I’ve been pretty clear about the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the reason that I became a NASCAR fan and subsequently a NASCAR blogger. I’ve chronicled what it meant to me to get to stand in on one of his press conferences and how the MTV documentary “True Life: I’m a a race car driver” is what piqued my interest in racing.
So when I heard that Jade Gurss, Dale Jr’s former publicist, who worked with him from 1999 through 2007, had written a book about Dale’s 2001 season I was intrigued. I knew the book, titled “In The Red” would be wonderful and once I read it, I wasn’t at all disappointed. If you’re a Dale Jr. fan you’ve probably already read it, but if you haven’t you should. And even if you aren’t a fan of Junior, you should take the time because it gives you even more insight into the world of NASCAR outside of just racing. The first chapter made me cry and a good portion of it served to illustrate how difficult it is to be a public person dealing with something that’s usually a private matter: the loss of a parent.
One of my favorite quotes from the show “Seinfeld” is from Jerry Seinfeld’s mom when she says, “How could anyone not like him???” when it’s brought up that there are people that could possibly not like her son. I feel that way about Dale Jr. How could anyone not like him?? When you read “In The Red” you’ll ask yourself the exact same question.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Jade, who was recently the Director of Corporate Communications for the IndyCar outfit Andretti Autosport, about the book, Dale Jr. and a bit about what life is like at the track for a driver’s publicist. Check it out below, it’s good stuff!
ME: So why did you want to write “In the Red”?
JADE: We did the first book, “Driver #8″, Dale and I, and had always talked off and on about doing another. Though in latter years I joke it was primarily me talking about doing another. And he finally reached a point where he just was not interested in doing another book. Obviously for him as driver/team owner, his schedule is hectic enough without a book being involved and trying to book media tours and autograph sessions and all that. It honestly was just an issue of he just didn’t feel like he could devote the time to do another.
So I kind of waited to see with what felt like such a sensitive topic of his father’s death. I had to wait for what I felt was the right time. And I — honestly I don’t know if any time is ever the right time. You know, that was kind of an issue, but I participated in a documentary called, “The Day”, with NASCAR Media Group and SPEED, that was really well received. It had a lot of people that had not done interviews about that day previously. Whether it was Richard Childress or Ty Norris, and it got such a positive response from people that that was sort of the spark that really got me thinking and really kind of pushed me forward into finally making the decision to do the book.
ME: Reading this book, first of all, was a huge deal for me. And you talked about, in the book, Dale doing the “True Life: I’m a race car driver” documentary with MTV and that’s what pulled me into the sport. I saw the Daytona 500 and knew about Dale Earnhardt’s’ death and you know obviously there’s a lot of media surrounding that. So everybody knew about it. But when that documentary came out it was the thing that got me to start watching every weekend. And I became a Dale Jr. fan and I wanted to read everything about him. So I read “Driver #8″ and now I love this book because it was kind of validation, like, see, it wasn’t just me that saw that documentary and was drawn in. So thank you, first of all, for that. It was really cool to kind of go back and remember things and, “Yeah, I remember watching that.” And learning about sort of what Dale’s headspace was like at that time.
When that documentary came out what was the immediate response from people in NASCAR and what were fans — did you run into people who were like, “Oh I saw that and I watch NASCAR now.”?
JADE: Yeah. It was — and we talk about it in the book. It was kind of a one-two punch with [MTV’s] “Cribs.” And it’s always hard. One of the things that I hoped to do in the book, that I really fought to convey, is how much different the media landscape was in 2001 versus 2011 or 2012. It was rather innovative at that time for a particular show to air over and over at various times through the week, at 2:00 AM in the morning. And so from our standpoint, you know, even bigger sort of targets that we have done, they air once and then they sort of dissipate into the ether.
And those really kind of built a grand swell or a buzz. But because they were aired so many different times it allowed people to really — to see it and tell their buddies, or if it was someone like you, one of the new fans that wanted to see it again — it was the perfect time and the perfect outlet for Dale Jr. at that — you know, at that moment and time. So I would say between the True Life and the Cribs — I think those two, more than almost any other thing that we did — even today people still comment on it, react to it, you know, from so long ago.
ME: So how did you approach, you know, when you had to first start working with Dale because you were working for Anheuser Busch, it wasn’t like he picked you and said, “Oh I want him.” It was sort of like they assigned you to him. So how did you deal with that and how did you sort of like build that relationship because if I was in that position I would be freaked out, “I want you to like me, so like me.”
JADE: Yeah, you know it was something that I thought a lot about prior to that. I had done some NASCAR work in the early days of the ‘90s. But sort of the second half of the 90s I had worked for Mercedes Benz. So part of my concern was being perceived as either an outsider or as an IndyCar guy. And I’ve been around enough to know that these guys are just inundated with people that want their time and attention and are always sort of clamoring for whatever attention they can get.
So to me it was important to establish right away that I understood the sport, I understood his position. So really the first time that he and I met, I knew that he really loved music, which was a big thing for me. So I know it sounds like a bad cliché, but basically I brought him a CD of stuff that I was listening to that I thought he might enjoy, which is kind of funny. Because you associate a mixed tape with sort of romance, you know making tapes for women and all that.
But it was just primarily, for lack of a better term, an icebreaker. You know, a chance just to sit down and talk about music and things other than racing. And even in the book I talk about it, that sort of became a big part of what kind of helped us find some of the success was being in Rolling Stone, or taking advantage of the MTV stuff. And you know, a love of music really helped drive a lot of that for him and for me as well.
ME: How many years were you with Dale?
JADE: I came aboard late in ’99 and then was with him through the end of ’07, which was essentially his entire Budweiser era, the Bud years. So eight full seasons, and then part of that initial ’99 when he did five races to keep his rookie status.
ME: So you probably know his personality as well as anybody in his family does. To me, Dale Jr. has always been one of those drivers that kind of — his personality is pretty much out there. He doesn’t seem to be putting up a different version of himself to the media than maybe he is personally. Obviously I can’t know if that’s really true, but it seems to me that he’s not that different. I got the chance to talk to him once and interview him using my “Inside the Actor’s Studio” questions that I’ve been doing with all the drivers.
And there are drivers where you interview them and they’re already set in this mode of, “Okay, I’m in a media situation, they’re going to ask me about my car, my team, about what I’m doing next year.” And they’re already set to answer. So when I ask them what their favorite sound is, they don’t — they’re like, “What?” So they have to recalibrate. But with him, he’s kind of like — he’s open to it, he’s already there. Like he wasn’t set in some specific mode already.
JADE: Yeah, well that was a very, very conscious directive from Anheuser Busch, was that they wanted him to be real. They wanted people to really see who he was. I mean I’m a believer in the kind of robo-drivers coming up; with all this media training. And I think there are great benefits to the training, but you know, they use these robotic answers to every question. And we didn’t want that.
We wanted his personality to come through. And it was the perfect guy with the perfect sponsor, at the perfect time. And I think that that’s why — even though he went through such a horrid dry spell here in the last couple of years — his fan base stuck with him because he’s a real person and that’s who he really is. I mean you’re not cheering for some robotron or something. And I think that’s part of why his success has continued for so long is just that exact fact that he’s a real guy and he’s open to sharing that with the media.
ME: How have you seen him change over the years since his rookie year? To me he seems a lot more, I guess, comfortable but not as out there as he was in his rookie season, or even in 2001.
JADE: Yeah, you know, and I’ve not worked with him, like I said, since the end of ’07. So what I — what frustrates me is people that try to theorize about him like from the outside rather than from the inside. So I don’t want to claim any particular expertise. You know, we all grow up from age 25 to 35. You know, I think that’s a natural — but my perception is he’s back to having some fun.
I think him having a longtime steady girlfriend I think has been big for him. And I’m happy and pleased for him on that basis. And so I think he just — he handled the frustrations pretty well but kind of didn’t seem like he was enjoying it as much as he used to. And I hope that came through in the book. Win or lose we were probably having more fun than almost any other team out there.
ME: That definitely came through. The thing I love about it is that when you’re reading these stories that you don’t — these are things you can’t know when you’re watching a race, you know? Even if you’re listening on the radio you still don’t have the whole cohesive story, you know what I mean? You don’t know what happened that morning, you don’t know what happened the day before, or what they’re still thinking about from the previous race, or what he’s referencing from two years ago when this other guy wrecked him.
I mean, it’s hard to get that whole picture which what’s so wonderful about the book is that you’re getting that whole sort of — and having that resolution of things that happened before and in this moment. So it was really good to see that and you kind of — you get the bigger picture out of it. So do you have any plans to do 2002? That would be wonderful. I think you should write up every single year you were with him.
JADE: Yeah, you know, we laugh that it was a brilliant stroke of happenstance that we chose that one, just that one year, because it certainly makes the sequel and the follow up — it gives you a franchise kind of thing, you know? This — my new job here with Andretti is right now is pretty much all enveloping. So it’s not something that I’m actively working on at the moment but never say never. And the IndyCar season has more of a true off-season than NASCAR does.
So maybe at some point down the road I can do both. But no, there is very much a conscious thought that there are several more books out there from that time frame. I think each year is compelling. I think 2004 is probably comparable to ’01 as far as just the highs and lows and just some of the most amazing things that happened. But when I sat down to research this, you know you forget some of the best stories until you start putting it all back together. So there’s certainly a lot each season of his career that is worthy of that story being told at some point.
ME: Is there anything that you didn’t get to put in the book that you wish you had, that you remembered later?
JADE: You know, not really. The fact that it was a decade or so ago — it’s just the writer’s process, the sense of rebuilding something from memory that is older than a few weeks ago. It’s like watching old home movies; they have sort of a different color or a different glow to them than anything that was shot this morning. So the same thing applies as far as doing a book like that in the sense that a lot of the more critical elements are still there, are still lodged in the memory bank and sort of the superfluous stuff tends to drop away a little bit.
But like I said, the research was actually kind of the fun part of it for me because I had forgotten some of the stories and some of the events or you know, or you do it so many years you forget that this particular thing happened in this year and the other. So for me that was a fun reliving was the research part of the project. And then the challenge for me was to take all those notes and materials and put it in book form.
ME: So what did you learn about yourself in the time that you were Dale’s PR person? Or what did you learn about yourself or realize, if anything, when you were writing the book and reliving — remembering these things?
JADE: Well doing the book I learned that practice makes perfect. Really this is my third full book. And I never really been proud of the first two in the sense that I thought they were really well written. I think both the book I did with Jr. and the book I did with Waltrip — I think they’re entertaining, but I don’t think they’re examples of really good writing. And I think this one — if my ego will allow me to — I think this one I can say I’m really, really proud of or that the writing is actually more something I’m proud of that I would share with anybody and say, “Now here’s my story, see what you think.”
I think that applies to anybody no matter what job you do. I’ve been in motor sports for more than 20 years and this — in my first year here with Andretti, man I was a rookie. I’ve done this a lot but there are still just nuances and things I’m still learning each week about this particular job. And I’ll really kick butt next year. I won’t be a rookie, but I think no matter what your choice in life is as far as your vocation or your career, it takes that polish or that practice or that sort of refinement to really reach the point where you can claim to be satisfied. And I’m pretty hard on myself, but I will admit that I’m pretty proud of this one when I turned in the manuscript it felt like I’d done a much better job on this one than the others.
Me: And as the PR person for someone as high profile as Dale, I noticed that his current PR people and people that work with him — a lot of the time they spend at the track is keeping people away and sort of crowd control. Was it like that when you were with him and what was that like to be working with the most popular driver in NASCAR?
JADE: Yes. And I hated it. I hated being a bodyguard. And I don’t know how heavily I portrayed that in the book but it just was not a role that I was very well equipped for or was not trained or prepared for. And I did it because there really wasn’t anyone else there to do it. I give NASCAR credit. In the past five, six years they’ve really stepped up as far as security staff and people that can help when you’re trying to get through crowds and things. But in the early days it just was not the case. And that was sort of the least favorite element of what I did with him.
It definitely had layers of stress that I would of preferred to have had someone with a little more expertise at that. And I used to joke that I was a pretty nice guy on Friday morning, but come race day on Sunday after three days of just being bombarded I was usually pretty well spent, so I was much less pleasant and nice to be around by the time the green flag hit. But I loved that because then it was our time to do what we’re paid to do. So yeah, so hopefully if anyone met me in that era, they met me on Friday or early Saturday before Sunday.
ME: Yeah, it seems to me that that has to be the most annoying thing. I loved in the book when Dale was frustrated with all the people in the garage and he purposely went over to the NASCAR hauler and was signing autographs out front so they could feel the pain of all these people.
JADE: Oh yeah. That is a great story ’cause his dad had done that. Actually that — the day he did that — a lot of times for him it was more irritating when the crowds got in the way of his crew or his guys being able to do their job. He handles it pretty well when we were — trying to get from A to B. But when it became an issue of the crew guys not being able to get to the car or to the hauler, whatever the scenario was, that would irritate him more than anything.
Or if he was in a conversation with his cousin, Tony Jr., or something and somebody would interrupt, he didn’t take that too kindly. So you know, the NASCAR hauler was something that he got from his dad that was always — it was always pretty funny because it was pretty clear what he was doing. The NASCAR folks essentially — they weren’t trapped in, they could go out a side door — it was his way of showing them what it was like for his crew guys trying to repair a winning race car.
ME: Yeah. If you ever ask a crew guy about the crowds they always handle it in a PC way. Like they know what to say and not to say and not be negative. But that has to be annoying when there’s all these people around — in your office basically — and sort of impeding your ability to do your job to a certain degree, so…
JADE: Well again it’s a different era now than it has been in the past. You know, the first couple of years they didn’t even have what I guess you now call a “hot” pit pass. Where now you have “cold” passes where people can visit the garage at certain times but then they have to leave when the practice or whatever begins. But in the early days if you had a pit pass you could camp out there all weekend if you liked. And he was very afraid of hurting anyone or kids.
You know, you’d get this mass of people following you or rushing toward you or you get in confined spaces and people can fall down and get stepped on or run over. And it was always an issue that we sort of had fear that something would happen that would injure a child or a fan or whatever.
ME: Yeah. In terms of the media, how — it seems to me, and this is just me, I’m like a newbie — although I’ve been doing the blog now for six years, I’ve been around the whole NASCAR media thing for a while, but it seems like the opportunity to do something new and different isn’t as — isn’t as much as an option, not an option, but it just feels like there’s a lot of things that have been done. Do you think that there’s the ability to do something new and different or that there’s still all these opportunities that drivers and NASCAR haven’t really taken?
I interviewed Liz Clarke about her book “One Hell of a Ride” and she wrote about driving with Dale Sr. in his truck, on his property. It’s like, you can’t do that anymore. Like that doesn’t happen. So what do you think? Are there opportunities to do something that unique — and have that access to drivers? And what does that take?
To me it seems like you very much have to sort of get in with a driver and become friends and develop a relationship and there’s definitely a lot of relationship building because everybody has their PR people and so it’s hard to kind of get that access.
JADE: Yeah, you know, again I can say things like he was perfect guy, he had the perfect personality. He was willing to do things like invite a Rolling Stone reporter to come hang out at his house, or the weekend in his motor coach, or whatever. And not everyone is comfortable with that. Some people are just not at ease with that kind of thing. It was something that Junior was really good at and something he really worked hard to be accessible in that manner.
And so I think you have to take each scenario differently. I don’t think you have to be close friends to be able to write a good story, or whatever. But a little bit of intimacy is not a bad thing. But I don’t know, it does just depend on the person. If the interview subject is willing and ready. If they’re not, nothing you can do will pull that out of them in some way shape or form.
ME: Do you think there are certain drivers that are better at media and showing their personality — their true personality while keeping their sponsors in consideration? Like James Hinchcliffe is very gregarious, he has that outgoing personality and he seems to be very good at being himself but also doing his sponsor duties and things like that. I mean in NASCAR, do you see anybody who’s on Dale’s level of being more open?
JADE: I think you do have some drivers that are better than others just the same way you have drivers that are better than road courses and some that are better at short tracks and whatever. I think a lot of the NASCAR guys do a good job. And I’ll point to Jimmie Johnson as an example. I think in his early days his true personality didn’t come through. And I think as he continued to sort of open up and you could follow his Twitter feed and find that he’s actually a pretty funny and pretty entertaining guy. And it was something that hadn’t been really shown in the past.
So I would use him as the example of someone whose PR and whose media capacity has grown and improved through the years. But yeah, you know, I don’t want to single out guys, but there are guys that could take 10 years or training or they could do it for 20 years and never get to the comfort level on camera with a mic in their face. You know, we all have different personalities, so — so it’s — I mean and that’s one of the challenges of being a good publicist is to find the right mix or the right venue for your athlete.
You mentioned James Hinchcliffe, and my role at Andretti, we’ve got Hinch who’s outgoing, happy-go-lucky, very gregarious, we’ve got Marco Andretti, who is an inherently more shy person — really fun sort of behind the scenes, but again is just not really out there scrapping for every media opportunity, it’s just not his personality. And you have Ryan Hunter-Reay who’s, I guess, kind of in between the two, just the most earnest, all-American guy you could ever hope to meet. And just trying to find the right opportunities for each of them is a big challenge.
And so that’s something that a publicist has to really understand with athletes or whether you’re a small company who’s CEO wants to be on camera but just doesn’t have the personality. As a publicist you’ve got to find the right outlet, the right scenarios for that person that you’re working for or working with.