It’s beyond cold — as in 2 degrees below zero with a wind chill of minus 17. The second you remove your glove, your hand goes numb. It is in these conditions that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is embarking on what he describes as his “first job” in 20 years.
Earnhardt is standing atop a 14-foot snow-covered hill, about to race NASCAR drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney down the hill on a tube. Just three months ago, Earnhardt himself would’ve been classified as a NASCAR driver, but having retired from full-time racing, he has transitioned into a new career.
NBC Sports is now his employer, and his duties consist not only of being a NASCAR analyst for the network that broadcasts Cup Series races beginning in July, but also being involved in its coverage of marquee events like Super Bowl 52 and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which begins later this week.
It was the Super Bowl that brought Earnhardt to Minneapolis. NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver has been serving as the man about town, participating in wintry activities associated with the region. Paired with veteran television personality Rutledge Wood, Earnhardt spent the past few days taping segments where the duo ice fished, snowmobiled, played broomball, and skijored -- where a person on cross-country skis is pulled by a dog -- all of which aired on NBC’s Super Bowl pregame show Sunday. And his official on-air debut, appropriately, came behind the wheel of a giant snowplow.
“I’m the fish-out-of-water guy,” Earnhardt said. “The more ignorant, the better.”
This isn’t the coldest weather Earnhardt has experienced, though it is second on his list. First on the list was when he was in a deer stand in Missouri and the temperature was 8 below zero, not factoring the wind chill.
“Thursday, our first day here, was terrible. We were outside all day,” Earnhardt said. “But after a day, I kinda adjusted and I felt pretty good. It was refreshing to get out there and feel the wind and air.”
This marked the first time Earnhardt has attended a Super Bowl. At first blush, it seems surprising that someone whose stardom is that of a mainstream personality would have never gone to a game attended by a virtual who’s who of the entertainment and sports world.
Yet that wasn’t the case, Earnhardt explains, because he was too preoccupied.
When racing was his occupation, Earnhardt was consumed only with responsibilities related to winning. Although he did promotional appearances and starred in a host of commercials, those were done at the behest of his sponsors, while perks like going to the Super Bowl clashed with the start of the NASCAR season, which typically begins the week afterward.
“Having the pressure of driving the car and having the pressure of trying be competitive and the coming season, and having all that off the shelf and out of mind is such a relief,” Earnhardt said. “Just being under that pressure all the time of being a driver is such a hard thing, so not having that any more has allowed me to enjoy stuff like this.
“If I was still a driver and with the season coming up, I wouldn’t want to be doing this. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.”
And it is this freedom Earnhardt and NBC both look to take advantage of. Earnhardt has the opportunity to become a crossover media personality, someone not confined solely to NASCAR. NBC is seeking to bank on Earnhardt’s popularity and homespun country charm to bolster its NASCAR ratings and give itself another star in the vein of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who evolved from figure skating analysts to being incorporated into a wide range of NBC’s entertainment and sports properties.
“He’s a guy who just wants to have a good time. A guy who wants to enjoy himself,” Wood said. “At his core, he really is the guy next door. He’s not a person who holds himself in a different regard.”
Earnhardt’s attitude has changed over the past year, he said. Before, he was closed minded when ideas would be presented to him, and if it fell outside of his comfort zone, he would shoot it down. He uses the example of being asked to shoot a commercial of him wearing his firesuit while grocery shopping, a notion he found preposterous.
Now, he is willing to try new things. He has confidence NBC will not put him in a situation where he may look foolish.
That is why NBC paired him with Wood, who also covers NASCAR, and why Earnhardt was featured in a segment Sunday alongside Truex and Blaney. Both drivers are close friends of Earnhardt, who provided Truex, the defending Cup champion, his first big break in NASCAR. Blaney currently lives in a house located on Earnhardt’s property just outside of Charlotte, N.C.
“I joke, but in all seriousness, this is the first job I’ve had in 20 years,” Earnhardt said. “A job is when people tell you to be here at this time, this is what is required to do and expect out of you. In racing, I didn’t have that, I had a lot of leverage and could control all the situations.
“When I signed up to do the NBC thing, I told myself I would be available and open to whatever they thought was best for the broadcast. I want to be an asset to them, so I’m dropping the guard, so to speak.”
It’s a good thing Earnhardt is easygoing, as his flexibility will be put to the test when he travels to South Korea for the Olympics, where he’ll be asked to cover short track speed skating, a sport he has zero familiarity with. Wood said Earnhardt is being slotted into that role because what he’ll cover is similar to a NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway, a half-mile track where drivers are virtually required to use their bumpers to pass.
“I probably haven’t skated since like sixth grade,” Earnhardt said. “[NBC] hasn’t given me any indication what I’ll do, but that’s good.”
The whirlwind of his new job hasn’t afforded Earnhardt much time to think about his previous gig. And even with the season-opening Daytona 500 On Feb. 18 quickly approaching, he hasn’t had second thoughts about his decision to retire.
He had reached a point in his life where he was ready for a new challenge. Earnhardt, however, does acknowledge that when he heads to Daytona Beach, Fla., where he will serve as the grand marshal for NASCAR’s biggest race, it will be weird to be there as a visitor and not a driver.
“I’ve been looking forward to eventually being out of the car, and I’m so excited about this opportunity to be with NBC and my future that I haven’t even thought about [racing],” Earnhardt said. “I’m sure that will be weird, being in that environment and not strapping in the car. But there was a large percentage of me that was ready to close the chapter of my life and move on to something else.”