Cigarettes and video games. That’s all Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew for quite some time.
NASCAR’s most popular driver at the time couldn’t do one without the other. He would try to quit the habit he hid from the public, but he couldn’t cut it out of his daily routine. That changed when he met his now wife, Amy, who told him that if he didn’t stop lighting cigarettes, she would leave him.
Lo and behold, Earnhardt stopped smoking. But he never shared details of the difficult road of quitting until two weeks ago in New York City. Earnhardt partnered with Nicorette to launch its new coated ice mint lozenge, revealing a part of his life that fans never knew about.
Sure, everyone knew Earnhardt was out and about, partying as a young 20-something with the folks at Budweiser and fellow NASCAR stars, but he refused to let anyone know he smoked.
In an interview with Frontstretch, Earnhardt reveals how he hid the habit, the mental challenges that came with it, his physical ailments caused by smoking, as well as a look at post-driving life, fun with NBC, regrets and more.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch: How did you get started smoking to begin with?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Hanging out with friends and this girl I was seeing. I was a 22-year-old. I picked the habit up socially, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, hanging out with the guys. I didn’t really enjoy it. I didn’t know why I was doing it. But next thing you know, I was buying my own cigarettes. I structured it in as part of my week and part of my day, part of my morning. When I was ready to quit, it had taken over. It was impossible to figure out how to get out of that cycle and get it out of my system.
Wolkin: How much of an addiction was it? How much were you smoking?
Earnhardt: I was smoking about a pack and a half a day. I was playing a lot of video games and smoking a ton of cigarettes when I played those games. When I decided to quit, I had to quit video games. I had to quit gaming cold turkey for two years. I couldn’t do one without the other. Could not. I would go try to play a game and couldn’t play because I couldn’t enjoy it.
Wolkin: How were you able to hide this habit when you were always in the public eye?
Earnhardt: You know, I just didn’t smoke in public. I wouldn’t be careless, walking around with cigarettes in my pocket or with a cigarette in my hand in a setting that I knew people were watching. I smoked at home. I smoked at night. I smoked in my bus at the track. If I was at a racetrack, I only smoked in my motorhome. That would kill chunks of time during the day if I had to.
Wolkin: In a way, it’s a good thing that you hid it since you’re so influential that some kid out there could have picked up on the habit.
Earnhardt: That’s the first time I thought about it like that. I’ve told a bunch of different stories, but I never looked at it like that. I suppose, in a way, I wasn’t trying to hide it for that reason. We have a lot more people to try to help. Had they known, it would have encouraged too many people. That would be a terrible feeling, to know you encouraged someone to begin such a terrible habit.
Wolkin: What brand did you smoke? Were you worried people would see you buying them?
Earnhardt: I was a menthol guy. Marlboro menthol lights. You justify it in your mind, like nobody cares. You think nobody is going to make it a big deal. This is before—I know it’s crazy to think—but it was before iPhones. I quit smoking 10 years ago. I never worried about it. Social media wasn’t around. Twitter wasn’t around. Nothing really went viral.
Wolkin: How did you kick the habit? What did you do to stop smoking?
Earnhardt: I tried a lot of things to try to quit. Nothing worked. My wife said that if you don’t, it’s a deal-breaker. We were dating at the time. She would convince me to try to quit. I would try. I would fail. We would be out drinking and I would light up a cigarette. She would go, ‘What the hell? I thought you were trying to quit.’ I would go, ‘I was, but oh well.’ I didn’t. She was so devastated. She asked me if I was ever going to quit. I said, ‘I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can do it.’ She said it’s a deal-breaker. I was like, ‘Let me give it one more shot.’ You have to make it stick this time.
Wolkin: Was there a lot of pressure for you to smoke in social situations, whenever you would go out partying or at the track?
Earnhardt: You would justify it. In your mind, you want to do it and it’s OK in this moment and this environment. People would just think I’m a social smoker. That was always the thing when you’re out at bars. Race fans or somebody who might recognize you would say, ‘Hey.’ I would just be like, ‘Oh, I’m out with the guys. It’s not a big deal. I hardly ever smoke.’ You would say whatever you needed to say to make yourself feel better and that you reflected.
Wolkin: How do you feel since you stopped smoking?
Earnhardt: I feel like I for sure had a lot more sore throats, colds, congestion, more susceptible to getting colds and that type of respiratory illness and infections. I have way less sore throats now. It was definitely tied to smoking. After so much smoking, it took my lungs a lot of time to rehabilitate themselves. Cycling helped me do that. I wanted to bike to challenge my lungs, help them regroup and make them healthier. I was more self-aware of what it was doing to my body.
Wolkin: When you walk around the garage of lower racing divisions, like the Truck Series or ARCA, you see a lot of drivers smoking and vaping. Do you see Cup drivers ever smoking?
Earnhardt: If anybody is smoking, they’re probably hiding it like I did. There’s a negative stigma to it. You’re an athlete. You’re a racer. You have to get help to stop it.
Wolkin: Changing gears, life is so different for you now. How is your time different now between being at home with your wife and daughter, along with your time at NBC?
Earnhardt: We do the back half of the year, so while FOX is working, we can take a little time to spend with our families. I love that. You have to choose what’s important. Me and my wife discuss everything. We decide what we want to do and how we want to do it. She’s part of that decision.
Wolkin: On top of that, NBC is sending you all over, like with the Kentucky Derby a few weeks ago.
Earnhardt: Yeah, I’ve never been to the Kentucky Derby. Going there and experiencing that was really cool. NBC sent me all over, so I got to see the entire complex. Usually, if you go to the Kentucky Derby, you plop yourself into a suite and hang out. That was so cool, just getting the whole tour of the place on the biggest day of the year for that facility. It was exciting. And Rutledge is a ton of fun.
Wolkin: Are you satisfied with the post-driving life?
Earnhardt: I am and I love it. I miss driving, of course, and that’s great. I have my little girl, Isla, and Amy is amazing. I have the time to go experience new things, like the Derby, the Indy 500 and the Olympics. I get to do all of this stuff for the first time. I never had time on my hands to do this. Just having the racing over your head makes you a completely different person. When you’re a competitor, you’re always in that mode, even when you’re trying to vacation. You still have that competitive switch happening.
Wolkin: What do you miss about racing?
Earnhardt: The camaraderie, the friendships, the guys, working together.
Wolkin: If you could go back and change one thing about your racing career, what would it be?
Earnhardt: I didn’t really learn how to be a great teammate, a true professional, an asset to my team and a student of the game. I didn’t really learn that throughout the Budweiser years. I had great cars, great teammates, great people, great crews and great mechanics. I just didn’t take advantage of it.
Wolkin: Why not?
Earnhardt: I was young. I was sponsored by Budweiser. We were raising hell and I didn’t know any better. I think we all look back on part of our lives and say, ‘Man, I should’ve buckled down.’ I’ll always wonder if I would’ve been more focused, whether that would’ve mattered. Would that have provided more success? But it’s over and done. There’s nothing I can change.
Wolkin: And overall, you’ve done things off the track that basically, only Jeff Gordon can say he’s done to elevate the sport.
Earnhardt: I’m happy to hear you say that and that means a lot to me. If I can’t be a champion, I hope I was an asset however I can be. That’s the best compliment you can give me about my career, that I was an asset. I would love to be a champion. At least at the Cup level, I’ll never get to say I was a champion. I wanted to matter and I wanted to influence the sport in a great way.