Commentary

The weight on Junior's shoulders

It sometimes appears Dale Earnhardt Jr. carries the weight of NASCAR on his shoulders. Daytona 500 media day was one of those times, and he didn't care for it, writes Ed Hinton.

Updated: February 7, 2009, 2:44 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

"If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling … what would you tell him to do?"

"I don't know … What would you tell him to do?"

"To shrug."

-- Dialogue from Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged"

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. shrugged Thursday.

Enough was enough of the weight of the NASCAR world and its desperate economy on this one figurehead.

He was clearly weary, largely pissed, bitterly ready to field mostly asinine questions at the media zoo that kicked off Speedweeks.

Funny how Mark Martin had just proclaimed that Earnhardt has "the broadest, strongest shoulders of anybody probably ever in NASCAR" -- meaning that they bear the appeal of an entire sport to the public -- when those shoulders arrived drooping.

What was eating Earnhardt lately was that some track promoters desperate to sell tickets had been criticizing NASCAR drivers for not doing enough to stir attention and fill seats in this economic vortex.

"That's not true," Earnhardt began. "We're constantly doing things every week for this guy and that guy to help racetracks."

The primary critics were billionaire (at least until the market crash) Bruton Smith, chairman of track conglomerate Speedway Motorsports Inc., and his chief lieutenant, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage.

But Earnhardt had just about had it with them all.

"S---, when we were here in Daytona for the Fan Fest thing [drivers were summoned here for promotional purposes in January, even though they weren't allowed to test their cars], I read off 20 damned [TV] scripts about selling tickets.

"Easily 20 TV scripts. It was pretty challenging, too. You have to be able to get in a frame of mind to be able to memorize s---. You know what I mean?"

I sure do.

Here's a guy with a hundred issues on his mind, and some track PR guy shoves a script in his face and gives him about a minute to memorize it before here come the camera and the microphones.

But they do the promotions, and they do them well, and they don't complain.

And then they get blindsided by track promoters.

The sage Junior Johnson a few years ago told me that his understanding was that owning a NASCAR-affiliated track was tantamount to "owning a printing press and holding a license to print money."

Earnhardt, of course, makes the megabucks too -- an estimated $10 million annual base salary from Hendrick Motorsports, not to mention endorsement deals that overshadow his base -- but he isn't as married to the money as the promoters.

"Rick [Hendrick, his team owner] can pay me whatever the hell he wants to pay me," Earnhardt said. "I'll drive the race car."

So he's out of patience with promoters too obsessed with profits in these hard times.

"They need to take a little responsibility for themselves," Earnhardt said. "I was thinking the other day they ought to build their own hotels. That way they could bring the hotel prices [for fans] down, and control the hotel prices in a region, and make a little bit of money.

"People are not [staying away from] the racetracks because the drivers don't give a s---. People are not coming to the racetracks because it's expensive to do it.

"The drivers do pitch in, and the drivers do try to go that extra mile, and we're willing to do more … We can push all we can push.

"But they [tracks and the service industries of their regions] have got to get a little more competitive. They can't expect people to come back and spend that kind of money in this economy."

NASCAR chairman Brian France, asked Thursday about Earnhardt's remarks, said, "I don't think he said all track operators. I think he singled out one or more."

Earnhardt didn't, really, but Smith and Gossage had been most vocal in January.

"Tracks are doing more," said France, the would-be peacemaker, "and drivers are doing more."

Some of it is beyond tracks' control, but "Tripling a hotel room cost per night [a common practice in towns on the Cup tour] is just b.s.," Earnhardt said.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. has his good days and bad days dealing with the issues of NASCAR.

And tracks are lowering some ticket prices -- mainly on the cheap seats, for now. Smith's SMI has cut prices at most of its six tracks, and International Speedway Corp., owner of Daytona International Speedway and 11 other tracks on the Cup tour, has permanently lowered prices on more than 150,000 seats companywide.

"They should be lowered," Earnhardt said. "That's good."

All in all, "I just wish it was easier [for fans] to see a race," he said. "I want the fans to have whatever they want … . You just want to see 'em have a good time. Remember 10 years ago? Seems like nobody was complaining about little things, like camper parking, traffic, cost of parking passes in the infield."

As for promotions, "I'll try to help whenever I can," he said. "It pisses you off when people use your name without asking you, though."

He cited examples: This winter, Memphis Motorsports Park, which runs Nationwide races, publicly offered him free barbecue ribs for life if he would compete there. Las Vegas Motor Speedway last year used his name in a promotion offering to refund fans' ticket money if Earnhardt won the championship.

"They didn't even ask, you know?" he said. "Texas has done it a couple of times, putting up billboards, that crap … I like those kinds of things, but damn! Run it by us a little bit."

To sell tickets, they lean on his image, cling to his name, claw at his charisma. Then they claim it's not enough.

Told of Martin's "broadest, strongest shoulders" remark, Earnhardt bowed his head a bit. "That's a helluva compliment, man," he said.

"I feel like I take a big role in this sport. I'm glad to be part of the sport. I'm glad to represent the sport, on my good days and my bad days. And I love being a part of it.

"Whatever I've got to shoulder that is fair, I'm fine with. If it's not fair, I'm not fine with it.

"I've been through a lot of crap. I've been through enough crap not to want to be here anymore.

"But I love driving race cars."

And so he stays, endures.

But Thursday, Atlas shrugged.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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