FOX Sports Exclusive
An inside look at Dale Jr.'s world
Legend has it that when Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw a "60 Minutes" episode featuring Willie Nelson and the country crooner’s personal western town, it sparked the NASCAR star's curiosity — and his imagination.
NASCAR on FOX brings live coverage of the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Eight months to a year later, Junior’s vision became reality on his Dirty Mo’ Acres farm 40 miles north of Charlotte.
Beyond the gate leading to Whisky River, touches of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver’s personality can be spotted between the trees — rusted old race cars, too many to count. An orange UnoCal ball from Talladega Superspeedway sits next to a dirt track used for go-karts and a backdrop for the current Wrangler commercials.
There are animals: faux deer, real bison and goats from Victory Junction Camp. Up the hill from his mother Brenda’s house — where the road splits with the right fork leading to sister Kelley’s and Junior’s home off to the left — is a life-sized replica of Forrest Gump sitting on a bench. The lawn ornament, a gift from Kelley, keeps an eye on their mother below — much to her chagrin.
Yes, Junior has learned not to take life too seriously. And Whisky River — in a little corner of this 200-acre spread — provides the perfect outlet for Junior to escape with his posse and have a good time away from his own personal residence.
“It was sort of something that we built 60 percent of it and then think, ‘Oh, we need to add this, or undo this and add that,' ” Earnhardt recalls. “So it took a year to really complete. And it was 100 percent my idea, our idea, my friends — everybody sort of pitched in saying, ‘This would be funny or that would be funny.' Shawna Robinson (a former racer turned interior designer) did all of the paintings as far as making the door jams and everything look weathered. So we had a lot of help from a lot of cool people.”
While some have compared the spread to a mix of Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch meets Silver Dollar City of Branson, Mo., one might also think of it as the ultimate man cave: The block-long Whisky River has a saloon, a “Hilton” hotel with bunks arranged in three rooms upstairs, a chapel, the Blazin Saddles tack shop, a barber shop, “Slim Pickens Mercantile” Bank and a John Wayne statue that greets guests outside of a jail complete with cells. Inside, there’s a photo of Junior and his father, Dale Earnhardt, circa 2000, retouched to appear aged with another picture of John Wayne dressed in duds befitting The Duke just below.
Across the dirt road in the Silverado Saloon, you’re never sure just who will be tending bar. On this day, NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson is serving up his infamous Midnight Moon (shine, that is) — all in good fun — for a commercial shoot featuring Carl Edwards, Mark Martin and Paul Menard in Western wear to promote the upcoming All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
For the second season, Earnhardt has allowed the production to take place at Whisky River. J.R. Rhodes, who started as Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s flack during the Richard Childress Racing days then headed up public relations for DEI and is currently director of entertainment at JR Motorsports/Hammerhead Entertainment (Junior’s production company) and the Whisky River nightclub, is overseeing the shoot on Earnhardt’s behalf.
“He’s just starting to share it more,” Rhodes said of the Whisky River site.
But the same could be said of Earnhardt. As his performance in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet improved remarkably from 2010 to 2011, Earnhardt has peeled away the protective layers of his persona to reveal more of the guy whom NASCAR fans have selected as their Most Popular Driver for nine consecutive seasons.
Midway through the shooting, Rhodes can’t resist sending Earnhardt a picture of the elder Junior — Johnson, that is — behind the bar. Earnhardt is thrilled.
“That’s just something,” Earnhardt said as he checked in an hour later. “With Junior behind the bar. That really makes it worth putting it together.”
Earnhardt chats up Edwards, whose flight was delayed and is just getting into the makeup chair. He then touches base with Rhodes.
Earnhardt’s trust in Rhodes provides a level of comfort to where outsiders are just starting to be allowed onto the property.
“J.R. is going to be around, and I trust him,” Earnhardt said. “It’s kind of fun because I like for my peers to see it. It’s something I’m pretty proud of. In the right circumstances it's definitely OK.
“We use it for birthdays, holidays and stuff like that. We had a couple of company parties down here, and family days for JR Motorsports. So, it comes in handy. It’s great for using it for our production company . . .
“At first, I was reluctant to let anyone see it except for my friends, but we’ve kind of showed it off on the NASCAR programming and stuff, so the cat’s kind of out of the bag.”
The joker in Earnhardt is surfacing, as well. He is more at ease telling tales that would have come secondhand in the past. Junior disclosed one of his best all-time pranks and why Forrest Gump stares down the hill at his mother on a daily basis.
“My mom lived on the lake and I had this boat and I kept my boat at her house,” Junior begins. “And Martin Truex Jr. gave me a name. It’s a name for fishing boats, but it’s one word called 'shesahooker.' So that’s what we named my boat.
"I named it that because it’s risqué and my mom would be embarrassed and her friends would ask why she named her boat that and she’d have to explain to them what the deal was. So I drove her crazy with that.
“So when I moved her out to the property, (Forrest Gump) was something I could do to drive her crazy. I kind of like to prod and poke. She’s a smart a**, a bit of a smart aleck. I appreciate that quality in her. She’s funny, with a good wit. So we sort of practical joke each other.”
And with 200 wooded acres, livestock, a dirt track and western town, the possibilities will be endless for years to come.