CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — With NASCAR celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2023, The Associated Press asked retired Hall of Fame driver and NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. to write an essay on the series and its role in his life. Earnhardt is a third-generation North Carolina racer, two-time Daytona 500 winner and has an important voice in the direction of NASCAR:
What does NASCAR mean to me?
Besides bent sheet metal and burnt motor oil? NASCAR is an ever-evolving machine. Looking back over the decades of change is overwhelming. But there is one constant that was always dependable.
NASCAR is family.
My earliest memory of being at a NASCAR event was 1981. Dad was grinding it out in the back of the top 10 almost every week. I was too young to understand that he was one season removed from winning the championship, and his career was now wandering off course.
I just remember running up and down the roads, all of us in a custom passenger van, going to every race. I raced Matchbox cars in the floorboard on those trips. Once we got close to the house, Kelley would often get to sit in dad’s lap and steer us the rest of the way home. Today, I won’t put the truck in drive unless each of my girls is buckled in tight.
Gatherings at my grandfather Robert Gee’s highlighted Charlotte race weekends. I eagerly analyzed all the various race cars that would come through his backyard garage. Short track, dirt and asphalt cars, big buck NASCAR Cup machines, his own Busch Grand National cars he polished and shined. The Gee family would gather on the back deck for steaks grilled by Robert.
Days at the track as a kid were spent with friends like Brad Means, whose dad Jimmy raced as an independent. There was Scott Williams, whose dad Doug was a mechanic and crew chief. I still talk to Mike Whitcomb, whose dad was a car owner back then. Everyone had kids our age, it seemed. We all got along for the most part unless our dads wrecked each other. We would go up and down pit road begging teams to let us wax their cars. We never missed a pay-to-ride go-kart track in any town on the series schedule. We huddled in motel rooms building model cars at 2 a.m. and laid washers on the Darlington railroad tracks for the 1 a.m. train.
All of this happened before I ever drove a lap in what would be an 18-year Cup career. But those early days shaped my perception of racing and my perception of NASCAR. NASCAR is family. There are the blood relatives who are part of the journey. But there are also the friends who become family – many of them, you put your life in their hands.
NASCAR is community. It’s relationships. It’s people. The cars are constantly changing. The rules change, as do the facilities. But the constant is that people are the most critical ingredient. You race your entire life with family and friends, and that bond you create during the long days at the track is as durable as the anvil dad used to hammer out a homemade drive shaft hoop in 1984 for his Nova that now sits on the shop floor at JRM.