Before Dale Earnhardt Jr. was Dale Jr.he was just a dude who loved racing his late model stock car.
He’d drive up and down the road to short tracks with the car strapped to the back of a gooseneck trailer and a dually stuffed full of friends and volunteers who just wanted to go racing. And for as much stardom and glory as Earnhardt later achieved in his NASCAR Hall of Fame career, there’s really nothing that can quite match the pure fun of those good ol’ days.
“I still think about it so fondly and I miss that experience so badly,” Earnhardt said The Athletic. “I know you’ll never be able to recreate it, and I’m not trying to. But that’s where my heart is.”
Although he can’t go back in time, Earnhardt is hoping to at least relive the experience in a small way: By racing a late model at North Wilkesboro Speedway as part of this month’s “Racetrack Revival.” But first, he needed to find a sponsor to help him remember the proper way.
Enter Sun Drop, the regional citrus soda brand once endorsed by Dale Earnhardt Sr. In association with his father’s connection, the younger Earnhardt once ran a No. 3 Sun Drop car at North Wilkesboro in 1993 — so on Aug. 31, he’ll be driving a No. 3 cars that look almost identical.
“I’ve worked with Mountain Dew in the past and Coca-Cola before that,” he said. “But at my grandmother’s house, there was always a Sun Drop in the fridge. … The other brands I’ve worked with have been nationally recognized names. But Sun Drop has always been kind of like our home team and our little North Carolina secret.”
At his core, Earnhardt is a nostalgic person. He’s loved retro stuff and throwbacks long before they were trendy. So when he got serious about finally racing a late model for the first time since 1997 — after talking about it for years — he had that particular sponsor and paint scheme in mind.
It’s not that Earnhardt would have skipped the race without Sun Drop agreeing to sponsor his car. But it was essential in tying together the step back into the past he wanted to feel with his return.
Tony Mayhoff, who manages Earnhardt’s brand marketing and partnerships, got in touch with Sun Drop (which is now under the Keurig Dr. Pepper corporate umbrella) to gauge the brand’s interest. Sun Drop knew of Earnhardt’s fandom, but had never worked with the driver because he was financially out of reach.
But for a one-off event like North Wilkesboro, Sun Drop and Mayhoff were easily able to reach an agreement.
“We weren’t looking at it purely from a financial perspective because Dale is not running this race for any other reason other than he’s excited to do it,” Mayhoff said. “All anyone has to do is look at his social media and you can tell how excited he is about racing being back in North Wilkesboro.
“He is such a huge proponent of short-track racing. He invests a ton — not only from a financial standpoint, but from a focus and attention standpoint, into our late model program. So we wanted to do something from a partner standpoint to put him in a race car that he thought was cool.”
After getting the green light from Sun Drop, Mayhoff texted Earnhardt a mockup design of the car with an all-caps message that said, “WE’RE BACK, BABY!”
Earnhardt responded with “an excited expletive,” Mayhoff said with a laugh.
“It was honestly emotional,” Earnhardt said. “The late model stock car, that’s my baby. I’ve missed it so badly, and I just am excited to hopefully have a good experience driving the car. I’m hoping this might encourage me to do more of this.”
Jumping back into the late model has been a long-held dream for Earnhardt, even before he retired from the Cup Series. He always envisioned himself doing some of those races again and spoke about it often, to the point where friend and JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry practically rolled his eyes whenever Earnhardt would bring it up.
Because for all the talk of doing it — and despite owning a top-flight team — Earnhardt had yet to take the leap. And this is a guy whose last Cup race was in 2017.
“It’s not that I’m too busy and it’s not that I don’t have the time,” Earnhardt said. “It’s that it’s really intimidating, to be honest with you. These guys are good, they’re all really competitive, and I just need to be OK with getting my butt kicked.”
Watching drivers like Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman branch out into different forms of racing — and accept they’re going to struggle in the process — has helped Earnhardt be willing to give it a try. And with North Wilkesboro reopening and sponsorship secured, it served as a catalyst for him to become a late model driver again.
There’s a chance North Wilkesboro may not have come back to life without him. The track’s facilities had already crumbled and the worn surface itself was nearing the point of no return when Earnhardt and friends visited in late 2019 to get it in good enough shape for the iRacing simulation program to have it scanned before it was gone forever (The Athletic‘s Jordan Bianchi tagged along for that trip).
But Earnhardt deflected credit and said there were many others over the years who ensured North Wilkesboro had a chance to survive.
“My efforts only mimic or equal many other people’s same efforts and passion that we’ll probably never know about,” Earnhardt said. “There’s all types of things happening that are being done just by volunteers with real, hard, manual labor to get this thing where it needed to go. They won’t ever really get recognition for it, but they’re doing way more than I’m doing to make this work.”
Regardless of who deserves the lion’s share of the credit, Earnhardt plans to fully enjoy the payoff. He’s hoping to channel some of the speed from his 1993 car, in which he qualified for the race somewhere in the 20s despite roughly 80 cars showing up for the race (he recalls car counts between 60 and 100 back in those days).
Earnhardt wanted Berry to race with him (Berry is one of the country’s top short-track racers), but Berry declined and will instead serve in a crew chief role. The race Earnhardt will run is the final event on the old North Wilkesboro pavement before it’s torn up and converted to a dirt track for the fall — and then repaved in hopes of attracting future races.
Drivers will only get two new tires during the 125-lap race, and Earnhardt is looking forward to the tire management aspect while leaning on Berry’s expertise.
“This is not completely foreign to me, but I just know I’m not going to jump in there and run top-five or top-10,” he said. “I just want to go have some fun, get into battles with some of the guys, cross the finish line and pull my cooler out there to see what drivers want to have a cold beer afterwards.”
(Top photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)