INDIANAPOLIS – If you would have asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. decades ago that he would be leading the field in the Indianapolis 500, he would have called your crazy. The North Carolina native had always had NASCAR on his mind. Racing an Indy Car? It had never interested him. Rightfully so too.
His family, was obviously well known in the NASCAR world and with a home race in the Coca-Cola 600 annually run on the same day as the Indy 500, forgive him for never having a large interest in the big race. It’s not like he didn’t appreciate it, he just never got to spend a lot of time focusing on it.
But, as the years went on, the more the intrigue came to him. Now, Earnhardt will lead the field on the pace laps for Sunday’s 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET/NBC/INDYCAR Radio Network) as the honorary pace car driver for the 200 Lap race.
Being at Indy during the Month of May now, has a somewhat awkward feeling for the former NASCAR star.
“I’m kind of near the garage and it’s just weird to be in a race track and not recognize anyone you see,” Earnhardt told me on Thursday from the famed track. “I’m used to going to tracks and walking into Indy or anywhere else and looking around knowing about everybody in the garage. Now, just to be seeing all the new people just about everywhere you go, it’s a whole different crowd. It’s sort of a culture shock or an awakening of sorts to walk in.
“Usually when we come here for the (Brickyard) 400, to run our race it’s like we’re renting a vacation home from somebody. Then while I’m here today it’s like I’m here and the owners in the home. It’s a little bit awkward.”
Earnhardt, says that while he hopes that he doesn’t go over the speed limit like he did at Daytona when he drove the pace truck for the season opening Daytona 500 in February, he does say that driving it for Indy will be a completely new experience but also one that is nerve wrecking as well.
“We couldn’t figure out to get the cruise control set,” Earnhardt laughed on Thursday about that moment. “I’m just sitting there bouncing around like 65 mph or whatever it was so it wasn’t perfect. I thought oh man. The cars are so precise. If you’re going 67 the drivers are going to look at their tach and set their speed and think this is what I’m going to go for pit stops. I was thinking oh man there’s going to be a rash of speeding penalties on the first round.
“I had a lot of fun doing that. This is going to be nothing like that. There’s a new protocol which I’ll learn later today (Thursday). I’m going to sit down with the official that I’ll be in the car with to learn what their protocol is. When you’re in the pace car or pace truck at any race, and you look in the mirror and see those cars and you think about the drivers and think about that they’re getting ready to do this thing that they’ve always dreamed about their whole lives.
“Some of these guys are wanting to be first time winners. Some of these guys are wanting to be multiple winners. There’s just a lot of storylines in there and I can feel that energy coming from those guys behind you.
“I’m also going to be looking at a lot of exotic impressive racing cars that I’ve never really been around. All of that is behind you, sort of following you down the straightaway. It’s a really crazy emotion to feel that and to see that. You almost sort of feel for what the drivers are feeling – their tensions, their nerves, their excitement. You start to get nervous even though you’re not even running the race.”
Following his pace car duties, Earnhardt will be a guest on the NBC Sports broadcast. His assignment will be just to travel around to different areas of the track and give his perspective.
“I was going to eventually get to this race as an observer and as a fan,” Earnhardt said. “Probably this year I would be here regardless of working with NBC or not. I’ve anticipated coming and the excitement of coming and excitement of sort of roaming around ant and taking it in. Now, I’m going to do it in a vehicle for NBC.
“We’re going to get to go to a lot of locations. We’re going to be all over the place in the morning. It’s going to be this amazing tour for my first Indy 500 and capturing it on film and to just reacting naturally to what I’m seeing. It seems to be the role I play and it’s comfortable. I want to see this for the first time. I’m not an expert. I’m not going to be in the booth talking about the action with those guys. That’s not my role. It’s really just to share my experience and hopefully people enjoy that.”
Earnhardt, says that he would assume the atmosphere on the grid before the start of the ‘500 would be 10 times over what it was for the Daytona 500. He’s most excited to stand on the track before the race starts and to soak it all in.
While Earnhardt doesn’t have very many fond racing memories here, his favorite story comes from a test that took place early in his career.
“I didn’t have any great runs here,” Earnhardt said of his fondest memory of Indy. “We had some decent cars. I think the first year we came here might have been the best run I’ve ever had. Funny thing about that, I was testing here and dad was testing as well. Our cars had great speed. Dads car was about average. You never know how hard he’s driving anyways. He’s never been a great qualifier. He wasn’t a hot lapper. He was sort of a momentum I need 40 laps to beat you kind of guy.
“Well during that test, we had this time where we were going to swap cars. All I cared about was matching his lap time. We had the times on the dash and I’m going to go out on the same tires, so that’s my goal. We have to run that lap. That’s all I care about. So, he gets in my car thinking about how it drives, how it feels and I’m not really paying attention to that because I’m not an expert at that point. He’s the veteran and I’m just giddy to drive the black 3.
“I run the lap time and I’m happy and get out and like gosh I’m just as good as dad. Then he comes over and says, you’re car aint gonna make it. I was like wait, I’m way faster than you. He’s like no, it’s not going to last. I’m going to pass you in 20-30 laps into the race and I’m going to go by you. Watch.
“I was like okay, alright, whatever. We were on our mission on our car. We we’re on a whole different route than him setup wise. Sure enough, we get the race started and we’re doing great, sitting up there in the top five, top 10 whatever, and around 20-30 laps in, I started getting tight and backing up. One car goes by, then another and I’m falling back further and further and there goes dad right around me like it was nothing. He’s just in there rolled over and I’m plowing tight.
“That was my moment where I had a lot to learn how to do this. That was after two XFINITY Series championships and we thought we knew what we needed to know. That’s my Indy memory but I wish it was a win. That’s not a bad memory to have.”
With this being the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s 1969 Indy 500 win, Earnhardt shared a fond memory of Andretti. It happened once he stepped away from NASCAR full time a couple of years ago.
“I was at my retirment party at Whiskey River in Charlotte, North Carolina and I invited everybody that I thought that I knew. I didn’t plan that party or do the invites though. Everbody that had influenced my career in some way was there. I turn around and Marco (Andretti) is standing there. Me and Marco had sort of been social media buddies. We never really hung out. I don’t get to go on vacation with him or Kevin Hart. We have just sort of made this connection. I was like wow man you’re here. He’s now just standing there and kind of points directly beside him and it’s Mario (Andretti) wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses. It’s like 10 o’clock at night in this bar. It blew my mind. One of the greatest to ever do it is standing right there in my retirement party. I was floored. It meant a lot for him to be there.