GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Amid the earsplitting shrieks of 12,000 short-track speedskating-obsessed South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Dutch, the man 15 times named NASCAR’s most popular driver slipped into Gangneung Ice Arena on Thursday night and took a seat without drawing a passing glance.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew a thing or two about turning left as a two-time Daytona 500 winner. But he was no Hwang Daeheon or Lim Hyojun whipping around on the ice, arms and legs furiously pumping in a four-skater cyclone, with South Korea’s gold medal hopes riding on their razor-thin blades.
The anonymity was welcome. It was fitting, too, as Earnhardt, at 43, is embarking on his second act in life after retiring from stock-car racing at the end of last season, his 19th in NASCAR’s top ranks.
He is in South Korea, as his navy parka suggested, as a member of NBC’s Olympic broadcast team. Hired initially to provide stock-car racing analysis when NBC takes over the second half of the 2018 NASCAR season, he got a surprising jump on the job when network officials announced in January that he’d make his debut as a special contributor for their most high-profile properties: Super Bowl LII and the 2018 Winter Olympics.
A third-generation racer who was born in North Carolina and weaned on motor oil, Earnhardt had little firsthand experience with winter sports. He skated once as a child. In January, he skied for the first time and loved it, taking a lesson in Aspen, Colo., from a buddy of fellow racer Jimmie Johnson. But his role in PyeongChang is that of an Everyman, of sorts — relaying the Games through the lens of a first-time Olympic-goer who just happens to know a lot about speed.
“Shhh!” the race announcer instructs the crowd after the four skaters line up for the first semifinal in the men’s 500 meters — short-track speedskating’s marquee event of pedal-to-the-metal madness. The starting gun fires, and Earnhardt’s paranormal ability to process information at 200 mph (all great racecar drivers have it) kicks in.
“Watch the Canadian! He’s in second!” Earnhardt blurts out as the skaters round the tight corner. “Two laps to go! He’s in good position . . .
“He’s gonna make a move . . . Ah! Not gonna do it!”
The Canadian, Samuel Girard, advances nonetheless.
Earnhardt is even more geeked for the next semifinal because it includes two South Koreans. He has been studying the sport for weeks in advance of this assignment, poring over races of the top skaters on YouTube, getting up at 5 a.m. to watch speedskating on TV. He understands the sport’s prominence in South Korea and knows which competitors are likely to dictate events.
“This place is about to go crazy!” he predicts. And the crowd erupts at the sound of the gun.
“He’s gonna pass him! Gonna pass . . . there he goes, inside!” he says as Hwang passes on the inside lane. “Ooh, now he’s back by him!” The South Koreans finish 1-2 and advance.
During a break for ice resurfacing, Earnhardt joins NBC play-by-play announcer Ted Robinson and analyst Apolo Ohno, the United States’ most decorated speedskater, for a quick chat in the booth overlooking the rink. They ask his impressions of the Winter Olympics’ “NASCAR on ice,” as the sport is often described.
He has more to say as he heads back to his seat to watch more, with the women’s 1,000-meter heats alternating with the men’s 500. The parallels with NASCAR jump out — a hybrid of the bumping and banging of a short track such as Bristol Motor Speedway and the high-stakes roulette of restrictor-plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway.
“The danger. The potential for being taken out by another skater. Calamity and aggression,” Earnhardt notes. “There’s a lot of cool similarities in the thought process of the athlete and the thought process of the driver. There is some gamesmanship; the chess-match mentality of when to [pass]. There is some intimidation. The South Koreans are so good — especially the women — that you get the sense their opponents are already defeated before it’s over with. They just go to the outside and pass with ease.”
Earnhardt grew up watching his father race on TV, and announcers such as Benny Parsons, Ken Squier and Barney Hall painted words to the late Dale Earnhardt’s stock-car mastery.
“I daydreamed about being able to call races, but I never thought I would,” he recalled. “I didn’t see myself as having the voice. I had never even been in a position to do it — to know. How do you know you can do it?”
A bad crash in 2016 gave Earnhardt the opportunity. He’d had at least two concussions prior, and the impact of this collision left symptoms so debilitating that he opted to sit out the second half of the season to recover. During the break in competition, he had a trial run in the broadcast booth and loved it.
“It was way more fun than I even thought!” he said. So he told NBC that if it had interest, he’d love to try broadcasting once he gave up racing. He knew that time was coming. He worried about additional head injuries; he and his wife, Amy, also were eager to start a family.
Since landing in South Korea on Tuesday afternoon, Earnhardt has been running on caffeine. The three weeks prior were crazy. He flew to Minneapolis for the Super Bowl and soon after headed to Florida, where he was the grand marshal of the first Daytona 500 he hadn’t competed in since 1999, climbing the flag stand to issue the command of “Drivers, start your engines!”
Afterward, he flew home to North Carolina and stayed up all night so he’d be sleepy for the 15-hour flight to Seoul the next day. During a three-hour layover in Atlanta, he and Mike Davis, managing director for Earnhardt’s self-named company, recorded their weekly podcast, “Dale Jr. Download,” forecasting their trip to the Olympics.
Wednesday, their first full day in South Korea, brought the chance to watch Lindsey Vonn compete in the final downhill race of her career. The speed floored him. “It’s just blazing speed!” he gasped. “It just seems so incredibly daring. I want to say ‘dangerous,’ but it’s more daredevil-ish. Just so impressive.”
He also studied the “line” each racer chose on the course, struck by the unforgiving margin for error.
Thursday’s itinerary was an Olympic fan’s dream.
It started at 9:30 a.m. with the women’s big air event. Like most 40-somethings, Earnhardt had no reference point for snowboarding’s cab double cork 1080. He just had awe: “These women — they’re so young! How does a 16-year-old get to that level of competition? They go down those things and do these big moves and slide down and land, and they’ve got this great smile on their face. And there’s no fear! There’s not even a game-face! They’re just so happy! Everybody’s having a great time. Whoever wins, they’re all a sisterhood. It’s really cool.”
From there, he went to bobsled training at the Olympic Sliding Centre, where he met three-time Olympian Nick Cunningham, with whom he’d struck up a friendship via social media two years ago. Earnhardt’s questions tumbled out. As a racecar driver, he explained, he could easily tell if he was doing well: He was either leading or had the leaders in sight. But how did a bobsled pilot, competing alone on a timed course, know if he was having a great run? Was it something he could feel? Then he wanted to know more about the sled itself, fascinated to learn that, under the rules, it could be fine-tuned by mechanics, much like a stock car, until the day of competition.
At each opportunity, Earnhardt turned his status as an all-access Olympic spectator into on-the-job broadcasting training.
“I feel confident when I feel prepared, so I just ask a lot of questions,” he explained. “I try to be inquisitive, to get as much information as I can. That’s going to give me confidence to go into that kind of fish-out-of-water area and embrace my ignorance and be inquisitive. If I think a thought about asking something, I ask it.”
After extracting a promise of a future bobsled ride at the Lake Placid, N.Y., training center, he and Davis sped to the U.S.-Canada gold medal women’s hockey game, arriving shortly before the 2-2 deadlock led to an American triumph in a shootout that was 20 years in the making.
Earnhardt’s night ended at short track, where the Olympic fish out of water was again on more familiar, solid ground — even though it was ice. There was furious lane-changing. There were pileups that sent competitors skidding into the padded barriers. There were passionate, screaming fans.
And soaking it all in was a champion in his own right, only too happy to disappear in the crowd.