Dale Earnhardt, Junior: Seeking The Intimidator’s Approval

Normally, I don’t follow NASCAR, however, a man with whom I work recently showed me an article on NBC SportsWorld about Dale Earnhardt Junior. As I read, what struck me the most was how this famous father-son pair experienced the same struggles as so many fathers and sons: a son’s love for his father, and the lifelong yearning for love and approval that the father does not give.

In the article, Dale Earnhardt Junior opens up about his relationship with his father. Dale Earnhardt Senior. left when he was 3 years old. Dale Junior would watch his father race on TV and reenact what he saw with his Matchbox Cars. His father did not notice.

At 17 he bought a car, and fixed it up with his brother’s help. He discovered he had a natural ability for racing, but his father didn’t think he could succeed. Dale Senior had said many times that Dale Junior was not like him and he did not believe his son had what it took to be a race-car driver. Dale Senior thought his daughter was the child who had the talent and drive to win. This was belittling criticism considering there were few women in racing at that time.
When Dale Junior. began to win races, his father finally began to take notice. When Dale Junior won two Busch Series Championships “for his father,” his father told reporters, “Junior has been a big surprise to me. I didn’t think he had racing in him.”

Dale Junior said, “I think I just wanted to be someone my father wanted to spend a lot of time with.” Dale Senior could not see his son for who he was. As such, he was unable, and perhaps unwilling, to give him the approval Dale Junior sought.

Acknowledgement came at the 1999 International Race of Champions. Dale Junior found himself on his father’s bumper. His father beat him by inches. After the race his father hugged him. Dale Junior was in heaven – his father had finally acknowledged him. Dale Senior was still the winner.

2000 was Junior’s breakout year. He won his first NASCAR race after just 12 starts, breaking the record held by his father. Dale Senior won his first race after 16 starts. That’s when the comparisons between father and son began.

Four weeks later, when Junior won what some call the biggest race of his career, his father did not stand beside him. Dale Senior said, “Good job. I love you, find your own way home,” and left rather than stay to celebrate the victory with his son. This act is even more poignant when you consider this: Dale Senior owned the car his son was driving, and it is standard practice for owners to join their drivers in the Winner’s Circle. Dale Junior said, “Well, all I really wanted was to talk to him, to talk about adult things with him, the things he talked about with his buddies.”

In 2001, Dale Senior was killed in a tragic accident in the final lap at the Daytona 500. Dale Junior finished second in the race; his father was right behind him when he lost control. Junior watched it all unfold in his rearview mirror.

For the next few years, it seemed Dale Junior could not lose. In 2004, he won races at five of NASCAR’s toughest tracks. His win at Talladega was his fifth at that track, but when asked how he felt, he said at the time, “It doesn’t mean s___ right now, Daddy won here 10 times.” Dale Junior was in a downward spiral that lasted for years. He was doing everything he could to not feel. He was still living in his father’s shadow, and would never get what he wanted: his father’s respect and admiration.

Dale Junior turned 40 this fall, and in the last few years he has turned a corner. The article in NBC SportsWorld shows he feels better about himself and is enjoying life. He is with a new team, he has relationships that mean something to him, and he is involved in his own life.
Yet, when you ask him what he wants, he says, “I just want to make him proud. That’s what I have always wanted. I think I have gotten out of the shadow. When they tell the story of Ralph (Earnhardt) and Dad, you know maybe I’m a couple of pages now. Maybe I can get a couple of more.”

This is a man who is great in his own right. He has been successful in racing (although not as successful as his father), in business, and now in his personal life. He was voted the most popular driver in the race world, with more than 30 percent of fans identifying as part of the “Junior Nation.” That’s even more remarkable when you stop to consider that there are 48 teams.

Even so, he still is motivated by the child’s desire for his father’s approval. As one man said, “If a father does not give his approval, he does not give his approval. It will never be given.” It cannot be earned. As long as you live to gain your father’s approval there will be a piece of you that is never satisfied. As we grow we must learn to give ourselves the approval we need. If you have a father who can start that process, your journey will be easier. If your father does not give you the respect or approval you crave, then your journey in life is to heal the wounds and develop a loving and approving “father” inside yourself.

At 40, Dale Junior has finally gotten more comfortable with himself. He has learned to take care of himself and to value his relationships. He feels more confident and has a full life away from the racetrack. He did not accomplish that alone. If you struggle with some of the issues Dale Junior struggles with, you don’t have to do it alone. I specialize in helping people find ways to become satisfied with themselves, and would like to help you, too. Call me at: 919-881-2001.