Another generation of Earnhardts is coming
"Oh, come on ... " Karsyn Elledge said, her look of dismay undone by a guilty giggle.
It was seemingly an easy question: Who's your favorite race car driver?
The 11-year-old Elledge -- granddaughter of the late Dale Earnhardt, daughter of JR Motorsports co-owner/vice president and former driver Kelley Earnhardt-Miller, niece of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- has many choices right there in her genome, after all. But there's someone else. She's been there since Elledge showed her mother the driver's picture in a magazine three years ago, not knowing her mother already was in the process of signing her to drive for the family racing team.
"Ummmm ... I would think Dale and Danica are tied for my favorite," she admitted sheepishly.
Tied. NASCAR's most popular driver settles for a tie with his niece.
But having seen and heard the way she gushes over Danica Patrick before and since she joined JRM in 2010 as a part-time Nationwide Series driver, Earnhardt will take that. He wonders if it's actually a tie. But considering the profound impact Patrick is having on his niece and her dreams, he seems pretty content with the draw.
"Oh," Elledge continued after a pause, "and (JRM Nationwide driver) Cole (Whitt) ... And my mom."
Well done. Elledge's sense of business tact is apparently as precocious as her racing ability. The next generation of Earnhardt drivers is coming fast.
The daughter of Earnhardt-Miller and NASCAR crew chief Jimmy Elledge has competed in the "Mini Outlaw" series of roll cage karts since 2010, amassing eight feature wins and finishing third in the box stock division points at Millbridge (N.C.) Speedway last season. She currently leads in box stock, with four wins in a row, and is second in the faster 125cc class with two wins this season.
"I really like the go-fast part," she said.
She also likes the fact that much of her family has a history in the sport, but said "that's not pushing me to carry on for the family." Indeed, Earnhardts and Elledges -- including Jimmy's father, Terry, an engine builder -- seem to find their way to a race track or a shop for one reason or another.
"I guess in some sense of it, it is surprising, but I guess it really isn't surprising," Jimmy Elledge said. "Being a girl and deciding to do that at the age she did was kind of unexpected."
Elledge's daughter was smitten at age 8 after accompanying him to a mid-week race at Millbridge, a regional mecca for those breaking into or furthering a passion for the sport, including members of the NASCAR community and their children. Eyes drawn to a black kart with pink letters, she asked her father if the driver was a girl. It was. And she was intrigued.
In a kart weeks later, Elledge displayed natural aptitude. Recently, she's shown grit, too, which manifested itself in aggressiveness and, Earnhardt said, a bit of a bad-loser mentality, "but that's all part of it, too." Such verve has helped her thrive in a box stock class of about a dozen competitors ages 8 to 16, and a 125cc class where she once beat adults.
If such continues, her lineage and her success undoubtedly will generate scrutiny and expectation, but Earnhardt hopes she will be given space just to be a kid.
"People don't need to get too critical of her at this point," he said. "Just let her enjoy it and ease into it. You get to putting a lot of pressure on them and 'do it this way,' 'do it this way,' and it becomes more of a job, more of a chore. Kids aren't going to respond well to that."
But Elledge hasn't shied from her association with a famous family, this year campaigning to use the "3" that remains synonymous with her grandfather, who won six championships with it on the side of his car. The legend's former team owner, Richard Childress, still licenses the stylized digit from NASCAR and has allowed it to be used by Earnhardt Jr., as well as Childress' grandson, 2011 Truck Series champion and Nationwide rookie Austin Dillon. Though Childress has no control over the number outside of NASCAR's races, Earnhardt-Miller had her daughter seek permission to use it.
"The first year she ran 38, my number," Earnhardt-Miller said. "This year she asked if she could have her Pop-Pop Dale's number."
The question, which will remain unanswered for years, is whether racing will be her hobby, or become her vocation.
"I think so," Elledge said. "Not just because my whole family did it. I am racing for that, yeah, but that's not why I started. I think I will take it up as a job because it's super fun, and I would like to get to try all different types of tracks."
But her mother knows how fleeting those thoughts could be.
"I think with her 11-year-old mentality, it's something fun to do, just like horses," Earnhardt-Miller said. "She says she wants to be a race car driver, but she says she wants to be a fashion designer and she wants to be an actress and, at 11, I don't think she's going to have to pick something for a career."
Earnhardt-Miller, like her brother, supports her daughter, but also is making her earn her way with hard work and commitment. There also is the realization that a future in the family business could be behind a desk instead of a steering wheel. The sport has evolved.
"She knows I run this company. To her, it's not a female or male thing like when I raced," she said. "I wasn't allowed in the shop as a kid. 'Don't come in here. This is boys territory and they're saying nasty things. And you get dirty in there.' "
Earnhardt has seen his niece race a few times in person, and gets text updates and video snippets from his sister. Unmarried and with no children of his own, Earnhardt, 37, is keenly interested in helping his niece's nascent career, if she's capable. He knows there are obstacles beyond talent, but Patrick's career arc encourages him.
"I don't know what would be harder for her, being a female or being linked to the name Earnhardt," he said. "I think being a female has to be a little bit more difficult in a sport that's been dominated by males for so many years, but Danica seems to handle it pretty well, without any problem. If you have talent, I think the talent really comes first. I think if Karsyn was talented enough, I would implore her to try her hand at it. But if she's not, if I don't see that she is talented enough, I would have to be honest with her, one way or another."
Whereas Earnhardt and Elledge are linked by bloodlines, Elledge and Patrick are kindred spirits. Earnhardt insists he is shy despite his high profile and popularity, but Elledge is gregarious, introducing her uncle before a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and frequently appearing as a guest on JRM's "360" webisodes.
"She's a spitfire, that one," Patrick said. "She's got so much personality. She's a very opinionated, witty little girl. She is unbelievable, and that's a little bit of my personality, too."
Elledge pesters her mother -- so far unsuccessfully -- to cast her in a television commercial with Patrick, but she did join Patrick at an autograph session in Charlotte.
"I love her ambition," Patrick said with a laugh. "I understand it. I probably wasn't quite as witty as she was at that age, but I imagine she's spent a lot of time around a lot of different kinds of people, especially older people here and there, and she just has a great personality."
Patrick has long seemed uncomfortable with idolatry, especially when narrowed along gender lines, but her highly documented breakthroughs in racing have inspired many females, from IndyCar driver Simona de Silvestro to little girls such as Elledge, who excitedly show their mothers her "Got Milk" ad in kids magazines.
"I think it's cool to watch her go out and mess around with all the boys and stuff," Elledge said. "Most definitely I want to be like Danica. She's really cool and she's a really good race car driver, so hopefully I'll be able to pick up some skills and carry on."
Earnhardt is grateful to Patrick for showing his niece that her dreams, albeit 11-year-old ones, are plausible.
"I appreciate what she has done just because of how I've seen it affect my nieces, and I think what she brings to the sport, I see it firsthand and I appreciate her position and who she is as a role model," he said. "I get excited about Karsyn and I know she's really young and I know it's super early to have any kind of expectations, but I get excited about the prospect of her one day doing what Danica does."