Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans have learned a lot about their favorite former driver since his retirement. First, there was the full extent of the concussions he suffered while racing. Now, there’s the fact that Junior was a pretty avid smoker for a significant part of his career.
Wait, what? Junior had a smoking habit? I was as surprised at the rest of y’all, too.
Jalopnik had the opportunity to chat with Earnhardt Jr. at an event back in May, where Junior filled me in on the habit that he’d managed to keep a secret for a significant duration of his career. Even longtime fans—my husband, my coworker Alanis King, and my close racing friends included—had no idea that smoking was such a huge part of his life; Junior had kept that aspect of his life under wraps for years:
I had a lot of insecurities about smoking and I quit over six years ago. It’s not a story that I openly share with my friends, and it’s something I hid from everybody as much as possible. I was ashamed of it as an athlete. I felt like if people saw me smoking or knew that I smoked, they would think I didn’t take my job seriously and didn’t care about my health.
I quit. I’m so far removed from it. And it would never have been something that I would bring up. There was no catalyst for that conversation to start. I had dropped a few hints in some articles and some books way back, but other than that hardly anybody knew.
Color me—and plenty of other people—surprised. It takes a serious amount of dedication to keep a smoking habit on the down-low. All those years and nobody smelled or saw it.
My husband smokes like a damn chimney, and we’ve had the conversation about him quitting for a while now. Inspired attempts at cutting back on how much he smokes in a day have often failed once things get stressful again. And, since Earnhardt Jr. has been my husband’s favorite driver since, well, forever, I’ll admit my motives were a little selfish when I asked Junior how he finally quit:
I tried many times and failed. I never really put my heart into it. I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to quit. My friends smoked and I loved to socialize. It was a part of it. If you went out and drank and hung out, you smoked. If you played video games or drove your car, you smoked. It went with everything. It was a buddy. I was like, I don’t know how I’m gonna break this… it wasn’t even a habit, it was like a partner in all these activities. How am I gonna ‘do these things without my partner?
I had to quit video games. Like, I’d play video games for hours every day. I had to quit for two years. Cold turkey, no video games. I couldn’t play ‘em without wanting a cigarette. I was like, God, I don’t know how to enjoy games without a cigarette, what the hell’s wrong with me?
One day me and Amy were talking. We’d been dating about a year and a half, and she was encouraging me to quit multiple times. I was like, “okay, I’ll try. Oh darn, I failed!” Finally she came to me and was like, listen, I need you to try. I’m thinking, well, I don’t know. I failed so many times. She was like, will you ever be able to quit? I was like, I don’t know if I’ll actually get it done. I don’t have confidence.
She goes, that’s a problem for me. It will really be a problem for me if you can’t get this out of your system. That’s a deal breaker. And I thought, oh no. I really gotta fix this.
It turns out that love remains one of the best motivators when it comes to changing behavior.