As Dale Earnhardt Jr. wraps up his illustrious and famed career people have been talking about his impact on the sport. Pundits have talked about his accomplishments on and off the track, contributions to the sport. One area that has been left out is his effect on urban pop culture.
The late 90’s brought the emergence of another Jr: Ken Griffey Jr and his swagger and backwards hat, Dale Jr. brought the same energy and hat style. These young brash athletes made it cool to go against the traditional norms of styles in their respective sports and how people looked forever.
As Junior was thrust into the spotlight in 2001 after his father’s death he began to grow into his own person and was no longer just “Little E”. This growth included an appearance on “MTV Cribs” showing off his property on a show that was traditionally full of rappers and movie stars. This was a move that rattled a lot of NASCAR traditionalists but opened up a whole new avenue of viewers who were now interested in who Earnhardt Jr. really was.
With appearances in Disney’s hit movie “Cars”, Fox’s “Cleveland Show”, and plenty of times being on late night talk shows, Junior showed how he appealed to all crowds by just being himself. The further time moved along it became obvious that Dale Jr. was more comfortable being himself and not changing for a certain image.
In 2006 Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a huge step into the hip-hop culture by appearing in Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” video alongside fellow driver Danica Patrick. I personally spent weeks explaining to friends who Dale was, what he did, and why he was important.
Personally it was cool to see someone that I watched compete weekly in a world that my family and friends don’t particularly identify with step into a world that I related more to on a daily basis. Junior bridged many gaps that otherwise would still be open over the years. Dale Jr. made it a little more acceptable to like rap music and watch NASCAR instead of football on Sundays.
Over the course of time Junior continued to intersect with hip-hop when J. Cole shouted him out on the song “Note to Self” from his platinum album “2014 Forest Hills Drive”.
“I’m a tell y’all who did this man. Man, Dale Earnhardt Jr. dawg. I’m never gon’ forget, this is gonna sound crazy but I’m never gonna forget that [Expletive] you told me yo. Forreal Dale Earnhardt jr man, thank you dawg. From the bottom of my heart. That [Expletive] you said to me changed my life man. And I ain’t never gon’ forget, ever forreal. For real Dale, form me to you, you my [Expletive] man, forreal.” -J. Cole “Note to Self” (2014)
The coolest part of all of it was Dale Jr. actually heard the song and tweeted J. Cole giving his approval with Cole actually retweeting the interaction. This small gesture caused ESPN: the magazine to get the two together for a cover story. In the story both men spoke about how important the crossover effect can be in their respective communities.
“As a race car driver, you kind of get stereotyped into, “Man, you like country” — or you got to say you like country. I do like a lot of country. But I’m all over the board. When Run-DMC came out, everybody was buying it and everybody was listening to it and everybody wanted Adidas, and when they did “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith, that bridged two genres of music and two different groups of people came together.” said Junior.
Cole said, “I’m not a huge NASCAR guy, but I’m a sports guy, so I remember the era when you were introduced. It’s almost like I grew up with you as the main name that I know in racing. I was familiar — especially familiar with the pressure that you’re under, coming in your career, following in your father’s footsteps. That’s got to be a crazy thing to live up to. And you really did it.”
In recent times Dale Jr. has become one of the best follows on twitter and not just as a NASCAR driver but just as a normal guy with normal feelings and opinions. From his use of GIFs, in depth explanations of cars, and how he feels on a plethora of issues.
In wake of the recent NFL protests, two prominent NASCAR car owners took a hard stance against the protest: Richard Childress and NASCAR legend Richard Petty. Both stated they wouldn’t tolerate any of their employees protesting during the anthem.
The following morning, Dale Earnhardt Jr. who has been been NASCAR’s most popular for almost two decades spoke out against the two owners and talked about how he felt personally about peaceful protest while backing it up with a John F. Kennedy quote.
“All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.-JFK”
All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests
Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable-JFK
— Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) September 25, 2017
So cheers to you Dale Jr. for staying true to youself, but also for being all-inclusive in your journey from young gun finding his way, to grizzled vet enjoying the twilight of his career. I know many minorities like myself are thankful for your voice and your attitude on how you treat people.