Larry Smith

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Book excerpt: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Racing To The Finish’

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NASCAR America will air an exclusive first listen of NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s book “Racing To The Finish: My Story” on today’s show, which airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

A first-person account, Earnhardt’s gripping book candidly brings fans through his 18 years behind the wheel, his struggle with concussions, and his future aspirations off the race track.

You can get an early listen of Earnhardt narrating a chapter entitled: “A Life, A Secret, And A Promise” and excerpt from that chapter here.

Earnhardt’s book will be released Oct. 16 from the W Publishing Group. You can pre-order the book here.

A Lift, A Secret, And A Promise

Sunday, May, 4, 2014. Talladega Superspeedway. We were having a good day at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest, most intimidating race track. If you know anything about my NASCAR career, then you know that me and that place, we’ve always had a special relationship. Won there six times. My father won there 10 times. The Earnhardts and Talladega, we’ve grown up together. There’s a whole generation of fans down there who were raised to root for me, taught by the generation before them who rooted for my dad.

So whatever I did when I raced at Talladega was always a really big deal. Good or bad. If the grandstands felt like I was making a move to the front, they would lose their minds. Even with 40-plus cars out there roaring around, I could hear them cheering. If they felt like I had been done wrong, I could hear them booing, too. I loved it. On this day, I had them rocking a couple of times. We led a bunch of laps and spent nearly half the day running inside the top 10.

Now, late in the race, they were waiting on me to make my move. So was my team in the pits, especially my crew chief, Steve Letarte. Just a few months earlier, we had won the Daytona 500. But for whatever reason we had never won together at Talladega. Today, we really believed we had a chance to fix that. But now, late in the race, we were stalled.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on pit road at Talladega in May 2014. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

We made a pit stop for fuel and I got stuck in the pack. I was boxed in my position with nowhere to go. With eight laps to go, I was setting up for my move to the front, but a slower, underfunded car moved in front of me. At Talladega, you have to have a dancing partner to team up, to split the air, slip through it and move up through the pack. But this car in front of me now, this was a bad dancing partner.

There was no way I could push that car to the front. Heck, there was no way I could push any of these cars around me to the front. I was jammed up, running three-wide and basically a 200 mph parking lot with nowhere to go. I started to do the math in my head. How many laps were left? What was my running position? How many cars did I need to slide by to get back into the lead? I added all of that up and realized that the best I was going to do was get up into the top 15 maybe.

So, I Iifted.

I did.

I backed off and I got out of there. I jumped on the radio, and I told my team that I thought there was going to be a big crash and I was staying back so I could stay out of it and steer around it when it happened.

At Talladega, we call it the Big One. When a pack of cars, just like the one I’m running in right now, all wreck at once. Cars start spinning and there’s smoke everywhere and you have no idea where you’re going, what you’re going to hit or what’s going to hit you. Even when you do think you’re about to steer clear of it, a car or a wall can come out of nowhere.

I didn’t want any part of that. Not today. So yea, I lifted my foot out of the throttle and I let my Chevy ease back out of the pack. I watched them all move out ahead of me and made sure to give them their distance but not too far. I stayed close enough that I could still hang on to their draft. Staying on the back edge of that aerodynamic bubble that would keep me close but not too close. There were 27 cars on the lead lap and I settled into 26th. If they started wrecking, I would have enough room and time to get around the mess without getting hurt.

To be clear, this is a strategy that a lot of drivers have used over the years but they always did this at the start of the race, not with a few laps to go like I was doing. I hung back waiting to make a dramatic late move. I wasn’t going to make any moves. My only move was to stay safe. That was my whole goal. Don’t get hurt. Not again.

There’s a famous NASCAR story about Bobby Isaac. The 1970 NASCAR Cup Series champion. A few years later in the middle of a race at Talladega, Bobby came over the radio and told his team to get a relief driver ready because he was getting out of there. He pulled down pit road, climbed from his car and walked straight to a pay phone to call his wife. Bobby told her that a voice had spoken to him, clear as a bell, and told him to get out of the car. Earlier in the same race, an old friend of his, Larry Smith, had gotten killed. Bobby was done. He didn’t race again that season and only ran Talladega one more time. Looking back, that was really the day that his Hall of Fame career ended.

Riding out those final few laps that day at Talladega, there weren’t any mysterious voices in my head. The only voice I heard was my own. I felt awful about what I was doing. It went against everything that being a racer is about. I knew I was going to have to answer questions about it, not just from my fans but from my team. But none of them knew what I had been going through that month. No one did. Not even my fiancé Amy.

They did know what I had endured nearly two years earlier on Aug. 29, 2012. Everyone did. During a tire test at Kansas Speedway I hit the wall going 185 mph and suffered a concussion that eventually forced me to get out of the car for two races later that season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2014 crash at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

After I returned, everything went pretty much back to normal until one month before this Talladega race. On Monday, April 7, 2014, at the high-speed Texas Motor Speedway I finished dead last after wrecking on Lap 12. It was a bizarre situation. I was running down the frontstretch blinded a little by the car in front of me and my left front tire ran off the asphalt and into the infield grass. It was a mistake on my part but it wasn’t all that unusual.

What was unusual was that it had rained all weekend and that patch of grass was like a mud bog. The way we were running our race cars, they rode super low to the ground, so when I hit that soaked turf with a nearly two-ton machine at 200 mph, the grass grabbed that corner of my car and instantly folded it in. It bent that sheet metal and steel like it was nothing, like it was a cardboard box. It grabbed so hard that my car actually went up in the air for a split second before slamming back down to the blacktop. Now riding on only three tires, my car veered to the right, smacked the outside returning wall. Once. Twice. Three times. And then kind of dot, dot, dotted its way along the wall.

If you were watching that race on TV, you probably remember the fact that the car caught on fire. When I finally got the car stopped and climbed out over the hood, the whole rear end of my Chevy was up in flames, but you probably wouldn’t have thought much of the size of all those impacts. If you’re a race fan or a race car driver then you’ve seen or experienced hits just like that all the time.

For me, though, it was like an old wound had been opened. All of a sudden, my brain went back to showing symptoms that I hadn’t felt since 2012. They weren’t as intense as what had forced me out of the car two years earlier. They were much subtler, but I knew something wasn’t right. I knew instantly. I told no one. Amy knew I didn’t feel well because she’s the one who has to look after me every day, but I didn’t share everything with her either.

The only place where I exposed the true details of what I felt was in the notes app on my iPhone. The morning after the Texas crash, I opened that and started regularly writing out the details of whenever I felt bad. I’ve been doing it ever since. A journal of symptoms. At first, I don’t think I even really understood why I started doing it. This sounds morbid, but when I look back now, I realize that what I was doing was leaving a trail for others to discover in case something happened to me that kept me from being able to tell them myself.

I’ve never shared these notes with anyone. Until now.