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Inside NASCAR: Earnhardt, Nadeau help each other to take next step

March 09, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Rookie Earnhardt, 'mentor' Nadeau are helping one another to take the next step

He's an Earnhardt, all right, no doubt about it. That much becomes evident the moment he walks into the trailer. All of the physical characteristics are there -- his dad's half-smile, his uncle's brushy hair and hint of stubble, even his grandfather's piercing gaze. Then there's the last name, the most famous in modern stock-car racing, which leads kids romping through the Camping World Truck Series garage area to stop and grab a handful of the hero cards available outside of his transporter, even if they're not exactly sure who he is.

Jeffrey Earnhardt hopes to change that. The Truck Series rookie -- son of Kerry, nephew of Dale Jr., and grandson to the Intimidator himself -- is proof that being an Earnhardt comes with no guarantees. His last full-time NASCAR ride was three years ago, in a regional touring series. His big career break, a contract to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc., fell apart along with that organization's motorsports program. Now the fourth generation of the racing Earnhardt clan is starting fresh with Rick Ware Racing, complete with a pair of bright yellow stripes on the back bumper of his No. 1 truck.

"You have people come up, fans, friends, and say, 'Jerry, you look great, why aren't you racing?' I heard it this morning at the restaurant. I don't know. It's tough to swallow sometimes. But this is it."

--Jerry Nadeau

"I've come a long way from going to running full-time with DEI, to running part-time deals here and there, to now back to a full-time deal," said Earnhardt, 21. "The past two years have been tough. It definitely hasn't been easy from a driver's standpoint doing part-time deals. It sucks. It's hard on a driver. At some point, I'm like, 'Am I ever going to get anything going my way?' You've just got keep digging, can't give up. I kept trying, kept looking for opportunities and trying to find rides, and this deal came together."

It's a chance Earnhardt wants to take advantage of, particularly since he's spent the past few years in a kind of motorsports limbo, and developed a reputation for being tough on equipment in the handful of national-series starts he's had during that span. So the people around him have brought in a little outside help -- someone who knows something about climbing the career ladder in NASCAR, about being young and headstrong, about how it can be so much harder to slow down than to speed up. Earnhardt has been paired with a driving coach who has experienced the highest and the lowest the sport has to offer.

Wearing a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, Jerry Nadeau blends right in with the crew members coming and going in the No. 1 hauler. Much like the driver he's working with, it's been a while since he's been at the race track with any degree of regularity, but for very different reasons. A head injury suffered in a 2003 crash at Richmond prematurely ended the career of a driver who had won the Cup season finale at Atlanta just three years earlier. The effects are still there -- his left side always feels like it's asleep. He'll never compete in a race car again, a sad reality that so overwhelmed him, he stayed away from the race track for nearly four years.

"I got tired of just going to the tracks and having that feeling of, 'Oh God, I want to be out there,'" said Nadeau, still as affable and engaging as he's always been. To meet him, you'd never think he still bore hidden scars from his accident -- which is part of the problem. "You have people come up, fans, friends, and say, 'Jerry, you look great, why aren't you racing?' I heard it this morning at the restaurant. I don't know. It's tough to swallow sometimes. But this is it."

For someone who knew only racing, the abrupt transition to life outside the car has been a painful one. And yet, here he is, back at the race track, grabbing a pair of yellow headphones with his name on them, heading up to the spotter's stand where he watches the race. There Nadeau gives Earnhardt advice over the radio that has more to do with focus and perspective than actually driving the vehicle. Afterward he'll come back down to the garage and they'll talk some more, sometimes about things like the right lines to take around a race track, more likely about big-picture topics like how to take care of equipment and stay composed behind the wheel.

Meet Jeffrey Earnhardt and Jerry Nadeau, student and teacher. They are two drivers in the midst of two very different journeys, one trying to capture the subtle mechanics that can launch a career to the next level, one trying to recapture the fulfillment those capabilities once provided. And yet, they need each other for the same reason -- to figure out where to go next.

All to nothing

It would be easy to understand if Jeffrey Earnhardt thought his career was set in motion in 2007, when he signed a four-year contract to drive for DEI. The team his grandfather had founded was still a three-car entity clinging to its place among the upper level of NASCAR organizations, winning a race with Martin Truex Jr. at Dover, and with Dale Earnhardt Jr. still piloting the flagship No. 8 car. "Signing with DEI is a dream come true," Jeffrey said at the time. The plans were to start him in the then-Busch East regional series, and then move up to the Nationwide tour.

Those long-term plans never materialized. Earnhardt Jr. left DEI for Hendrick Motorsports, a fact that, combined with a looming recession, led sponsors to desert DEI in droves. Soon the once-proud DEI franchise was teetering, and Jeffrey's career hopes along with it. Although DEI still operates as a provider of parts and research and development services, it has not fielded an active race team since late 2008.

Earnhardt, with Nadeau watching from above, finished seventh in his debut at Daytona. (Getty Images)

"Jerry's been in the sport forever. ... To have someone like him just there for mental support, mainly, is huge, because he's been there through the pressure. "

--JEFFREY EARNHARDT

"It was a shock for everybody, I think, to see DEI go from such a high stature to down to nothing," Jeffrey said. "It was tough, because I signed my four-year contract with them not expecting that to happen. Then next thing you know, everything went downhill and you're left with nothing to drive. It was tough. We kept looking for little part-time deals and trying to put some full-time stuff together, and nothing came through until now."

In between, though, Earnhardt was left to scramble. In 2008 he wound up running much of another season in what is now K&N Pro Series East, and struggled to find seat time at the national levels. A hoped-for Nationwide debut at Dover in 2009 was scratched when Earnhardt was the only driver to fail to qualify for the race. He did make two starts for owner Curtis Key later in the season, and last year ran five Truck races for the same Rick Ware Racing team he's driving for now. But there was nothing consistent, a fact reflected in the finishes, and often visible in body damage to whatever vehicle he was racing.

"It definitely makes you think about how much you want it," Earnhardt said. "It shows how bad you want something when you stick through two years of part-time deals and struggling. There are a lot of guys out there doing it. There are guys who have been doing it for longer than I've had to. It's tough mentally to go through that, and not have the opportunities and not have the rides and things like that. But obviously if you try hard enough, eventually something will come through."

Something did for 2011, when Earnhardt's representatives, with help from sponsor Fuel Doctor, cobbled together what's scheduled to be a full-time ride with Ware's team for this season. Tanya Hall, vice president for motorsports at Jeffrey Earnhardt Inc. and Fuel Doctor Racing -- and referred to as "boss" inside the No. 1 truck -- brought in Joe Lax as crew chief and assembled the pit crew. She also made one other personnel move. Understanding that a driver with Jeffrey's last name faces increased attention and expectations, she called her friend Nadeau and asked if he'd be interested in coming aboard to provide guidance.

The two had met once before. In 2003 when Earnhardt was prepping for a General Motors developmental combine in Nashville, he went to Nadeau's place at the urging of his father Kerry and logged some virtual laps around the Tennessee track in the simulators Nadeau has set up in his home. They hadn't spoken much until prior to this season, when at Hall's request Earnhardt visited Nadeau again. He stayed so late that he lost track of time. "It's been good ever since," Earnhardt said.

For Earnhardt, who crashed in all but one of his national-series starts in 2010, it's part of learning how to log laps without damaging the vehicle. Toward that end, the driver didn't shy away from the fact that he could use some guidance. When Hall first broached the idea of hiring Nadeau as a driving coach, Earnhardt "was totally open to it," she said. For his part, the driver didn't bristle at the suggestion. "I didn't question that at all. I know I need help," Earnhardt said with a laugh.

"Jerry's been in the sport forever," he added. "He started his way at the bottom and worked his way right up to the top. Just talking with him, it seems he's been put in every situation possible, with the good, the bad, and everything. To have someone like him just there for mental support, mainly, is huge, because he's been there through the pressure. He's been there trying to be patient in the races, all that stuff. So having him there for all that mental stuff is big."

Their arrangement has shown early signs of promise. Earnhardt, with Nadeau watching from above, managed to avoid the vehicular carnage that marred the Truck Series opener at Daytona and finish seventh in his debut. They followed that with a 19th-place effort at Phoenix, and Earnhardt stands third in a tight rookie battle entering this weekend's event at Darlington. The young driver seems to be benefiting from the relationship with his new mentor. And maybe in some ways, the mentor is benefiting from it, too.

A new reality

It had been a long time since Jerry Nadeau had been back to the race track. Four years, he said. During that span he spent time with his daughter Natalie, now eight. He cleared some land he owns up in the North Carolina mountains, fantasizing about building a log cabin on it one day. "I'm hoping I may win the lottery or something," he said, in typical self-effacing style. But mostly he's been trying to find some direction for this next phase of his life, one forced upon him by that crash at Richmond nearly eight years ago, which left Nadeau not just with discomfort in his left side but also burdened by the pain of knowing he can never race again.

"There's definitely a part of me, for sure, that knows I can still wheel a car," said Nadeau, who still competes regularly in simulators. "It's just taking the chance. I don't know if I want to take a chance because of what the doctor said. I take one more hit .... I've had quite a few concussions in my life, and I'm just being smart not to do it again."

Paramedics evacuate Jerry Nadeau after he hit the wall during practice at Richmond in '03. (Getty Images)

"But this is what God's dealt me, and now I've got to find my next dream, and hopefully this is it, helping guys out, talking to them."

--JERRY NADEAU

Nadeau was driving the No. 01 U.S. Army car for MBV/MB2 Motorsports on May 2, 2003, when he spun in practice and hit the wall hard on the driver's side. This was the era just before Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers became standard at every track, so Nadeau's vehicle impacted bare concrete. He was left in critical condition with a concussion and bruises on his brain, and remained in a medically-induced coma for almost three weeks. When he awoke at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, he retained virtually no memories of the accident that put him there.

For a little while, there was hope of a comeback. Nadeau raced go-karts, tried to stay sharp, gave every indication that he was planning to get back into NASCAR. His body, though, would not cooperate. The pins and needles, that fallen-asleep feeling on his left side, was always there. A hoped-for test at Charlotte was scrubbed by doctors. Slowly the reality dawned on him that his driving career was over.

"I think three years after the accident I realized, you know, this isn't going to work," he said. "Just because the doctors said after three years, this is what you have. It's been seven years now, and after the third and fourth year I just started having doubts. I think my left side is going to be numb the rest of my life. My left side is my biggest problem right now. It's sleeping. It's on pins and needles 24 hours a day. It's like there are a bunch of people pricking me on my left side. It doesn't feel as good as my right side. When I'm driving, it's hard for me to feel the brake pedal. I just decided, that's it. Let's go find something else."

For someone who knew only racing, though, that was easier said than done. In 2006 Nadeau took his first steps into coaching, signing on with Clay Andrews Racing as a "consultant" to David Gilliland, then a rookie on the Nationwide Series. Nadeau was there when Gilliland scored his breakthrough victory that season at Kentucky Speedway, a win that vaulted him into the Cup ranks. Gilliland said he ran thousands of laps around the Kentucky track on Nadeau's simulators prior to that race. "I think he's definitely helped me a bunch," Gilliland added.

"One particular area he helped me with was, I've never really needed help speeding me up, I've needed help slowing me down. Just being patient and stuff like that, and where we really worked on that a lot was in the simulators. We'd run a 100-lap race, and it's just a game. If you wreck, you just hit the reset button and start over. You just work on patience. Jerry, when he raced, he didn't have any patience. Now he can look back and say, what did I need to do better, and what did I need to work on?"

Even as his student succeeded, though, Nadeau struggled with the despair of being at the race track and not being behind the wheel. Gilliland's victory at Kentucky was his last race with Nadeau. "As a racer, I could understand what he was feeling and what he was going through," said Gilliland, who now drives for Front Row Motorsports on the Cup tour. "Selfishly, I was like, I need you. I need you to stay here and help me. But as a racer and a friend, I could totally understand what he was going through and what he was feeling. It's hard. It's hard to be around something you had success with and not be able to do it."

And thus began Nadeau's self-imposed exile from NASCAR, one that didn't end until Hall and Earnhardt contacted him prior to this year. "I was tired, I was worn out. I couldn't do it anymore," Nadeau said. "It was kind of getting hard going to the race tracks and not racing. I'll be honest with you about that, I hate it. It sucks. But this is what God's dealt me, and now I've got to find my next dream, and hopefully this is it, helping guys out, talking to them. I'd like to see Jeffrey come out of it well and win some races, and hope I had some influence helping him."

Nadeau's position with the No. 1 team gets him out of the house and puts a little money in his pocket, no small detail given both the sluggish economy and the rather limited career options for a former driver. Is it still difficult for him to be at the race track? Clearly. A visitor can see the wistfulness in his face, hear it in his voice. And yet, at only 41, Nadeau knows he has to find something to do with the rest of his life.

"I've got to find a way to make bread and butter the rest of my life, because I can't race," he said. "I don't have nearly enough money where I can live for the rest of my life. I've got to really think big picture, search for something 9 to 5, and work, and have a reason. Before, for almost 35 years, all I thought and everything I did was racing. Now it's a little bit different. Now I've got to really look and see where else can I enjoy as much as I enjoy racing. So far, this is working out. Jeffrey is the kind of guy I like to work with."

His friends believe being back at the race track will be good for him. "I think it's great for him, I do," Gilliland said. "He's a racer, he's an asset to the sport. Being back here is very good, for him and for everyone around here."

"I think that Jerry's come to the acceptance that he can't get back in, and he's good about what he's doing," Hall added. "He feels really good about being able to help a rookie. He felt really good about what he did with David Gilliland. He feels like Jeffrey is in a place where he can help him. I don't think he would have done this had he not been in a place already where he was emotionally able to handle it."

Perhaps Nadeau's experience with Gilliland was too soon, before he had fully accepted that getting back behind the wheel seemed a medical impossibility, and the gratification of his pupil's success was lost in the pain and depression the experience brought to the surface. Now he has a daughter to care for, and the rest of his life to think about. And yet -- that itch is still there, buried deep, wanting to be scratched. It probably always will be.

"I feel like I've still got it," he said. "... Every time I'm [at the race track], I think about racing. I think about getting in there. But I've got to think realistic. It's probably a farfetched job for me to get into. I'm sure there are a lot of people who'd love to see me get back into it, but I think I made my decision, and I think I made the right one."

The issues Jerry Nadeau and Jeffrey Earnhardt focus on are more big-picture, those things that can stand in the way of career advancement for a driver coming from shorter races on shorter tracks.

The big picture

Referring to Nadeau as a driving coach is probably a bit of a misnomer. That's his title, of course, but the times when he actually gives Earnhardt instruction on how to drive the truck are rare. Maybe there's a moment when he advises him to be a little higher in this corner, a little lower in this one, or how long to be on the throttle or the brake. But driving is an inherent thing, one where abilities manifest themselves more through results than any physical actions. This is not a sport where you can tell a competitor to rotate their wrists through the ball, or warn against falling for the pump fake.

So maybe Nadeau isn't really a coach. He's more a mentor, an advisor, a voice of experience, a sounding board. The issues he and Earnhardt focus on are more big-picture, those things that can stand in the way of career advancement for a driver coming from shorter races on shorter tracks.

"There's a lot of things I feel like I can help him on, but there's nobody who's going to do it besides Jeffrey Earnhardt," Nadeau said. "I can only do so much. It's a matter of how bad he wants it. When I was coming up, I would have loved to have had a coach or somebody talk to me, because I was out of control. I wrecked a lot of cars in my first year in Cup. It would have been nice. That's the biggest thing, just talking to him, just keeping calm, relaxed. Just think: finish. Last year he wrecked a lot of stuff, and this year he's making a run for Rookie of the Year. I think it will go very well."

Indeed, a primary reason Hall paired the two together was so Earnhardt could learn to log laps without crashing, often a difficult thing for a young driver who's conditioned to get to the front as soon as possible. The goal now is to take care of the equipment, to make it until the end. It helps that Nadeau speaks from experience, having been a hard-headed hard charger himself, racking up seven DNFs in his first Cup season in 1988.

"I was at his age and I was all [guts] out, and that's the way I had to be. I had to prove myself, because I didn't know if I was going to race the next week," Nadeau said. "I took a lot of chances, I also wrecked a lot of cars. These guys are not in position to where they can wreck cars and things like that. ... I think when I started racing, I wish I would have had a coach, because I wrecked a lot of stuff. It would have been nice to gave someone who would have tamed me down: 'Dude, you're here, you're going to be here for a long time.' I approached every race like it was my last race, and I wrecked a lot of stuff."

Earnhardt can see the parallels. "Just mentally, the things he's done -- being patient in the races, how to handle pressure and stuff like that, because he's done it," he said. "He's been through it. Having someone like that there coaching you, [saying], 'Take it easy there these first couple of laps. Feel the truck out.' That's mainly the biggest help I've gotten out of it. Keeping me calm and keeping me focused is huge. That's a big thing, because there for a while, I wasn't as focused as I needed to be. Having Jerry there to say, 'You really need to focus, and you really need to push hard for this,' has been a big help."

That big-picture focus can extend beyond the race track. Gilliland said Nadeau helped him with everything from getting his NASCAR license to hiring a motor home driver. Then there were Nadeau's simulators and his list of contacts, both always ready in case Gilliland needed them.

"When I came out here I had never been to any of the race tracks, really. I had been to maybe three of them," said Gilliland, a native of Riverside, Calif. "When Clay Andrews Racing came out East and started running Nationwide races, Jerry was working with our marketing department through the same company, so they kind of hooked us up. It was really good for me. He was able to go up top and tell me stuff leading into the races. We spent a lot of time on his simulators and his house. Jerry, he's just a great guy, and he was able to get me to talk to people that I needed to talk to. If Jerry couldn't help me, he was able to point me in the right direction to get help. It really helped me a bunch. I think he's a great guy. I think he's an asset as a coach, and Jeffrey Earnhardt is fortunate to have him."

Even in a sport where the competitors get younger with every passing year, driving coaches are not exactly ubiquitous in the NASCAR garages. Drivers like Earnhardt, Gilliland, and Danica Patrick -- who is using Johnny Benson as a coach for events at Phoenix, Las Vegas and Bristol -- seem in the minority. And yet, as Nadeau points out, there are several former drivers like Tim Fedewa and David Green who fill similar roles without the official title. Joey Logano received help from Mike McLaughlin as he made his foray into NASCAR's national divisions. Help is available, if drivers are willing to accept it.

"Some guys tend to look at it like, they don't need a driving coach, and that's fine," Nadeau said. "But all I want to do is share what I went through so they don't have to go through any problems."

Such are the lessons Nadeau tries to impart upon Earnhardt, instruction that will continue as the Camping World Truck Series rolls into Darlington Raceway this weekend. Jeffrey Earnhardt will go there trying to move forward in his career. Jerry Nadeau will go there trying to move forward in his life.

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