News & Media

A little bit of Dodge City in Earnhardt Jr.'s back yard

January 22, 2012, David Caraviello,

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- There's a barbershop that advertises haircuts for a quarter, a jail with real locking cells, and a church with a steeple. There's a post office, a bank, and a hotel with bunk beds in the rooms upstairs. There's the Blazin Saddles Tack Shop and the Silverado Saloon, the latter of which features a pool table and genuine bottles of booze behind the long, polished bar.

Welcome to Whisky River, a Western town that seems so authentic, you almost expect to see Matt Dillon, Seth Bullock or Josey Wales tromping down the muddy thoroughfare that runs through the middle. On this day, it's playing host to the filming of a shoot-'em-up commercial for this year's Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But this is no movie set -- this is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s private fantasyland, a little piece of Dodge City or Deadwood built on his 200 acres of property north of Charlotte.

What Old West town would be complete without a dirt road leading to a church with a steeple at the end of it? (Victory Management Group)

"Dale Jr.'s a real low-key guy, and likes to have fun with his friends, and this is definitely the place for that," said Paul Menard, one of four active drivers involved in the commercial shoot, and a former teammate of Earnhardt's at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "It's got a little history. It's a cool place."

The idea stemmed from practicality. The bar in the basement of Earnhardt's former house near DEI -- the once-famous Club E, which was featured on MTV's Cribs program -- began to be more trouble than it was worth. "I was thinking, man, I want to have something I can have parties at, and not worry that I'm tearing my house apart," Earnhardt said. Online, he found someone who would build 1,000-square-foot tree houses, and toyed with that idea until his sister, Kelley, warned him that he'd probably fall out.

Then one day Earnhardt was watching a rerun of 60 Minutes which featured a segment on country-singer Willie Nelson, who had bought property in Texas that contained an Old West movie set. The set had originally been only building fronts, but Nelson finished the structures and made them usable. Earnhardt loved the idea and set about building his own Western village from scratch, hiring out-of-work carpenters to do the construction, and -- befitting a driver with a flair for a nostalgic -- using wood from Kannapolis' old Cannon Mills, which once stood near where the statue of Earnhardt's father is today.

"We drew it on a sheet of paper and built it on cinder blocks," Earnhardt said at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, where he took part in the Preview '12 fan event held Saturday. "It got bigger and bigger."

For a first-time visitor, the reality is somewhat staggering. There are saddles and wagon wheels and rocking chairs, hitching posts and barrels and upstairs balconies, stagecoaches and lanterns and animal skulls. Climb on up to the second floor of a hotel called the Hilton, where there are three rooms with bunk beds inside. Head on over to the livery, where there are tools for leatherworking and changing horseshoes. Watch out for the jail, where there are two cells that can be padlocked shut, and a gallows outside for more unfortunate criminals. Belly up to the Silverado Saloon, where there's a piano and a full bar and all manner of animal heads, hides and skulls on the walls.

For Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was the perfect place to film an All-Star Race commercial featuring Menard, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin as double-crossing poker players, who end the ensuing argument with six-shooters drawn. Earnhardt has also used Whisky River for projects filmed by his own production company, Hammerhead, as well as for things like birthday parties and Halloween hayrides for family members and friends. For a driver with a definite appreciation for history who has always liked Clint Eastwood's spaghetti Westerns, it seems a natural extension of himself.

"More than anything, I think it helps people see the personality in me," said Earnhardt, who built Whisky River about six years ago. "Because that's important for me, that people know me, get to know me, and understand me. ... That's kind of like looking through someone's record collection. It kind of shows you a little bit about them."

As far as the commercial shoot, though, there was one caveat -- as was the case last year, Earnhardt wouldn't appear in it, because he's not yet guaranteed a berth in the All-Star Race. "Not unless I'm locked in," said Earnhardt, who last year gained entry to the event through a fan vote. "It would be a little bit arrogant. Self-assuming is never a good quality."

If Whisky River shows Earnhardt's nostalgic side, then other areas of his property show how playful he can be. Scattered throughout the woods of his property are dozens of race cars, sometimes barely visible through the trees, which line a trail system. Earnhardt started with one, the shell of a backup car to a then-Busch Series primary vehicle that he used to lead every lap of a race at Daytona in the early 2000s. "We used it for target practice," he said. Now he has between 40 or 60 cars out there, and he's lobbying his former Nationwide driver, Brad Keselowski, to get him an IndyCar from Roger Penske since that series is moving to a new model for this year.

"That would be the coolest thing to sit out there in the woods," he said.

Where did he get all the old cars? "We just called around to some shops, said, 'Man, if you've got any junk you want to get rid of, we'd love to have it here,' " Earnhardt said. "First it was a collection of four or five cars. We called them yard ornaments. Then we started planting them in the woods. We built a lot of trails, and they're just things to look at and stumble upon as you're cruising around."

There are more than just old race cars on Earnhardt's spread, which a sign identifies as Dirty Mo Acres. There are life-sized plastic animals, bear and deer and buffalo. In a pasture behind a white fence, there are real cattle and a pair of real buffalo -- Laverne and Shirley, which were a gift from a buffalo rancher who toured the property as the winner of a contest to benefit Hurricane Katrina victims. Looming over a dirt go-kart track is a real Unocal 76 orange ball from Talladega. Crest a hill, and there's the strange, somewhat jarring sight of a well-dressed man seated on a bench -- it turns out to be a mannequin Forrest Gump, without the box of chocolates but wearing a Dirty Mo Posse hat.

Earnhardt, his sister, and his mother, Brenda, all have homes on the property. Earnhardt once fiercely guarded his privacy, concerned about people prying into his personal life. In recent years, though, he's allowed a little more access into his world, as evidenced by the commercial shoots the past two years at Whisky River, and letting a few reporters to poke around his Western town -- which in NASCAR circles has often been a topic of conversation, even if few have actually seen it.

"It took a little time to get comfortable with letting people know that I'd built that, and I had that," Earnhardt said. "For a long time, it was something personal to me, and that was nice. But I don't know. After a while, I got less worried about peoples' opinions about it."

This weekend, opinions seemed decidedly positive. Even Junior Johnson, the NASCAR Hall of Famer who started his career running moonshine through the woods and hollows of western North Carolina, could appreciate it. "It's a neat deal," said Johnson, who plays a bartender in the commercial. "If you like that kind of stuff, it's fun."

One of Earnhardt's representatives sent the driver a photo of Johnson, wearing a green vest and a cowboy hat, behind the bar in the Silverado Saloon. Whisky River and the "Last American Hero" seemed made for one another. "Having that picture of Junior behind the bar," Earnhardt said, "makes it worth putting that thing up."

Hitch up your horse, and tour some of the stores in Whisky River ...

... Get all of your Old West needs at the Blazin Saddles Tack Shop ...

... Just don't end up here, 'cause the locks inside can't be picked.