Earnhardt hoping to cultivate drivers’ growth on, off track with Drivers Edge Development program
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a class in 1998 that impacted his professional career for years to come.
The course taught him how to navigate an interview and conduct himself in a professional setting. Today, he credits that class as the start of his off-the-track growth as a professional driver.
Those lessons are among the ones the JR Motorsports co-owner wants to provide to up-and-coming drivers in the Drivers Edge Development program, which JR Motorsports and GMS Racing jointly announced Thursday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame with its inaugural six-driver class.
“That class I was in taught me how to cut down on a lot of terrible habits when you’re in an interview,” Earnhardt said. “… I wasn’t amazing right out of the gate — but it helped me understand to be able to identify them through the years and get better. … We’re going to help them understand how to identify these issues and these things as they go through their years in driving.
“Just like when your dad would tell you something and you didn’t get it right away, but then down the road, you go ‘Aw, I see what he meant,’ ” he continued with a chuckle. “Maybe that’s what this is all about.”
In addition to off-track lessons on branding, social media and professional imaging, the program will provide a racing path for up-and-coming drivers to move up through the series, beginning with JR Motorsports’ Late Model program and eventually leading to potential opportunities in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series and Xfinity Series with GMS Racing and JR Motorsports, respectively. Former NASCAR driver Josh Wise will also help the drivers foster and improve their physical fitness.
The idea is to provide a way to cultivate drivers’ talent and development to prepare them to move up the ladder in NASCAR’s ranks — and offer accountability while doing so.
“They’re going to be held accountable to, ‘Hey, man, you took advantage of this course, you took advantage of these tools, you progressed … If they don’t take it seriously, they’re going to be left behind,” Earnhardt said. “They’re going to struggle to get that next opportunity. And that’s always going to be kind of a question mark about that particular individual. I guess as much as it helps them be better outside the car and so forth, it helps us sort of learn more about them individually, about what they’re capable of and how marketable they are, how they’re evolving through the program.”
The six-driver class includes novice NASCAR drivers like Sam Mayer and Adam Lemke, as well as more seasoned ones like Xfinity drivers John Hunter Nemechek and Noah Gragson, who steps into the No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet for his first full season in the series.
The former Kyle Busch Motorsports wheelman said he’d “be lying if (he) said there wasn’t pressure” to perform with a team that’s won the last two championships in the Xfinity Series with Tyler Reddick (2018) and William Byron (2017). But having the tools in a good opportunity with a strong team only gives him “more confidence and more motivation, knowing that they can do (it).”
In a similar facet, the Drivers Edge Development program gives the 20-year-old the necessary tools he needs to be successful in his off-the-track growth.
“Really just trying to develop my skills, whether it be public speaking or it be developing my brand or what not,” Gragson told NASCAR.com. “I feel like I could grow and these are years where I really mature as a person. My late teens/early 20s is when people really start to mature and figure out who they are and I feel like surrounding myself with a great group of people, whether it be the drivers or the upper staff at GMS and JR Motorsports.”
Social media is a growing area Earnhardt identified Thursday as important for young drivers’ branding in the Drivers Edge Development Program, citing it as a space where fans have begun to consume more content. Gragson in particular has become well-known for his playfulness on his accounts; when asked, he smiled and said he hopes to keep having fun on social media.
“I’m a guy who’s, I would say a little,” he paused. “… a lot of weird. I kind of (march to a) beat of my own drum, but I come from the fan side of things before I started racing. I was a fan of the sport and I really enjoyed the personalities like Clint Bowyer, where they were just themselves.
“There’s times to be professional but I feel like there’s also times where you can sit down and have some fun,” he continued. “I just want to relate to the fans and show them that I’m one of them.”