Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always felt a deep connection to racing history. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was one of the most successful and beloved drivers of his era, and his grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, was a legendary driver in his own right in the 50s and 60s.
For Junior, racing history is part of his own personal history, and it’s been a fascination he’s never been able to shake. Now that he’s retired from racing and working in the booth for NBC’s NASCAR coverage, he has more time to dive into that obsession. For years, Earnhardt has used Google Earth to find and map out old “ghost tracks,” old racetracks that have become overgrown and, in some cases, nearly unrecognizable as tracks.
That obsession has become a new series on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock, as Earnhardt and Matthew Dillner (co-host of the Dale Jr. Download podcast) explore these ghost tracks and talk to the folks that watched and participated in races at those tracks on “Lost Speedways,” premiering on July 15. Earnhardt Jr. spoke with Uproxx Sports about how his quest to find these ghost tracks became a TV show, why talking with the figures that raced there became the best part of the show, and what it was like to learn the truth behind an old family picture of his dad and grandfather racing that he never had been able to get the story behind before.
I think it was four or five years ago, we came out to your property and toured around and you talked then about your growing obsession with finding these ghost tracks. So what’s been the process of taking this concept and obsession and turning it into this show now?
Yeah, I’m telling ya, it’s been — it was nerve-wracking because you’re afraid if people are gonna wanna watch it. If people are really going to be this interested in something you have a lot of passion for, and luckily I was given a lot of confidence because of the growth of our production company, Dirty Mo Media, and the vision of the people that are in that company — Mike Davis, Matthew Dilner, just to name a couple. They gave me the confidence that we can do this. We can create a show that would allow me to go explore the tracks themselves, cause that was the real curiosity for me was to put my feet on the ground and look at the track, look at these old places. There’s a mystery and a romance and a real sorrow about it. There’s all kinds of emotions you feel when you walk into something like that, and so I was selfishly wanting just to do that and Matthew and Mike allowed the shows to tell the track’s story.
We would dig up the history of who ran there, the fans that were witnesses to the races there, what it meant to the people in the community when that track was successful and thriving. So we got to tell the story of these tracks, and I never anticipated being able to do that. I never thought that could be a component of the show, but it actually became the most valuable part of the show is when we bring in guys who were there when we’re telling the story about a certain event. We got someone who was a witness to it. So that was something that happened that I didn’t anticipate and it actually is why I’m so confident in the content now. Cause when we first started talkin’ about doing this, we’d been whispering and joking about doing a show for years, but I didn’t have the confidence to do it. But now that I see the episodes as they are in full, I feel great about it. I feel like people are really going to love this and we’ve done a great thing.
I wanted to ask about that, cause it seems, watching that Metrolina episode, the most interesting parts as a viewer were listening to those old stories. What was it like coordinating those interviews and talking with these people, some of which I’m sure you’ve heard stories about growing up and learning this history and connecting some threads of your own personal history?
We never would’ve otherwise taken the time to sit down and listen to these people tell these stories. You know, we’re busy with our own lives and doing whatever it is that’s at the top of mind at that moment, but we would never take the time to hear these stories and to understand the beauty and the racetrack itself and also the competitors and the people that raced their and the experiences they had. So when we sat down and took that time, that was really a privilege. It was a real privilege to sit in the presence of some of these people that put so much of their lives into this facility and this racetrack and into motorsports. And they’re really eager to tell that story and really eager to share what they know.
So, you kinda fall in love with the characters as they’re coming onto the shows, you kinda want to be around them more. You want to hear more stories and want to pick their brain and so I was really — each episode has that, has those characters in it that in a short period of time you fall in love with or want to be friends with and learn more about.
With the Metrolina episode in particular, it’s obviously something very close to you. Somewhere you went to watch your dad race. Learning that story about Ralph and your dad getting to actually race together and putting that together, it seemed like that was just a really cool moment to put the pieces together of a story you’ve heard hearsay for awhile. What was that like for you and how cool was it getting to hear that story?
It was really emotional, because I’d had this picture of dad and Ralph on the racetrack together. I’d had that for a really long time, and no other context about that picture or that day or what happened other than, here’s your dad and Ralph on the track together. I didn’t know where the racetrack was at. I didn’t know whether it was a hot laps practice, race, feature event, I didn’t know what it was. And I’d heard a lot of various different stories about it, and just didn’t know what to believe. You imagine after all these years there’s a lot of embellishing with a story like that, so I couldn’t believe we had a guy that could tell us that had been there.
I didn’t think I’d ever meet someone that could say, “Yeah I was there, I was at the track and I know everything that happened that day and why it happened.” But he had all the details, not only of the actual race itself and what went on on the racetrack, but why that happened, what put dad and Ralph in the same event with two different class of cars. See, Ralph was in the sportsman, which is the main class, and dad was in a modified, which is a class below that, but they had a bit of a shortage of cars so they put them both together for a feature event and there they were.
I imagine in my dad’s mind, when they came up and told him, “Hey, you’re going to run in the sportsman race with your dad,” I can’t imagine what that must’ve felt like for him. What must’ve gone through his brain? Did he say, “What? I’m gonna compete with dad?” And then when he’s out on the track and Ralph’s lapping him, pushing him around and pushing him by another competitor, what must’ve gone through his mind. What did they say to each other afterwards? What did they talk about at dinner that night? How did they tell that story when they got home to Martha Earnhardt and his brothers and sisters?
It makes your mind just take off running with all kinds of great questions and curious things, but that’s what this show does. That’s what it’s all about. The whole reason why we ended up wanting to make this show was curiosity about the tracks and what stories they can tell, and that’s a great example.