Riding with Junior

Trying to translate a feeling into words is harder than it looks

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LAS VEGAS — First comes the apology to those thousands of people along the Las Vegas strip who pointed their phones at the moving car of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the hopes of getting some choice video of NASCAR’s most popular driver only to go home and find a shlubby and slightly green-looking sportswriter blocking their view. Sorry about that.

In my rather long life as a sportswriter, I’ve been given the absurd opportunities to do some amazing things. I faced the tennis serve of Greg Rusedski, who at one point had the record for the fastest ever serve. I played goalie for the minor-league hockey Cincinnati Cyclones in a practice even though, technically, I cannot skate. I played Augusta National, shooting a tidy 72 … on the front nine. I singled off two-time Cy Young-winner Bret Saberhagen, shot baskets with Dell Curry (sort of, long story), swam with an Olympic gold medalist, kicked penalty shots against goalie Tony Meola (ranked the 25th best U.S. soccer player ever by the Guardian) rode around Indianapolis Motor Speedway with 1960 Indianapolis 500 champion Jim Rathmann, caught passes from Hall of Famer Len Dawson and was in a racing speedboat traveling more than 100 mph.

You will ask, quite reasonably: Why did a shlub like me get to do these things?

And the honest answer is: No good reason. I think the hope of the nice people who have set up these adventures is that I will be able to transfer that experience to readers. It’s an optimistic sentiment to say the least. And I feel like I’ve generally failed because, to a large degree, these experiences defy words in the same way that the taste of chocolate or the autumn colors in the North Carolina mountains defy words.

I mean, Rusedski’s serve was really fast. Like … really fast. You know what I mean? Super fast. A racing speedboat is really fast. Like … really fast. A slap shot is really fast (so fast that, in the next day’s paper, there’s a photo of me looking straight ahead obliviously with my glove hand still by my side while a puck is flying over my shoulder about 10 inches from my head). And the greens at Augusta are really fast. On the first hole, I eventually got my ball to the fringe after however many shots and then, promptly, five-putted from there. This means that if they had put the tee ON THE FRINGE I would have bogeyed the hole.

Do you feel like you’re any closer to the action?

Thursday, NASCAR put me inside the 88 car with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for what it calls The Victory Lap. The 16 drivers who made the Chase (NASCAR’s playoff) drive a loop along Las Vegas Boulevard. They don’t push the cars to 200 mph or anything resembling that — it’s more of a parade than anything. But if you put these guys in race cars, they will push the envelope a little, bump lightly and so on. And then finally, each driver gets a 30-or-so-second chance to do burnouts, where they burn rubber and spin the car around.

Sure, I want to put you into that car with me because it really was one of the more explosive experiences of my life. I apologize in advance because I can’t make the words smell like burnt rubber.

* * *

Dale Jr. is one of the more fascinating people I’ve written about through the years. He’s fascinating because he’s as famous as just about any American athlete — winner of NASCAR’s most popular driver 13 consecutive years, 3 million likes on Facebook, star of numerous television commercials — and yet there’s this mystery about him.

“What are you listening to?” I asked him as he got into the car and plugged in his earphones. He showed me his phone — it was on the Pandora music service. It was set up to the Easy Listening channel.

“I guess Easy Listening isn’t right for this,” he said, and before he started the car he switched to “Rock Classics.” The first song was the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove.”

“I like it!” he said, and he revved up the car.

* * *

The best way to get into a stock car, I have found, is to lift your left leg into the open window-shaped section above the door (normally it would be your right leg, but I was getting into the passenger side), then lift your left leg again because the first time you barely got it a foot off the ground, then have someone just lift your left leg for you and place it inside the window-shaped opening like they are returning library books, then try to pull yourself up, then come close to falling to the concrete, then have a couple of people rush in to make sure you are not dead, then somehow pull your right leg through the opening, then sit there for a while recovering, then wriggle through the opening until you are stuck like Winnie the Pooh after he ate too much honey, then crack your head against the car rootop a couple of times, then keep wriggling.

After doing this tried-and-true method, you will make it inside the car, though not, technically, into the actual seat. You will instead form an interesting pretzel shape where your butt is still mostly outside, and your right foot is jammed under a one of those support bars while your left knee will be somehow separated from the rest of your body by a whole other support rail. To get from this position into the car seat, it will be necessary to eat your right arm.

But then, you are in! Riding in a stock car is a visceral experience, which is why it’s difficult to describe. When Dale Jr. flipped the various switches to start the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, it was like turning up every one of my senses to “Extreme.” The rumbling pulsated in my ribs. The grinding noise overloaded my ears. I could taste the fuel and smell burnt rubber and see all those people just hoping to get a glimpse of Junior himself.

Sitting there in a race car might have been a good time to reflect a bit on Junior’s life. His father, Dale Sr., was — as everyone knows — the roughest, toughest, meanest and best stock car driver in America. Dale Sr. was the Intimidator and the Man in Black, and what he wanted was to win races and make money. He didn’t abide anybody standing in the way of those things. He struck a chord with millions of Americans who worried — and worry still — that America has lost its edge and its ambition. Once, Dale Sr. told future Royals manager Ned Yost that he didn’t have any friends among the other drivers because he didn’t want anyone to look in their rear-view mirror, see the No. 3 car coming, and think: “Hey, there’s my friend Dale.”

He may not have had friends, but, man, did he have fans. Junior knew his father in the same way that those millions of people did … as a fan. Dale Sr. wasn’t around the house much. The son’s relationship with his father was transmitted through the television. On the screen, Dale Sr. would be knocking cars out of his way on the way to the finish line. In the living room, Dale Jr. would be playing with toy cars, knocking the hell out of those toys that dared get in the way of his little No. 3 car. Junior started racing, he will tell you, in large part because he hoped it would give him something to talk to his father about.

Then, horribly, Junior saw his father’s fatal crash in the rear-view mirror at Daytona. This was just as father and son had begun to come to something of an understanding through racing. It left a shattered Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a hole in his center and millions and millions of new fans, many who wanted him to be his father. He tried that for a while. When he won at Talladega one year, he sputtered: “It doesn’t mean s—. Daddy won here 10 times.” But that wasn’t him.

Much has been written — including by me — about Junior’s journey, about his effort to find stuff like stability and peace and a sense of himself and his racing groove. But as Junior will tell you, all that stuff is a moving target. You keep doing laps, but you don’t ever get to the checkered flag.

Anyway, I’d like to tell you I reflected on all this in the car, but the truth is I was too scared and cramped and overwhelmed to think about anything other than non-words like “Kliarostos! Bardsoheo! Vieededdededor!”

“You doing any driving before Daytona?” I managed to ask Junior over the thunderous sound of the cars. That’s the next NASCAR Sprint Cup race, and it’s not until February.

“Nope,” Junior said. “No testing, so I won’t be driving at all.”

“You going to miss it?”

“What?”

“I said, “Are you GOING TO MISS IT?”

“Am I going to miss it?”

“YEAH!”

Junior looked out the front window for a minute. The crowds lining the Vegas streets were cheering him and waving. The sound was obviously deafening but, after a while, oddly satisfying. The 88 car boomed and shook, a lion pacing in a cage, as if to say, “Come on, Dale. Let’s go 200 mph again.”

“Yeah,” he said so quietly I had to read his lips. “I’ll miss it. I mean, LOOK at this.”

 * * *

I should probably let you in on another exchange with Junior before we got going.

I said to him, “How is your hearing after being around this kind of noise all the time?”

And he said: “What?”

And I said: “HOW IS YOUR HEARING?”

And he said: “WHAT?”

And I said, one more time, even louder, “HOW’S YOUR HEARING?”

And he said: “MY HEARING? IT’S PERFECT!”

* * *

Stock cars do not like going slow. They are just not built for crawling. Junior’s car coughs and wheezes as we roll too slowly along Las Vegas Blvd. Even so, there is never a moment when you’re in a race car that you are unaware of just how much power you are sitting on. You can feel the engine roaring in your chest. Every now and again, Junior would let the parade of cars go ahead of him so he could burn some rubber and flash just a little bit of that power. The force crashed me back into the seat.

For a time, I looked out the window at the crowd and just studied their faces as they took phone videos of Dale Jr.’s car. Every one of them was smiling. This is something I look for often these days. When you go to the airport, for instance, look around and might notice how rarely you see anyone smiling. I realize — better than most, I suppose — that travel is a pain and airports are often trying places to be. On the other hand, everyone is traveling somewhere — to see new sights, to visit family, to ride roller coasters — and there’s an excitement about that. No smiles? Anywhere?

Well, in my experience anyway, you just don’t see many smiles there. You don’t see many smiles in the mall either or in restaurants. You see surprisingly few smiles at amusement parks, I have found. But here, along the strip, with Dale Jr. passing by, every person has this big smile, and they wave to him, and he waves back. Well, after a little while, he simply drives with his right palm in the air, a sort of perpetual wave, but it serves the same purpose. There’s so much joy all around Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car.

* * *

Junior does not talk while he’s driving. There doesn’t seem to be much point anyway because I wouldn’t be able to hear him. But he seems pretty content not talking. There’s a serene man-and-his-music look he wears when behind the wheel, even when he’s not pushing the limits of his car. It is like: This is where he belongs.

Only then, his face turned slightly evil and he leaned over to me and shouts:

“Here comes the best part!”

The “best part,” I would find, meant doing the circular burnouts. They’re sometimes called donuts. Technically, this requires pushing the throttle, violently releasing the clutch, get the tires spinning. Then you turn the steering wheel and go mad in circles.

I mentioned before that riding in a race car is a visceral experience, and I suspect this is never more true than when you’re in a car with Dale Jr. doing donuts. The engine roar and the sound of the tire burning rubber combine into a sort of shrieking. Smoke and fog from the burnt rubber forms all around us, like we’re suddenly in a Vegas magic show, and the smell is an indescribable brew of burning and gasoline and sweat and elation. Jim Murray used to describe writing a column as riding a tiger — you don’t want to get on but you also don’t want to get off. Well, I’ve never quite had that feeling writing columns. But I sure knew what he meant doing donuts with Junior.

And when it ended and Junior had almost run us into a truck — I don’t think he REALLY came close to hitting the truck, it just felt that way — Dale looked over with that evil smile. He suddenly looked SO happy, like a kid who just got away with something you’ll find out about later. He’s pushed race cars to the edge for more than half of his life. And the coolest part is that it still thrills him.

* * *

My stomach did not quite recover for the rest of the day. That part was weird. After the ride ended, I just felt this slightly queasy stirring in my stomach. I wasn’t sick, exactly. It wasn’t a familiar feeling. It was like my stomach was saying, “Everything SEEMS to be OK, but you know what, we’re going to keep things at DEFCON 4 while we do some safety checks.” And that lasted the rest of the day.

When I posted the video of doing donuts with Junior, I realized just how different it FEELS from how it LOOKS, especially in sports and entertainment. Of course, this is true of all things; the thrills just aren’t quite transferrable. We invest so much as fans that we can ALMOST feel what Bruce Springsteen feels when he’s performing, we can ALMOST feel what Steph Curry feels when he drains a 3-point shot with two hands in his face, we can ALMOST feel what Dale Earnhardt Jr. feels as going into Turn 4 on the very edge of control.

Almost … but not quite. I suppose in the end that’s what these little sports adventures have been about. They’ve been an effort to break that last wall and feel a little bit of what they feel. I don’t know how successful they are. I only know that the ride ends, as it must, with a slightly queasy stomach, a lot of feelings that don’t have words and a bunch of people trying to figure out how to get me the heck out of the car.