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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR Hall of Fame Driver is Building a New Media Empire

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dirty Mo Media

With Dirty Mo Media and its signature podcast, “The Dale Jr. Download,” Earnhardt is building the sport's most fascinating and brutally honest content hub

It was the most-talked-about motorsports podcast of the winter, and it began with Kevin Harvick walking into an unorthodox studio to make amends with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Decorating the studio walls are various historical photographs, helmets, firesuits and a door panel from the iconic Richard Childress Racing No. 3. Pulling everything together is a wide bullhorn in the corner. In the middle of the room is a large wooden table adorned with diecasts, and it’s just as much of a character in this scenario as the three personalities sitting on each side of it.

Harvick’s entrance into the studio felt like the big reveal of a professional wrestling storyline. Everyone knew Harvick was on the other side of the door, but the fact that he actually walked through it felt like the culmination of four years’ worth of backstory.

And it was.

For over two hours, Earnhardt and Harvick volleyed several topics, including their disagreement over driver salaries from 2017, which had led to commentary from Harvick on his satellite radio show essentially blaming Earnhardt for “stunting” the growth of NASCAR due to Junior’s lack of championships at the highest level. “Imagine how popular he would be if he had won two or three championships,” Harvick had said then. Earnhardt never admitted it publicly until the podcast episode, but the comments surprised and hurt him, leaving a wedge that wasn’t healed until they finished recording.

“I hope that, beyond today, we can both agree it’s regrettable and get back to being friends,” Earnhardt said at the end of the show. After explaining the timeline of events that had led to his comments, Harvick said he had chosen to “be silent and ... not talk about things,” which only made matters worse between them. “That is probably, all the time, not the right way to do it,” Harvick said after mending fences with Earnhardt.

2022 Athlon Sports Racing Magazine

This was also the first time they discussed in such detail how Harvick had filled the seat of the renumbered No. 29 in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The conversations were deeply personal, but the vulnerable setting of “The Dale Jr. Download” has become the most cathartic venue in which to address them — even if the host had never envisioned having such a platform.

“I never even wanted to podcast,” Earnhardt says.

“The Dale Jr. Download” began in 2012 as the conceptual brainchild of Mike Davis, a longtime communications executive currently serving as Earnhardt’s brand manager and co-host.

Earnhardt did not even appear on the podcast until five months after its debut. At first, the show was designed to spotlight various elements within his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team and how they were performing. His first appearance included Earnhardt and Davis sifting through old family photos.

“From the start, people were telling me that it would be better if Dale Jr. was directly involved, and I’m like ‘of course it would be,’ but I’m also the keeper of Dale’s personal time and making sure he isn’t overwhelmed with commitments,” Davis says. “The last thing I wanted to do is burn him out and give him another commitment if he wasn’t sold on it yet.”

If Earnhardt was ever going to be a more permanent fixture on the podcast, it was going to have to come naturally. Earnhardt gradually did become more involved, sending weekly post-race audio clips immediately after each race or upon returning home, typically from his barn. Those clips provided then-rare windows into the personal life of the sport’s most popular figure.

“Dale is notorious for not sleeping well the night after a race,” Davis says. “It’s the first time in days that he could decompress. It wasn’t uncommon for us to drink a beer and just hang out on Sunday nights. We would talk about the race and we kind of realized this could produce the kind of content the post-race interviews just couldn’t capture as soon as he steps out of the car.”

The ability for Earnhardt to use the platform to connect with his fans became increasingly valuable after he was sidelined in 2016 with a concussion that forced him to miss the final 18 races of the season. Seeking a way to update fans beyond 140-character tweets or two-minute videos, Earnhardt became a regular on the show already bearing his name.

Earnhardt began hosting in 2017, and Davis became the regular co-host a year later. An appearance by Kyle Busch in 2020 to discuss their rivalry from a decade earlier was the genesis of the current format, with featured guests and candid interviews with some of the most prominent names in motorsports and pop culture.

“Dale wanted to do a show where we called random people who wrecked him over the years, but we realized there really wasn’t that many people, but there was Kyle at Richmond,” Davis says. “That episode was like therapy, and Dale realized that he really enjoyed the longform style of interview. It’s not even an interview; it’s a conversation, really.”

During an era in which nearly every high-profile athlete has a podcast, “The Download” is required listening due to the conversations that transpire at the table. There, Earnhardt has had incredibly emotional moments with half-brother Kerry Earnhardt, who never knew their father or Dale Jr. until he was 16 years old. Another episode featured a conversation with Ricky Rudd centered around his well-publicized fallout with Earnhardt Sr. A highly rated episode from over the summer featured a deep dive into the final years of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. with veteran team executive Ty Norris.

“No one walks through that door unless Dale has something, he wants to ask them,” Davis says. “I may not always agree with who he wants to have on, but if it’s not authentic to Dale and his interests, it doesn’t work.”

And many of the episodes are Earnhardt having conversations with industry insiders who knew his father. It’s been a way for Earnhardt and his fans to celebrate “The Intimidator” two decades after his passing.

“Some of our most compelling episodes are when Dale can have conversations about his dad that he wouldn’t have anywhere else,” Davis says. “A lot of the show is about coming to terms with what happened in 2001.”

Kenny Schrader was involved in the last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 and was the first to climb out of his car and reach Earnhardt Sr. Dale Jr. had him on the podcast in March 2020 and read aloud a thank-you note for how Schrader has forever protected that moment. “I feel pain for you to have to carry that memory, but you carry it for me and for [sister] Kelley [Earnhardt Miller] and this family,” Earnhardt told him. “You carry that memory for anyone who’s ever cheered for him, and even though I know sometimes you wish you weren’t the one, Kenny, I am grateful it was you.”

At that moment, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

Earnhardt says that his table has become a place where he could comfortably have conversations that wouldn’t happen under any other circumstance.

“We’ve had heavy, heavy conversations,” Earnhardt says. “Kerry meeting dad for the first time; Ty and DEI. I’m keenly aware of the impact this is having. Kenny, and how we’re forever connected by that moment. I’m not sure if I could go have lunch with him and tell him this stuff.

“But in that room, at that table, it gets through. It pours. The podcast is unique and special, and it means a lot to me at this point.”

Earnhardt, Davis and their team have a shared document where anyone can add suggestions for guests. When Earnhardt adds an emoji next to a name, that person is of special interest to the 26-time race winner.

No topic is off-limits, and there is something about that table where everyone who comes on the podcast is willing to open up and reveal their most vulnerable thoughts.

“I think it’s the physical environment,” Earnhardt says of their studio. “A lot of the items on display are from my personal collection, but I encourage everyone to bring things that are important to them. I want us to make this place our own.”

From that standpoint, Earnhardt says the studio is like a home. He wants the guests, even those who may be at their most exposed in this setting, to be immediately disarmed by Earnhardt and his best friends.

“I never want a guest to feel like I’m there to pin them down or get a soundbite,” Earnhardt says. “I don’t want to make anyone look bad. I think they sense that right away. Mike and I aren’t a threat. We’re harmless. There’s nothing intimidating about us. We want everyone to have a good experience.”

The success of “The Dale Jr. Download” has spawned a series of offshoot programs collectively titled Dirty Mo Media. The branding is a reference to an inside joke about Mooresville, N.C., where Earnhardt was raised and where he still resides. His 200-acre property is referred to as Dirty Mo Acres and features a life-sized replica of a Western town called Whisky River.

If the Download is the brand’s main dish each week, “Door, Bumper, Clear” is its dessert. The show is a current-events podcast hosted by active Cup Series spotters TJ Majors, Brett Griffin and Freddie Kraft. Together, they break down the week that was in NASCAR, typically in no-holds-barred, politically incorrect fashion. Well, mostly.

“TJ and I are polar opposites, man,” Griffin says. “I’m like an outdoorsman during the offseason and TJ is an iRacing guy. From a racing standpoint, he’s the most politically correct of us, and I’m extremely blunt. Freddie is somewhere in the middle.”

The point is that all three hosts offer something different to the weekly NASCAR discourse. Sometimes, that discourse becomes a little too pointed, like when a critique of recent race control decisions resulted in all three spotters getting called into the NASCAR hauler during the next race weekend to reach some type of understanding.

Nevertheless, the podcast is authentic — something that Griffin, the most polarizing panelist, says is needed by the sport.

“The key to be a good steward of the sport is to love it,” Griffin says. “That comes natural to me. I have loved this sport since I was like four years old. I have very strong feelings about it. Sometimes, we’re going to hurt feelings — NASCAR, team presidents, media, fans.

“It’s important for us to be whatever comes natural to us. With this podcast, sometimes people are going to like me, and some people hate me. Of course I don’t want it to be canceled, but no one wants it to be less honest either.”

Griffin says NASCAR was at its peak during an era where the sport had an incredibly diverse and robust slate of content creators.

“We had SPEED (channel) and two major networks airing races, and multiple voices writing and talking about the sport,” Griffin says. “That’s healthy. That much content is healthy. I understand NASCAR wants to own that content and control a lot of the messaging, but at the end of the day, it’s also important that fans can get excited over the content and that there is no shortage of personalities to engage with fans in every way possible.”

Both Earnhardt and Griffin tell stories about lapsed fans reaching out to them and citing Dirty Mo Media as a reason they came back to the sport after a hiatus. The studio also recently launched a history podcast titled “Glorious White-Knuckled, God-Fearing, Spun-Out-and-Half-Turned-Over Racing Stories” with former NASCAR Scene editor Rick Houston aimed at the fans of yesteryear.

New for 2022 is “The Burton Continuum,” a nonfiction narrative series that documents the careers of Harrison and Jeb Burton, working to excel in the same way their fathers, Jeff and Ward, did the generation before.

This doesn’t even include the “Lost Speedways” television show featuring Earnhardt and executive producer Matthew Dillner exploring abandoned racetracks across the country and detailing the legendary exploits of those who raced at the venues while they were still active. The show is also produced in-house at Dirty Mo Studios.

Dillner conceived “Lost Speedways” in the mid-2000s as a social media page. It eventually expanded into merchandising before becoming a television show. Dillner just wanted to explore historic racing venues while championing the virtues of modern short tracks in the hopes they wouldn’t follow that path.

“I really enjoy doing the show with Matthew because he is a character,” Earnhardt says. “He is a personality, just like the morning radio personalities we have with ‘The Download’ or ‘Door Bumper Clear.’ Matt doesn’t have to fake it.

“When he goes to a lost speedway, he looks at everything like it’s gold. There is dead interview conversation, or nuts and bolts conversation that we need to edit out because it’s probably boring, but he doesn’t want to cut it because he loves all of it so much.”

All told, Dirty Mo Media is becoming a love letter of sorts to anyone who has ever been passionate about NASCAR at any point in its history. It is content for racing enthusiasts by the ultimate group of racing enthusiasts. The stories contained in its archives are a real-time writing or retelling of the history books, and that’s not totally an accident, according to Davis.

“I don’t know of any other platform where Jerry Nadeau, for example, can speak for an hour,” Davis says. “There are a lot of fans who grew up in an era with Jerry, Ricky Rudd and Jimmy Spencer and have fond memories about them. You might interpret that as a love letter, but that’s just the passion of Dale Jr.”

With that said, Earnhardt is thinking towards the future, too. It could be a decade down the road, but the eponymous figurehead of “The Dale Jr. Download” hopes to expand into other sports and broader areas of pop culture.

“I hope we can create something that blows ‘The Download’ away,” Earnhardt says. “In my mind, I want to create a show or a series of shows outside of motorsports. I would love to work with like a Greg Olsen on a podcast or a show about NFL football.

“I love the motorsports content, and we have so many cool ideas cooking at any given point, so that’s cool too. But I would love to have a business that operates with multiple components. That would be really cool to me.”

To that point, Davis says 2022 is the most important year in the history of Dirty Mo Media. That doesn’t mean it needs to be their most successful, but this year will certainly signal a transition towards that greater shared goal between himself and Earnhardt.

“It’s going to be a defining year,” Davis says. “There are going to be some definite pivot points. We’re going to try to find success in different ways than what we’ve done so far, but just like with how ‘The Download’ has evolved, it’s got to be true to Dale and his interests, and I think you’re going to learn a lot more about the things that excite him beyond NASCAR.”

— Written by Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverRA) for Athlon Sports' 2022 Racing magazine. With 144 pages of racing content, it's the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.