Once estranged from his half-brother and late father, Kerry Earnhardt has come full circle.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002
DAYTONA BEACH -- It's the voice.
The easy drawl, the steady pitch, the muffled tone. So familiar, so soothing. A voice you thought you never would hear again after Dale Earnhardt died.
Close your eyes and listen.
It's his voice.
When the son speaks, you hear Dale Earnhardt. No, not that son. The oldest son. The son still struggling to make his way in stock car racing. The son so like the father.
The other son.
Kerry Earnhardt isn't the newest celebrity icon in NASCAR; that's Dale Earnhardt Jr. But Kerry, Dale Jr.'s older half-brother, is the spittin' image of their legendary father, from physical appearance, mannerisms and interests to his serpentine quest to fulfill the family legacy.
At 32, Kerry finally has his best opportunity in racing as rookie driver of the No.12 Chevrolet in the Busch Grand National series. If he one day competes alongside Dale Jr. in Winston Cup, which he hopes to do in two more years, he will have gotten there the hard way.
Like his father.
"We've struggled a lot, but now I feel like everything is just right," said Kerry, who will compete Friday in the Stacker 2/GNC Live Well 250 at Daytona International Speedway. "My family is established. I have my wife, Rene, and three kids and they have what they need. Now, I can focus on my racing career."
When Earnhardt, a seven-time champion and NASCAR's "Intimidator," was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, the racing world became fascinated with all things Earnhardt. It already knew Dale Jr., a rising superstar possessing not only his father's name but his considerable talent. It discovered another son striving toward the same goals, traveling a vastly different course.
The oldest of Earnhardt's four children, Kerry Dale Earnhardt was born during Earnhardt's first marriage to Latane Brown. Earnhardt wanted to name the baby Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr., but Brown did not. His next wife was more agreeable.
A year after Kerry was born, his parents divorced and Kerry did not see his father from age 5 to 16. Brown married Jack Key, who adopted Kerry and whose surname Kerry used as a child.
"I wouldn't give anything in the world for the times I had with my dad, Jack," Kerry said. "He took me fishing and took me golfing and we had a lot of fun. When I went late-model racing, he was one of my crew members. I'm very fortunate to have someone like that step in and raise me the way he did. I'm very proud of him."
Yet, Kerry bears an uncanny resemblance to his biological father: the brown hair and eyes, the devilish sense of humor, even the bushy mustache that curls up at the corners when he smiles. In the garage, Kerry makes everyone look twice.
"He reminds me a lot more of his father than Dale Jr. does," said Winston Cup regular Jeff Burton, who has run a few BGN races this season. "He looks like his dad, acts like his dad, talks like his dad."
Kerry and Dale Jr. did not meet until they were teenagers. Two years later, in 1992, they shared an apartment and, for kicks, bought a 1978 Monte Carlo and took turns driving it at local tracks.
"We didn't grow up together, so we didn't have any animosities toward each other about anything in the past," said Dale Jr., 27, one of two children from the second of Earnhardt's three marriages. "We both came into the deal brand new as far as the racing was concerned. We didn't know who was better and that never came into our minds.
"I didn't even think I was going to be a racecar driver. Then it got a little more serious and a little more serious. It's not that I made the best of my situation and he didn't. Kerry had other things that were more of a priority to him, so he wasn't able to make the sacrifices that I was."
Kerry had a family.
Much like his father, Kerry dropped out of high school, got married, had two sons -- Bobby and Jeffrey, now in their teens -- and took whatever jobs he could to support his family. Kerry divorced and later married Rene, who has a 10-year-old daughter, Blade.
"I worked at Pizza Hut, in the garage changing oil and pumping gas, in textiles at Fieldcrest Cannon," Kerry said. "I kept playing with things trying to find out what I wanted to do. Then my brother and I ran some Busch races together and had a good time with that. Right then, I knew that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to race. I loved it."
But as Dale Jr.'s career took off under his father's tutelage at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Kerry's stalled because he could not commit. As Dale Jr. won BGN titles in 1998 and '99, Kerry bounced around local tracks and a failed BGN team, developing a reputation for wrecking cars.
"I was trying too hard," he said.
He asked for his father's help. The same year Dale Jr. won twice as a Winston Cup rookie, Kerry ran the 2000 ARCA series using Steve Park's old Winston Cup cars from DEI. Kerry won his first race of any type that year at Pocono.
He was an instant fan favorite.
Also in 2000, Earnhardt convinced owner Dave Marcis to let Kerry run the No.71 in a Winston Cup race at Michigan. For the second time in NASCAR, a father and two sons raced together as the Earnhardts joined the Pettys, whose patriarch Lee and sons Richard and Maurice did it in 1960.
Finally, doors were opening.
In 2001, Kerry won three times in five ARCA starts and made three BGN starts for owner Michael Waltrip, a close friend of his father's. That led to the BGN ride this year with owner Armando Fitz and partner Terry Bradshaw, the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.
With Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, in control, DEI supports Kerry's first-year BGN team with cars, motors, engineering and marketing. Though the season is not what Kerry hoped -- 18th in points with two top 10s in 16 races, and he starts 32nd in today's BGN Live Well 250 at the Milwaukee Mile -- he is learning.
"He wants it really bad," said Burton, whom Kerry seeks out for advice in the BGN garage. "I'm sure it's difficult for him to watch his half-brother have a lot of success and he struggles with it. But he certainly has potential. The deal he's in this year is a new deal and it takes time to grow those things. He just needs to worry about who he is and not try to fill anyone else's shoes."
Kerry will try to qualify for the Winston Cup race at Talladega in October with plans to enter more events in 2003. The Fitz-Bradshaw team hopes to move to Winston Cup full-time in 2004.
"I think he's got some people who are going to stay behind him," Dale Jr. said. "Kerry's had success in the past, but he hasn't had anybody who ever believed in him. I think he's got that now."
While Dale Jr., blonde and blue-eyed, spends his idle hours surfing the Internet or writing, Kerry inherited his father's love of the outdoors and hunting. He runs up and down mountain ridges chasing deer, turkey and elk. While Dale Jr. appears in rock videos and entertains at "Club E" in the basement of his house, Kerry cranks up Brooks&Dunn, also a country music favorite of his father's.
"He's a lot like Daddy," Dale Jr. said.
And not at all bitter.
Not about the distance between he and his father when he was a child, not about the struggles he went through supporting his family, not about the skyrocketing fame of his younger half-brother or the famous name that might have been his.
"I don't know what's to be jealous about," Kerry said. "We're both racing and both doing what we love to do. We both got to share time with our father when we were older. I'm fortunate.
"There's a lot of time I lost, but there was a lot of time I gained."