Dale Jr. relived his darkest days while writing memoir
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided he was going to write a tell-all book — about the crashes and the concussions and the silent suffering he endured in the final years of his career as a NASCAR star leading up to his retirement in 2017 — it actually got him pretty excited. This is going to answer all the questions fans have about why I stopped racing, he thought. And it’s going to help people, others who are suffering in silence with concussion-related symptoms — to let them know they’re not alone, and to hopefully inspire them to seek help from medical experts like the one who helped him. Writing this book, he convinced himself, is going to be fun. Well, Earnhardt will know fairly soon whether “Racing to the Finish: My Story” does indeed address his fans’ questions, and to what extent it could help people: The book was released recently, six days after his 44th birthday and 539 days removed from the historic announcement of his retirement. But he can say now, definitively, how much enjoyment he got out of the process of putting the book together: Virtually none. “I hated re-living it,” Earnhardt told the Obser- ver in a recent interview. “And I never even thought about that, I guess, when we were starting. ... Then we got down to having to talk about it, and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to re-live it ... and think about those symptoms, and remember those dark days, and remember the feelings that I had, and the emotions I had.’ “Having to re-live them just made it all too real again — and that was miserable.”
THE NOTES IN HIS IPHONE
Though Earnhardt says he suffered close to two dozen concussions over the course of his 20-year career, he points in the opening pages of the book to two injuries that he views as pivotal in shaping everything that was to follow. The first was a violent crash during a tire test at Kansas Speedway in August 2012. “That crash was the one crash that made it so easy for me to get concussions, and it hurt my brain so badly,” he says. In fact, that injury and the headlines that were generated when he missed those races led him to seek advanced treatment from Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s sports medicine concussion program. But then came the second of those pivotal injuries: At the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2014, he clipped the muddy infield grass and lost control as his car veered right before slamming into the outside retaining wall multiple times. In the book, he writes that “it was like an old wound had been opened. ... I knew something wasn’t right. I knew it instantly”; the next morning, he secretly started what he calls in the book “a journal of symptoms” in the notes app on his iPhone. This time, he opened up to no one. “I didn’t want to go back to the doctor,” Earnhardt says. “My thought process was, I went to the doctor in 2012 with a concussion. He sat me out of the car for two weeks, and I did some exercises ... and they helped me. His whole team went through a bunch of mental and physical exercises, then sent me home with a bunch of homework. “So next time I got hurt, in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I know what to do. I’ve just gotta take it easy, do a little homework, and I’ll be good.’ And I would write down in the notes (for a couple or a few days after crashing), and byWednesday or Thursday, ‘Hey, I’m a hundred percent. Feeling good. OK, I’ve taken care of it. Problem solved.’ And I’d go back and race again. Three months later, I’d crash and feel sick again. “I just kept trying to take care of it myself, thinking, ‘Ahh, I’ve got, you know, two to five years left in my career, I’ll just get through it, and I’ll be done.’ I kept trying to tell my sister (Kelley Earnhardt Miller, who is co-owner, vice president and business manager of JR Motorsports), ‘I need an exit plan. What do you guys think about retirement, and when should I do that?’ ... I should have sat down with Kelley and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem. I need to go to the doctor.’ ” Earnhardt pauses, and sighs. “But I thought, ‘I’m just gonna manage it myself. If I don’t crash real hard, I should be able to finish my career and be done with it. But it caught up with me.” Between April 2014 and the summer of 2016, he logged an alarming number of notes chronicling a pattern of crashes and disturbing symptoms that slowly wore him down, until things finally came to a head and he was forced to miss the second half of that season. And even then, he continued jotting down notes in secret. Collins was among the first to learn of the private journal. Earnhardt eventually also revealed it to Amy, and later to his sister. But to some extent, he only showed them to Miller out of frustration. “I really didn’t have a sense of how bad he was,” Miller says, “because he appeared fine. The things that he was suffering through were not necessarily things that anyone else could see.” “She would automatically go into business manager mode,” Earnhardt writes in the book. “If you stop now, you will be leaving this much money on the table . . . your retirement portfolio would look like this . . . your relationship with this sponsor would look like this. I told her that I didn’t want my business manager’s opinion; I wanted to know what my sister thought.” Finally, he just opened up the notes app and handed her his iPhone. Within months, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he was retiring. And within a year, he had decided to share those notes with the whole world.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. briefly returned to racing last month, running in a NASCAR Xfinity Series race in Richmond, Va., that his daughter, Isla, and his wife, Amy, attended.