Son gives Dale Jarrett a glimpse of road not taken
June 13, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
MORE: Share your #NASCARwithDAD stories, enter sweepstakes
RELATED: Ned and Dale discuss Dale's first win | See our Father's Day photo gallery
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The ballplayer is tall with broad shoulders, just like his dad, and he moves with that enviable fluidity which comes so natural to athletes. He digs into the dirt with one cleat, touches the tip of the bat to home plate, and settles into his stance. Each move is studied by another tall man with broad shoulders, this one sitting on the other side of the protective netting and three rows up in the grandstand, his face so tensed with concentration it's like he's focusing every bit as hard as the player at the plate.
Which he is. But don’t be fooled -- Dale Jarrett is loving every moment of this.
"I am having a blast," the NASCAR Hall of Famer said, sitting in the sunshine outside the baseball stadium at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where his son Zach plays for the 49ers. Jarrett may be famous for a NASCAR career which saw him claim 32 victories and the 1999 championship, but before pursuing racing he was as well-rounded an athlete as you could find in Newton, North Carolina. He pitched and played shortstop on the high school baseball team, played quarterback and defensive back in football, was a scratch golfer. Had racing never called to him, he had scholarship offers in several other sports to fall back upon.
Of course, racing ultimately did beckon, and Jarrett went on to a championship career in NASCAR just like his father. But because he started as a driver so relatively late -- Jarrett didn't make his first start in what's now the NASCAR Nationwide Series until he was 25 years old -- he had the chance to excel in several other sports, prompting a natural curiosity over what life might have been like had he chosen another path. Now he's finding out through Zach, who indeed veered down a road different from the one taken by his father and grandfather, and in the process of forging his own identity is giving his dad a glimpse of what might have been.
Sometimes, it's hard to tell who's enjoying it more.
"It's like seeing another different side for him," said Zach, a 6-foot-4, 217-pound third baseman and outfielder who recently completed his freshman season. "He loves it. He loves traveling around and watching it."
Indeed, the breaks in the elder Jarrett's ESPN broadcasting schedule have allowed him to become a fixture at 49ers games this past season, traveling to road series in places like Boca Raton, Florida, Norfolk, Virginia, and San Antonio, and maintaining his usual seat -- third row, right behind the plate -- at Charlotte's Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium. Although he's occasionally asked for autographs, most of the time the NASCAR champion is just another baseball parent. Well, to a point -- he doesn't just watch, he observes, with a locked-in focus as if he's examining every number on a speed chart or listening to a crew chief during a debrief.
"He's so tense because he's studying it," Zach said. "He's looking at what I'm trying to do, and trying to see every little thing so we can talk about it after the game. It's funny. But that's awesome to have somebody who's that interested."
Dale Jarrett celebrates a 2001 win in Victory Lane at Martinsville Speedway with son Zach. (Photo courtesy of Jarrett Family)
Driven toward racing
The interest is understandable -- not just because Dale Jarrett is watching his son, but because he's been in the arena himself, and for almost as long as he can remember. Influenced by his older brother Glenn, who would go on to start 77 NASCAR national series events and become a broadcaster in his own right, Dale began playing baseball at age 5, and would go on to pitch and play shortstop at Newton-Conover High School in the North Carolina foothills. Jarrett quickly became hooked on competition, an urge which would eventually drive him toward racing.
Racing, though, would wait. Dale was 9 when his father Ned retired from NASCAR to pursue a broadcasting career that would redefine the medium, so there was no pressure to jump into a stock car. He discovered a deep love for football, and not just the glamor position of quarterback, but the gritty role of cornerback. "I enjoyed hitting more than I enjoyed getting hit," Dale said. He was good enough that smaller local colleges such as Gardner-Webb and Lenoir-Rhyne came forward with scholarship offers.
But if there was one real temptation, it was golf. A scratch golfer with a lifetime low round of 63, Jarrett received a full scholarship offer from the University of South Carolina. He loved the game, but was unsure if he'd ever be good enough to play professionally. "I could play," Jarrett said, "but I have my doubts it would have been good enough to make much money on the PGA Tour. Because I've had opportunities since to see how good those guys are, and I wasn’t that good."
Even so, for someone named his high school's Athlete of the Year as a senior, the offers were tempting. "Very tempting. I had done this my entire life," he said. But he also knew he wanted to try his hand at racing, and by that point his father was managing Hickory Motor Speedway. So Dale continued to work on his golf game, practicing and playing in area events, all while building the groundwork for a racing career that wouldn't begin in earnest until Jarrett was 20 years old. And once that started, it was game over for everything else.
"Once I got in the race car, everything else took a back seat then," he said. "I still practiced a lot at golf, but my time was spent trying to figure out how I was going to make (it in racing). Because that excited me more than anything I'd done. … There were moments I wasn't sure how far racing would take me, but I never felt like I made the wrong decision."
Clearly not, given that racing took him all the way to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, where he and his father are both enshrined. His days playing high school sports, though, continued to pay dividends long after he left them behind.
"There's a mental side to every one of these sports you get involved in, and you've got to be tough with that," Jarrett said. "I would not have been ready for NASCAR racing in particular if I hadn't have done that."
After 32 victories and a series championship, there are no regrets about his career choice. Still, Jarrett always wondered what it would have been like had he followed a path that took him not into racing, but into college sports. Although his daughters Natalee and Karsyn were high school soccer and basketball players, they chose not to compete beyond high school and now work in business in New York. So his first true glimpse has come through Zach, who was wooed by a few major league teams and recruited by several schools before choosing to play relatively close to home in Charlotte.
And his proud dad has been able to watch it all unfold, right there from the third row behind home plate. "It's amazing with the recruiting process and what they go through," Dale said. "I've been able to live that, and to come watch him play a major sport at a major college. It really is thrilling. Now I'm getting to see what that side of it is about."
With father Dale Jarrett at nearly every game, Zach Jarrett started 42 of 44 games at Charlotte as a freshman. (Photo courtesy of Stan Cochrane)
'My own thing'
Zach Jarrett was barely in grade school when his father won his third and final Daytona 500 in 2000, but the rising college sophomore still retains a vivid memory of the experience.
"Every time your dad wins -- and I can relate it with all my friends in racing -- you don't think it's going to feel the way it does, but you feel so good for him," he said, sitting in the home dugout at Hayes Stadium before a practice. "You're so happy for him. It's such a great feeling for the family. It's like you all won the race, not just him. That's pretty cool."
The younger Jarrett often went to the track with his father, tagging along for races within driving distance from home. He became friends with many other children of the garage area, like Chase Elliott, Tyler Labonte and Matt Martin. Even then, though, you could tell which members of that next generation would follow their fathers into racing. Kids like Chase Elliott -- now a two-time winner in the Nationwide Series -- were there every single week. Zach Jarrett was not. Although his older brother Jason went into racing and made 42 national series starts in NASCAR, Zach was bound for a different road.
"I loved being there and watching it," he said. "It's so exhilarating to be there. The crowd is awesome, and the fans and everything. But I never really had interest in getting into it and pursing it as a career."
Zach focused on the sports he would later play in high school, where he grew six inches his freshman year. Baseball in particular would become his calling, and even within the Jarrett family, there was precedent -- Jasper Spears, Zach's maternal grandfather, played in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and progressed as far as Triple-A. But as far as being behind the wheel of a race car, the younger Jarrett simply had no interest. His dad once built a go-kart track behind the house in Hickory, and Zach's buddies used it more than he did.
"I never drove," he said. "It's funny, because all my NASCAR friends who are racing now, like Chase Elliott and all them, they were racing in go-karts and everything, and I was just playing baseball or basketball or doing whatever. I never really got into the whole go-kart type deal. For some reason, I just never got into it. I was just always doing my own thing."
Although NASCAR is a team sport in the sense that drivers depend on a pit crew to help them win the race, there was something about the bonding element of traditional team sports -- where teammates play, practice, travel, eat and do so many other things together during the course of a season -- that grabbed Zach and wouldn't let go. His father never pressured him to take another look at racing. "Not at all," Zach said. "He just said, 'Do what you want to do. I'm going to support you in whatever you want to do, and be happy with it.' "
The younger Jarrett was a standout in high school, where he earned team MVP honors as a senior, and received interest from a few professional teams -- such as Washington, Kansas City and the Los Angeles Dodgers -- before eschewing the major league draft and deciding on college. Although he started 42 of 44 games, his freshman year coincided with Charlotte's worst campaign in a decade, a 19-31-1 season where Jarrett hit .248 with two homers and 17 runs batted in.
The losing wore on both father and son. "You kind of live and die with him," Dale said. "When it's going well, it's a lot of fun. But they've had a lot of hard times, between the team and himself where things haven't gone well. And that's hard to watch your kid go through that."
That's where it helps to have a Hall of Fame father to turn to for guidance. Zach may never have raced, and Dale may never have played college baseball, but the lessons inherent to both pursuits are the same. The elder Jarrett learned to cope with defeat in NASCAR, where even the best don't finish first most of the time. "The winningest driver with 200, Richard (Petty) lost what, 1,000 or 1,200 times if you look at it," Dale said. So he knows a little about perseverance and maintaining attainable goals, advice he once gave to his future car owner Joe Gibbs before the former Washington Redskins coach started his NASCAR team.
He now imparts that same wisdom to his son. "You have to have gains from here," said Dale, who won once in his first 278 premier series starts before breaking through with Gibbs in the 1993 Daytona 500. "It's been difficult to keep his mind on that, especially as he's struggled."
Toward that end, the Jarretts talk after almost every game. "Just the fact that he's been there and has been though everything with racing -- it doesn't matter what sport it is, he can relate to it as an athlete," Zach said. "Any time I'm having trouble, I go to him, and we talk about everything -- how to get better, how to stick with it, how to be mentally strong. It definitely helps. He played baseball in high school, and he can still give me intake on it. He loves watching baseball, and we talk about it all the time."
"It's such a great feeling for the family," Zach Jarrett said when describing what it was like for his father to win. The same could be said about seeing Dale Jarrett go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. (Photo courtesy of the Jarrett family)
They do much more than talk. On a Sunday evening this spring, Dale Jarrett sat in his home in Hickory, a major league baseball game on the television, poring over images of baseball players on his computer in the hope of helping Zach improve at the plate. "I get upset with it too," Dale said, "Just because I want him to do well." He searched for players with body styles similar to his son's -- Albert Pujols of the Angels and Jayson Werth of the Nationals among them -- with an emphasis on the width of their stance, which had recently become an issue for Zach.
"His stance had gotten too narrow for a guy 6-foot-4, and he was just way off balance and it was creating issues with his swing," he said. Dale had the images all queued up when Zach came by, and after reviewing them together they headed off to the batting cages.
Once there, they eschewed the pitching machines, which Dale believes allow a hitter to get into too easy of a rhythm. "We seldom use the pitching machine unless I want to videotape him," Dale said. So Zach hit first off a tee, working on fine-tuning his mechanics. And then dad, the former high school pitcher, stepped in to throw some live ones to his son. Yes, 57-year-old NASCAR champion dad, raring back and mustering the heater. In fairness, he throws from a little closer than the regulation 60-foot, 6-inch distance.
"My back pays for it a day or two later," Dale said. "But you have to see it live. The biggest thing is, I don't want to hit him. But I want to throw hard enough that it makes a difference."
Indeed, Dale Jarrett is as involved with his son's baseball career as he was with his own race car during his driving days, leaving no detail unexamined in the pursuit of improved performance. There are limits -- Dale is careful not to step on things Zach's college coaches have emphasized, and knows not to overload his son with information lest he begin to overthink rather than react. But he taught Zach the swing basics to begin with. He's seen him in the batter's box more than anyone else. And he's always nearby when his son needs advice, or a few extra cuts to work his way out of a slump.
"That means a lot to me, because that means he cares so much about it, and he wants me to do well," Zach said. "… It really means a lot, how he's so interested. He'll go out and look for all these different types of things to help me out."
It's in that batting cage where Zach Jarrett perhaps gets the truest glimpse of the competitor his father was before he got into racing -- that pitcher, quarterback and golfer who was Athlete of the Year at Newton-Conover High School, and still isn't shy about throwing a hard one over the plate today. And Dale Jarrett can look across at his son, tall and strong and a starter of nearly every game his freshman season, and maybe see a hint of what he might have become had he not strapped on a crash helmet and driven down a different career road. Either way, the similarities go well beyond just broad shoulders and an easy smile.
"People tell me he was so athletic, and that I remind them of him and everything," Zach said. "That's a good feeling to know, that I'm sort of how my dad was then. I can sort of picture how he was."
At 6-foot-4, Zach Jarrett carries a big stick. In his collegiate debut against High Point, he hit a double and three singles in his first four plate appearances, going 4-for-6 with a run driven in. (Photo courtesy of Stan Cochrane)