Archived Story

Cathy Elliott: Bobby Earnhardt has the heart of a racer

Published 3:38pm Friday, August 13, 2010

Bobby Dale has a heart for racing.

He also has the genes for it. Bobby, who is 22 years old, lives in Rockingham, N.C., in the shadow of a speedway that once hosted NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekends, and where large crowds still show up for ARCA and street stock races and driving schools.

Like so many other aspiring race car drivers, he spends his days working at a “normal” job — he is a cook at the local KFC — and his weekends at the track.

The name at the top of his Facebook page simply says Bobby Dale, but there is more to this young man than initially meets the eye. Take one look at his photo and you’ll see it for yourself; the family resemblance is unmistakable. You realize that Bobby’s surname is missing from Facebook.

Bobby is an Earnhardt.

The oldest son of Kerry, and Dale Earnhardt’s first grandchild, Bobby Dale Earnhardt grew up between Mooresville and Kannapolis, N.C., deep in the heart of racing country.

From fifth through eighth grade he, along with his brother and step-sister, were home-schooled, and the family hit the road with dad while he competed in the NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series. Bobby raced go-karts for a while, and did pretty well, although he says he didn’t exactly burn up the track. All in all, it was a normal childhood, in racing family terms.

Bobby isn’t a guy who is prone to a lot of chitchat — a familiar Earnhardt trait — but equally typical of the family is that animated sparkle in his voice when the talk turns to racing.

He says racing has been on his mind all his life — how could it not be? — but his real involvement started when his younger brother Jeffrey began traveling up to Virginia to compete on the dirt tracks. Bobby was right there, behind the scenes and under the hood, helping with the car.

When Jeffrey — who has raced in the Nationwide Series and most recently finished 30th in the CampingWorld 200.com NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Gateway International Raceway on July 17 — moved up to the Late Model Series, big brother Bobby decided it was time to get behind the wheel.

He raced at the New River Valley Speedway (now Motor Mile Speedway) in Radford, Va., in the UCAR Series. UCAR is best known as a starting platform for drivers looking to jump from go-karts into full-sized cars, or for people who have never raced to get their start. Bobby describes it as “old school, run-what-you-brought” racing.

These days, he races the No. 3 lawn mower at the Ellerbe Lions Club track, one-10th of a mile of banked dirt in Ellerbe, N.C.

Yes, you did read ‘lawn mower’ correctly, but set the notion of 15 or 20 John Deeres tooling around the yard aside; these mowers are souped up and ready to race. Bobby’s has been cut and lowered. His team — Forever 3 Racing, owned by Earl Chapel — built its own spindles and has basically created something he describes as similar to a go-kart inside a mower body. These lawn mower engines can run at speeds of about 80 mph.

Bobby’s description of lawn mower competition sounds eerily familiar to anyone who has ever talked with a race car driver. “You have to get the feel of the track. You have to judge how deep you drive into the corners, know when to get in and when not to,” he says. “A lot of times, you have to know how to drive by the seat of your pants.”

Bobby spent a number of years working for his uncle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., first on his farm and then in the shop, where he was a tire specialist, a mechanic and the catch can guy on the Hooters Pro Cup car Dale Jr. owned.

He doesn’t try to hide the fact that he is an Earnhardt; far from it. The name is his family legacy, and he is proud of it. So the obvious question must be asked: Why wouldn’t you just go and ask your uncle, who owns teams on several levels of racing and is the most popular driver in NASCAR, to help you out?

For starters, he feels it isn’t fair play. “Say I walk into a shop with another guy, who has a different last name. Most people are going to talk to me first. I hate to say it, but it does give me some opportunities,” he says. “I want to work my way up, just like everybody else. I want to prove you can do it without having people hand everything to you, by actually working for it.”

Bobby says that’s the way his grandfather went about the business of racing in the early days of his career. “He worked his way up, from working on his dad’s car when he was a kid, to working on his own car when he raced on the dirt tracks. From what I’ve heard, he didn’t just come out of the gate being great, being the best. He had to work hard, and build that name up.”

A tinkerer by nature, Bobby is the guy friends and family members call when they’re having trouble with their computers, scanners and other electronic gadgetry. He likes working under the hood of a car and getting his hands dirty, helping to set up the car for competition. He wants the opportunity to do that on a car with his name on it. That is his goal.

“I’m trying to find the right people, the right team; I want to do it on my own talent,” he says. “I want people to come out and see me race and say, ‘He’s good; we want to talk to him.’

“I want to earn it.”

People do come out to watch him race. The lawn mower races, which resumed in August after the track is re-graded, draw big crowds and fans often track Bobby down at KFC, asking for his autograph.

The desire is there, and the work ethic, and the lineage. But what about the talent? Does Bobby Dale Earnhardt have what it takes to be a successful race car driver?

“I honestly think if I had a chance to run, and got with the right team, I’d be good,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me I’ve got the talent. They’ve told me I have determination like my grandfather, that I drive like him.

“It makes me feel really good when people tell me that. It gives me the inspiration to keep going, and not give up. I intend to make him proud of me.”

Cathy Elliott writes a column for NASCAR.

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