DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will wave the green flag for today’s Daytona 500, explained Sunday what he’s done to feel more comfortable flying since his plane crashed on landing last year.
Earnhardt, a NASCAR on NBC analyst, also discussed in a session with reporters if JR Motorsports would ever move to Cup and how much he misses driving a race car.
Earnhardt, wife Amy and daughter Isla survived when the plane they were in bounced twice on landing and continued off the runaway, went down a ditch, through a chain-link fence and came to rest on a nearby road and burned last August on a trip to Bristol Motor Speedway.
Here’s what Earnhardt said:
About flying since his plane crashed on landing last year in Tennessee:
“It’s really tough for me to get back in the plane and it will never be the same now that you know the real realities and dangers. It will never, ever be the same again. It’s something you’ll never be able to forget and never lock out no matter how many flights you take.
“The only thing I can do, I guess, that helps me, everybody is different, this isn’t advice for everybody, this is just what I’ve done that helps me feel better, is before I flew I didn’t inquire about the weather or any details, any technical information about the length of the runaway we’re flying into. I didn’t know the performance of my own plane as far as its ability to land and take off and what kind of airstrips that it could do and couldn’t do that. There’s a lot of things that I just didn’t even think about and I just left it up to our guys that were flying the plane, that if they were comfortable I was comfortable.
“I think that for me to be able to get back in there and go and do and travel like I want, the only way I could do it really is to get into the details. I’m not flying the plane, I’m not a pilot, but I have as much control as I possibly can and what I’m doing and the decisions we’re making without flying the plane.
“I believe in the two guys that I’ve got up there. I’ve known them for two decades and in kind of searching out and seeking out this information and understanding how to read, the pilots, the information that they have is so through and detailed. … Some of these stuff goes over my head. I’m diving into the deep end to learn everything I can about the plane’s ability and the decisions they make and why they make it.
“It’s been extremely educational as you can imagine. I’ve learned so much in such a short period fo time It’s kind of empowered me and give me more confidence in what we’re doing and that we are safe and that I am going to be safe. I don’t want to just quit flying. I don’t want to just quit getting into an airplane.
“I need to get over that fear and work hard to get through it. That’s the advice I got from the people that I sought out, they said just keep getting back into the plane. The only way I can do that is by knowing everything I can possibly know about the exact trip we’re going to take and so that’s helped me a lot.
“I’m learning so much every single time we take off and land. I’ve learned more about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and the decisions they make. Now I’m a bit more involved in the trips we take and what I’m willing to do and not do when it comes to weather and what airports we’re flying in and out of and I’m extremely overly safe on my some of those decisions and it’s been probably annoying to my pilots, they would never admit to that, but I have to sort of figure this out on my own and it’s working out pretty good so far.”
About if JR Motorsports would ever move to Cup:
“We’ll probably never go to Cup. It just takes so many more employees. It’s difficult to find funding to be in the Cup Series. This is just me, my sister, we would have to sever our relationship with Rick (Hendrick, who is a co-owner of JR Motorsports) because he couldn’t have a fifth (Cup) car as an owner. There’s just too many roadblocks and hurdles and challenges to get to the Cup level.
“We really like the business model that we have for our Xfinity program. We’ve really honed it and tuned it to where we can do it efficiently. We would have to really relearn an entirely new budget and what we can and what we can’t accomplish, what we can afford and can’t afford. Our guys will come up with five ways we can get faster and we can’t have all five. We have to look at it economically and what makes the most sense for us as a company to balance our budget.
“I also think that the things I enjoy about being in the Xfinity Series would go away. We enjoy working with young guys. We enjoy working with old veterans, giving people their first opportunity or second chance. We enjoy graduating mechanics, crew chiefs and engineers up to the Cup level. That’s as fun to me, even more fun than winning races. … That’s what we’re trying to accomplish to get these guys to the next level. I wouldn’t have that if you were racing in the Cup Series. I really like where we’re at and we’re successful in the Xfinity Series.”
About how excited he is to drive in the Xfinity race next month in Miami and how he prepares:
“That’s coming fast. Typically I have all year. I’m nervous. I’ll be honest, I’m a little nervous. Being out of the car for a year and jumping back in there and get right back into it and understand exactly where the limits are. Luckily, we’re riding on the fence at Homestead and the limit is right there. Those cars are pretty tough … you can get into the wall a little bit and not have to worry too much about hurting your car. I’m sure I’m going to probably tear off the right side of that thing after practice, qualifying and through the race, I’ll hit it several times. …
“I really missing racing. I really miss driving and it’s getting worse. I thought as I got out of the car and the further I got from my full-time career the less that would bother me but it actually is getting worse for some reason. I really look forward to getting some seat time and smelling the smells and hearing the nosies and just enjoying being in the car.”
If he will race more than once a year since he misses it:
“No, not really. It’s a healthy thing to miss it and want to do it. I think it helps me in the booth to have that energy as a fan. I think one is plenty, probably one is more than I should be doing. I’ve got my wife and Isla and all that, I should devote as much as I can to them. One is just perfect.
“I think that it really helps me remember what drivers are thinking about, so I’m going to get in that car and as much as it will be about having fun, it’s also going to be about reminding myself of all the things that goes through a driver’s mind when he’s out there in the car so when I’m in the booth I’m really able to explain and remember and recall some of the things that emotionally that the drivers are dealing with. It’s so helpful.
“If anything I would love to maybe get an opportunity to test a Cup car, and I’ve talked to a couple of teams when they’re out there testing about hoping in for a few laps. I just really want to know what this package feels like at a mile-and-a-half (track) and I’ve never driven the car with the current package.”