- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The saloon doors swung open, and standing in the entrance, guns drawn, was a familiar-looking character dressed in not-so-familiar cowboy garb.
"Hold your horses, boys, that money goes to the fastest draw," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., looking more like Clint Eastwood with his duster, boots and six-shooters than a Sprint Cup driver.
Welcome to Whisky River, Earnhardt's backyard Western town, as NASCAR's most popular driver shoots a commercial promoting the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.
This playland that includes a saloon, jail, bank and general store on his property used to be off-limits to the media. But over the past few years, as he's gotten comfortable letting the general public into his personal life, he's opened it up here.
Earnhardt understands now more than ever that fans thirst to know everything about their favorite drivers, just like they do their favorite Hollywood celebrities.
"As long as it's not hurting anybody or it's not hurtful for someone to go through," Earnhardt says. "I don't want to read sad stories about people, and you don't want people to have to go through the exposure of that. There's a gentleman's agreement among everybody what's fair and what's not.
"Your personal life, who you're dating or when you're getting married or where you're going to get married or what you do with your time off, your hobbies, that's totally fair game."
Earnhardt used to be private in an almost eccentric Howard Hughes sort of way. He had a close circle of friends and didn't let many in outside of that. On race weekends, he seldom ventured outside the confines of the motor-coach lot.
"My dad was really, really private," Earnhardt says. "That's where I got my habits in that deal. When you're young, we raised a lot of hell and had a lot of fun. That wasn't something you wanted to put out there and brag about."
But even then Earnhardt, 38, had outlets that let the general public into his life more than most. He gave frank interviews to Rolling Stone and Playboy magazines that he thought "was revealing." He also opened his house to "MTV Cribs."
"We did a lot of things early that I thought were cutting-edge or out there and open more than a lot of guys were willing to do or had an opportunity to do," Earnhardt says.
"I just get nervous about showing off material things [such as Whisky River] that are expensive. When you build something like this, people might say, 'Man, that's cool.' And then some people say, 'Man, it's just a guy with a lot of money making dumb decisions.'
"I didn't want to have to listen to that."
Now he is comfortable with even that. Lately, his entire life has seemed like an open book.
Last year, he wrote an open letter for "CBS This Morning" in which he -- as a pretend 16-year-old writing about his life -- went outside his private circle to share what makes him who he is. He touched on everything from the fear of unmet expectations as the namesake of a seven-time champion to the relationship he had with his mother.
Late in 2011, he opened up about what at the time was a year-long relationship with Amy Reimann. He publicly kissed her in Victory Lane when he ended his four-year winless streak last June at Michigan.
And Earnhardt no longer cooks all of his meals in his motor coach as he did for 10 years. He's got a list of restaurants near racetracks on his iPhone and tries to go to as many as possible.
"It's been an eye-opening culinary delight for a foodie who sequestered himself in the motor-home lot during his first 10 seasons in the Sprint Cup Series," Earnhardt told USA Today last year.
All these traits came shining through on Wednesday as Earnhardt shot scenes for the commercial that will include fellow drivers Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin, ESPN analyst Ray Evernham, Fox TV analyst Jeff Hammond and Richard Petty.
"The King," naturally, is the sheriff.
For Earnhardt, the experience was much better than standing in the background a year ago when he chose not to be in the commercial filmed on his property because he wasn't guaranteed a spot in the All-Star Race.
Yeah, yeah, everybody knew he would get in on the Sprint fan vote, but it was the principle of the thing.
"I thought it would be arrogant or put-offish for me to do the commercial last year and not have a guaranteed spot in the race," Earnhardt says. "Had I not made it into the race it would have looked real foolish."
In one scene shot at an earlier date, Hamlin and Bowyer are sitting at a table with two money bags.
"Dale Jr.'s back and he acts like he owns this whole town," Hamlin says.
Earnhardt definitely owned the scene he shot on this unusually warm January day. He hardly looked the part of the shy character he portrays himself as in everyday life.
OK, he wasn't completely comfortable, as his face and fingers were covered in makeup to give him a rugged look.
"I didn't know I was going to have to take a shower after I was over with," Earnhardt says. "This is out of character. Normally, I just put on a firesuit to shoot a commercial."
Shower aside, it's a good thing for NASCAR when one of its top stars feels comfortable enough to share himself with the world. As four-time champion Jeff Gordon tweeted last week when a reporter was under attack for a Patrick-Stenhouse column, "No need to defend your story We live in a world today where drama, controversy & who's dating who is what people want to read."
He's right, but not all drivers will agree.
My dad was really, really private. That's where I got my habits in that deal. When you're young, we raised a lot of hell and had a lot of fun. That wasn't something you wanted to put out there and brag about.
”-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"One of the things I've learned from doing television is people do want to see the behind-the-scenes stuff," Evernham says, dressed in an old-time bowler hat with a garter around his sleeve.
Petty didn't have to deal with fans or reporters poking into his private live for much of his Hall of Fame career, but he understands better than most the necessity of it in today's TMZ world.
Petty, by the way, didn't need any help from wardrobe for his shot.
"There's only so much that you can write about Jeff Gordon around racing," says Petty, wearing his own black cowboy hat and black duster. "You have to get into the personal life in order for them to be better understood by the people.
"Drivers get to the track and they get in another mode. The fans want to know more."
Hopefully, the personal stuff such as Patrick and Stenhouse doesn't overshadow what happens on the track, even though we all know media day at Daytona International Speedway will be a circus.
But if a driver or an athlete in general wants to talk about his personal life in addition to his professional life, that should be embraced.
"If you don't, you will end up at the track with one product to sell, and that's not necessarily a good thing," Petty says. "In order to compete with the rest of the world you've got to compete with the personal stuff."
In other words, we can't write about Earnhardt every day, so moments like this commercial shoot are too good to pass up.
Who knows, maybe one day we'll all be here watching Patrick and Stenhouse get married in front of the white country church at the end of town, as a friend of Earnhardt's was earlier in the year.
"I guess they could, if they end up getting married," Earnhardt says. "I think [their relationship] is fine. Whatever people want to do to make themselves more happy. They've got a lot in common -- they enjoy racing.
"I didn't think it was a big deal."
The more drivers open up their personal lives like Earnhardt has, the less of big a deal things like this will be.