Relationships don’t always work the way you think.
Each year, scores of celebrities go on handshake tours to greet America’s military heroes. They smile for cell phone cameras and autograph everything you can imagine as a river of troops in different uniforms parades past.
Because of logistics—on some USO tours, there are hundreds of troops waiting at bases to see a celebrity—most meetings can only last a moment, no matter how much both parties want to extend the experience.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. does his share of meet-and-greets, too. But he also gets the behind-the-scenes tours.
The driver of the No. 88 National Guard car in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series has been hanging out with troops for the past several years. While the Guard’s sponsorship of his race team opened the door for a deeper relationship with troops, Earnhardt says those interactions go far beyond fulfilling a contractual obligation.
"If we’re able to be around each other for more than five minutes, I get an opportunity to sort of reach into what’s up with them and what they’re doing," Earnhardt said. "I like to know why people joined the military, what makes them want to serve, what their experiences are [and] whether they’ve been deployed overseas.
"[I] sort of [try] to read between the lines on their resolve and commitment. Just about 99.9 percent of the time it’s something inspirational that will sort of fire you up."
In Earnhardt’s line of work—where races can be won by milliseconds—extra motivation can go a long way. At 37, he’s a stock car legend, having won 18 races at the Sprint Cup level. That includes taking the checkered flag at the Daytona 500 in 2004. He also won back-to-back NASCAR Busch Series Championships—NASCAR’s second tier—in 1998 and 1999.
A North Carolina native with a perfect cocktail of southern charm and commercial appeal, he’s one of the most popular race car drivers on the planet, winning the NASCAR National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver Award the last nine years in a row. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., is one of two men to win seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championships—as it was known before the series sponsorship switched to Sprint. He won a total of 76 races on the circuit before his tragic death in 2001.
The National Guard’s deal with Hendrick Motorsports made Earnhardt one of the most frequent celebrity observers of the American military.
"Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get into their environment, whether it’s on a Navy ship or inside some of the facilities where they’re training," Earnhardt said. "You see common principles that are similar to racing, like teamwork and confidence and focus. You see so much of that in individuals who have been in the military and who have been training in the military—even the younger kids—you see just a good strong focus of direction of what they want to achieve and what they’re trying to do."
Of course, the interactions aren’t all heavy. Earnhardt said some of his most memorable moments have come when he’s taken part in activities with troops.
"I’ve been able to go … do all kinds of fun stuff … that I would have never had the opportunity to do," he said. "I’ve been able to go to Washington for several years now for the Youth ChalleNGe Dinner [a Guard program that helps high school dropouts] and meet up with a lot of people and make a lot of great connections through that."
In the end, it appears to be a partnership that’s mutually beneficial. Earnhardt’s brand is a high-profile recruiting tool for the Guard. And along with the sponsorship, Earnhardt takes some valuable experiences with him when he buckles in on race day.
"If I’m at the racetrack and I’m able to get this information prior to the race at one of the meet-and-greets … it definitely fires you up and makes the sponsorship and relationship you have with the Guard heads above anything else that’s happening that day," he said.
Eric Brandner is the USO's director of story development.