold chore is ...
Earnhardt:Feeding my dog, my cats and my fish. I've got a 55-gallon freshwater tank, andit's filled with little fish you get from the store in the mall.
SI: The moviecharacter I most identify with is ...
Earnhardt:Somebody from [the television series] The Office. The guy who went to work forthe other firm.... I forget his name. O.K., go with the third Wyatt Earpbrother in Tombstone. The young one, the goofy one. That's me. You know, theguy who gets shot on the pool table.
SI: My favoriteitem of clothing is ...
Earnhardt: Myboxers. Because I don't like to to be naked. And I don't go commando.
SI: My favoriteT-shirt is ...
Earnhardt: I gotthis Waffle House T-shirt I've fallen in love with.
SI: The thingthat gets me into the most trouble is ...
Earnhardt: Openbars. Casinos and drinking free, now that's some s--- that will get me introuble. (He starts yelling.) You mean I just got to sit here and put quartersin this thing and I can drink all night?
SI: My favoritecar is ...
Earnhardt: My '67Camaro. It's silver.
SI: The biggestsecret I can reveal is ...
Earnhardt: I'm aBarry Manilow fan.
SI: My bestpickup line is ...
Earnhardt: I'mDale Earnhardt Jr. How are you doing? (Laughs.) ... I don't really haveone.
SI: How do youwant to be remembered?
Earnhardt:Honest. "If he said he did something, he did it."
On believing in an afterlife: "The only thing Ireally feel strong about is that, somehow, someway, I'm going to see my daddyagain."
On romance: "I'm not the kind of guy who'll justgo head over heels and get married."
Photographs by George Tiedemann/GT Images
Photographs by George Tiedemann/GT Images
LASTING EMBRACE Father and son shared a moment before the 2001 Daytona 500, the race during which Dale Sr. died in a crash.