Originally seen in the Winston-Salem Journal. Written by Scott Hamilton/Winston-Salem Journal
MOORESVILLE — He says he’s Kerry Earnhardt, but introductions aren’t necessary. There’s no doubt whose son he is. The older he gets, the more he resembles his famous late father, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr.
And it is not just his face. It is the way he connects with people.
Racing success aside, Dale Sr. had legions of fans because they related to him, just as they could relate to their neighbors. Kerry Earnhardt is the same in that he makes people feel comfortable.
The problem he has encountered is that having an iconic last name creates expectations. Be it Jordan, Nicklaus or Petty, there are few instances when the child of a legend lives up to the high standard set by the parent.
Kerry’s younger brother, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., has had some NASCAR success. The harsh truth is that he has won popularity contests and not Sprint Cup championships. Dale Jr. is 38 and still racing, so his time might yet come.
Kerry’s won’t. He came to that conclusion years ago.
"It has been (hard) at times, especially with racing, because they expect you to be what your dad is,” Kerry, 43, said. “With myself and now Dale Jr., people are seeing it’s hard to be that way. Even with the Pettys and other folks out there, it’s hard to be like that. Everybody’s different.”
Kerry smiles often. He’s at peace, perhaps because he is living the life he always wanted.
He and Dale Jr. –– along with their sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller –– have created Earnhardt Outdoors. It is an umbrella entity developing everything from apparel to a reality show.
The group has pitched the show to a handful of networks and has secured Montana-based Magnum Global Media to produce a pilot episode. It will be based in Mooresville, with family trips integrated throughout the series.
Kerry and his wife, Rene, are also designers for the Earnhardt Collection, a series of houses offered by Ohio-based homebuilder Schumacher Homes. They’ve come up with 23 different designs and will add two in October. About 150 of the houses have been built in two years, with a record 32 ordered during June and July.
Kerry and Rene draw up and name each design, and one of their floor plans won an award for best architectural design from the National Association of Home Builders. Each house features openness and natural light to connect with an outdoors lifestyle –– a lifestyle that helped Kerry redirect his focus after he stopped racing.
"It’s not the lifestyle we had in racing, but it’s a lifestyle we enjoy and all of us can be a part of,” he said. “The family couldn’t be in the racecar with me, but we can all go four-wheeling, fishing, kayaking or whatever. That’s what I’ve enjoyed most –– being able to do this as a family.”
At the end of the day, a family man is really what he wants to be.
But it’s not that Kerry Earnhardt didn’t want to drive a racecar, too.
His last name gave him access to resources and opportunities other drivers coveted. He just came into things later than most, partly because he didn’t have a strong relationship with his father until he was grown.
Kerry and Dale Jr. started racing in NASCAR during the late 1990s while under their father’s wing, but there was one big difference between the two –– Kerry already had children. He had to keep his family secure while Dale Jr. was able to invest time developing his career.
Things began to look up for Kerry before the 2001 season, when he was scheduled to run 25 races spread across four different series. But the promise of that breakthrough season never materialized after Dale Sr. was killed during the Daytona 500.
"Whenever Dad got killed at Daytona, it all came crumbling down,” Kerry said. “He was my supporter, and I didn’t have anyone else backing me with that career. They decided not to pursue that, so we just threw it out the window.”
He bounced around from one series to another, driving for different owners. Nothing “was ever the same” as racing for his dad, so he moved on.
Kerry said that he missed out on his three oldest children growing up while he chased a racing career. With another daughter about to start school, he wasn’t going to make that mistake again. He whittled his racing schedule before crawling into a racecar in 2009 for the last time.
"Kerry can’t turn back the clock,” longtime NASCAR analyst Jerry Punch said, “but he wants to do different and be a part of their lives just like his dad did. The sport with travel and demands –– it just takes a huge toll on families.
"I admire how well he’s handled it. I think if his daddy were around, it would be a whole different scenario with Kerry.”
Kerry would love more time with his dad.
But he seems satisfied with his current life, a life in which the only pressure or expectation is for him to be Kerry Earnhardt.