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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s podcast shows why he's NASCAR's most-popular driver

SB Nation logo SB Nation 10/5/2017 Jordan Bianchi
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It was a little after 7 a.m. ET when fans began arriving. First a couple here and there, then a steady stream of people, all lined up outside a NASCAR team shop located in a business park on the outskirts of Charlotte, N.C. They were waiting for JR Motorsports to unlock its doors at 8 a.m. so they could go inside to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. record his weekly podcast.


That Earnhardt has such a legion of loyal fans is no revelation. But their willingness to show up on a Tuesday morning just to hear their favorite driver co-host a podcast for an hour is a level of devotion no other NASCAR driver can come close to matching.

Among those waiting to get inside to grab a position outside the glass studio was Brian Baird, 30, an Air Force E-5 Staff Sergeant and Purple Heart recipient who was hoping to get Earnhardt’s autograph on two noses and two doors off cars Earnhardt had previously raced.

Stationed at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash., Baird decided to make a “detour” to the Charlotte area on his way to Biloxi, Miss., for additional military training. Visiting JRM to take a in a recording of The Dale Jr. Download was something Baird had long wanted to do. And while Charlotte and Biloxi aren’t exactly bordering cities, the relative proximity meant Baird got to cross something of his bucket list. 

As Baird stood outside JRM sipping an orange Mountain Dew Kickstart — one of Earnhardt’s main sponsors — Earnhardt came driving up behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Colorado with a giant tire fastened to the roof. It was this pickup truck that Earnhardt accidentally left running for eight hours at the airport last month while taking a day trip to Richmond — a bemusing story Baird says underscores Earnhardt’s homespun charm and why he made the drive across the country to see a mere podcast recorded in person.

“He has actual substance, he’s not vanilla,” Baird told SB Nation. “He may be a rock star, but he’s a real person. The things he talks about on his show are things I relate to.”

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Baird’s summary is the genius behind The Dale Jr. Download, devised to give fans a window into Earnhardt’s life and serve as an extension of his social media feeds, in a format where he can expound on topics in-depth. Subjects vary from week to week, though each show typically begins with a recap of the previous weekend’s race, focusing first on Earnhardt’s finish, then transitioning to the race overall. From there, it’s a hodgepodge of free-flowing talking points, though there is a one-sheet outline Earnhardt and co-host Tyler Overstreet try to follow.

On this day, the 193rd episode of the podcast, Earnhardt calls good friend Martin Truex Jr., who two days prior had won the Cup Series playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. During the conversation Earnhardt asks Truex if he just woke up. Truex denies the suggestion, even though Earnhardt is convinced otherwise.

When the interview with Truex concludes, the topics run the gamut of serious (discussion on how Earnhardt would feel if Jimmie Johnson were to win an eighth championship breaking the record he shares with Earnhardt’s father and Richard Petty) to the absurd — including Earnhardt sharing a story of how his namesake on a hunting trip once shot a doe while sitting on a toilet.

“Being active on social media is simple, easy,” Earnhardt told SB Nation. “People love the human side of it. They get to know you and feel like they get to see you as a real person. That is so valuable when they see you at the track and out on the track and they connect to you.”

Throughout the recording Earnhardt, 42, is insightful, glib, and personable, showcasing the personality that has made him a 14-time most popular driver and crossover mainstream superstar. Watching the proceedings the entire time is Baird, along with nearly 100 other fans, all of whom cram into JRM’s gift shop where the studio is located. With no seating, everyone stands and observes through the glass, much like zoo visitors would watch the bears.

For all five years of its existence, The Dale Jr. Download has aired on the Dirty Mo Radio, an online radio podcast network under the Earnhardt portfolio. But while it has Earnhardt’s name in the title and tapes at the team he co-owns, he didn’t have a real hand in it, at least in the beginning. And that was by design, says Mike Davis, who handles brand strategy and communications for Earnhardt and JRM.

It was Davis who conceptualized a weekly podcast that would cater to Earnhardt’s sizable fan base. Not wanting to overburden Earnhardt nor wanting him to commit his time to a project he may not feel completely motivated about, Davis elected against Earnhardt having direct involvement. If Earnhardt wanted to be onboard then it would happen organically, something he chose to do on his own accord.

So initially the show, utilizing various hosts, featured a recap of how the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team performed each week, in-car audio snippets, and a popular segment called “Reaction Theatre” that replayed voicemails fans left on a designated hotline. Depending on how Earnhardt finished that week, the calls featured an array of emotions and was almost always an amusing listen.

Gradually, Earnhardt became more involved. In the 22nd episode, five months after the show’s debut, he made his first appearance, one in which he and Davis reminisced while looking through old Earnhardt family photos.

“When we first started the podcast I didn’t want to do anything weekly or lock myself into any kind of routine,” Earnhardt said. “I knew I was going to hate it and not wanna get up in the morning to record it. But over a couple of years of seeing it grow and understanding what it was, how to use it and what kind of tool it was to engage fans it became more and more interesting to me.”

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Easing into the commitment, a segment was formulated for the 2014 season that had Earnhardt calling in and leaving an audio clip sometime in the hours after a race ended to recap what transpired. This occasionally meant Earnhardt would record the message at home, which brought with it unexpected and entertaining moments that also provided fans a glimpse into his life away from the track.

“It was gold. He was able to decompress and really go back and replay the race in his head,” Davis told SB Nation. “Sometimes he was doing it in his basement bar or he’d be walking around outside and you’d hear the donkey and buffalo make donkey and buffalo sounds, or the dog would be barking. It felt like you were there with Dale.”

Earnhardt took on an even greater presence on The Dale Jr. Download last summer and the reason wasn’t something anyone envisioned. A concussion sustained in an accident during the June race at Michigan International Speedway would eventually cause him to miss the final 18 races of the season, creating significant doubt whether Earnhardt would actually be able to return to competition at all.

During this period while sidelined and amidst an extensive rehabilitation program, Earnhardt wanted a way to keep his fans abreast of what was happening and his recovery. Instead of Twitter posts in 140 characters or short videos, Earnhardt realized he had a perfect outlet right before him in the form of the podcast bearing his name.

He became a regular on the show, updating his recovery and chiming in on other topics. Not surprisingly the show became a must-listen for those wanting to hear how he was doing.

“I was so candid about all that because I was afraid if people didn’t see me or see what I was dealing with or hear what I was going through, they were going to make guesses and assumptions from one extreme to the other,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t feel like what I was going through was anything to hide or be ashamed of. This is what is happening to me in my life and I want people to know what is happening to me, what I was dealing with and out 18 races.

“It gave me a lot of peace of mind. Had I not done that, I would’ve sat at home thinking everyone was making assumptions.”

Another thing occurred as Earnhardt was sidelined: He took the opportunity to dabble in television broadcasting, a post-driving career avenue he never thought he’d venture down. But last October he accepted a spot in the NBC Sports booth as a guest analyst for the playoff races at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway. Afterward, he had a eureka moment and his outlook changed.

“I got out of the booth right out of the door and I looked at whoever was with me and said, ‘Holy (expletive), that was fun!” Earnhardt said. “Like, I couldn’t believe how much fun that was.”

Seeking greater comfort in front of the microphone and to better understand the detail and preparation that goes into being an effective analyst compelled Earnhardt to take a larger role on The Dale Jr. Download. At the beginning of this season, which would be his last as a full-time competitor, having announced in April he would return at the end of the year, he took over hosting duties on a permanent basis.

“The podcast was a way to learn about being a media personality,” Earnhardt said. “See what works, what doesn’t work, what people find interesting. A way to make mistakes and be able to learn and get better.”

Spurred by his newfound enthusiasm for broadcasting, which elicited widespread praise, Earnhardt and his team engaged in discussions with NBC and Fox Sports, NASCAR’s television partners about potential future opportunities. In July, he announced that he had signed with NBC in a multi-faceted deal that will likely see Earnhardt have a role beyond just NASCAR, possibly on the network’s coverage of the Olympics or NFL.

Earnhardt will also have his own television show, with talks underway on what exactly that will entail. One option is simulcasting The Dale Jr. Download or developing a new program with a similar concept that highlights Earnhardt’s charisma and capitalizes on his ability to give well-thought, heartfelt answers.

Whatever comes about on the television side won’t impact Earnhardt’s current role on The Dale Jr. Download. Maintaining a prominent presence within NASCAR and wanting to continue having a connection with fans upon retirement are motivating factors, as is expanding Dirty Mo Radio.

“We look at pairing with NBC as an awesome opportunity, but we want NBC to look it as an opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “We want them to see the potential in Dirty Mo Radio. I want to keep doing the podcast and get more creative.”

In addition to Earnhardt’s show, seven other podcasts air on Dirty Mo Radio with several more in the planning stages, including a lifestyle-centric program hosted by Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, set for early next year.

The impetus behind developing every podcast is twofold: Deliver a platform that allows Earnhardt and other NASCAR personalities to connect with fans beyond conventional avenues, while also providing additional benefits to JRM’s partners. The latter is especially pertinent in a tough NASCAR economic climate where funding is scarce. It’s no coincidence several of Earnhardt’s or JRM’s sponsors have a direct affiliation to a specific podcast.

“It’s another connection point to the fans,” Kelley Earnhardt Miller, older sister of Earnhardt Jr., co-owner of JRM, and herself a podcast host told SB Nation. “A way to give (sponsors) more value than just the paint on the car, which is so important. It’s really become a great tool for us.”

But it is The Dale Jr. Download, one of the top 200 most-downloaded sports podcasts, according to iTunes — which will in all likelihood increase with Earnhardt now hosting — that is the franchise with an in-person viewing audience from around the world.

Fans from Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, England, Ireland, Japan, and Scotland have specifically traveled to see Earnhardt Jr., according to Cathy Earnhardt Watkins, sister of Dale Earnhardt Sr. who manages the JRM gift shop. Davis even recalls one Canadian visitor asking him not to post a photo on social media became he was playing hooky from work and his work might see it.

On the day before the recording of the 193rd episode, a man from Upstate New York was perusing the JRM gift shop on a Monday when Davis informed him that Earnhardt would in fact be in studio the next day. There was just one hitch: To make it to the taping, the man had to lie to his wife and craft an excuse why he had to stay another day in North Carolina. Wouldn’t you know it, the man was there the following day.

“I was talking with her and I kept acting like my phone had bad reception,” he said. “That way she couldn’t ask too many questions.”

Earnhardt recognizes the lengths his fans will go to get a moment with him. He’s advocating for Davis and his aunt to come up with way to add portable bleachers so spectators won’t have to stand for the duration, and after each show he will sign autographs for those in attendance.

It is these interactions where lasting memories are made and why folks come out on a Tuesday morning. For 15 minutes Earnhardt and Baird talk like old buddies about the doors and bumpers Baird brought with him.

The front bumper with yellow and blue Wrangler colors particularly catches Earnhardt’s eye. It is off the No. 31 car he drove in his eighth-career Xfinity start, when he was still trying to make a name for himself.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Earnhardt was as excited to meet Baird than the other way around. Earnhardt quizzes Baird about how he came across these pieces of memorabilia, even going as far to suggest maybe they could go into business together. And as he’s walking away for a planned interview, Earnhardt turns to Baird and says if he’s ever thinking of selling to make sure he lets him know first.

It is a goodbye of two people who seemingly know each other quite well even though they just met.


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