The waitress at the cash register is the first to recognize the familiar face from the famous racing family standing in the doorway.
“You comin’ back to work here?” she says.
Lunchtime at Randy’s Bar B Que is about as busy as it gets in Troutman, North Carolina, a two-stoplight town 40 or so miles north of Charlotte. By noon on this Thursday in late February, several tables have already been bussed once. Servers breeze by with two or three cups of tea in one hand and plates piled high with chopped pork and slaw in the other.
Karsyn Elledge laughs at the thought and sits down for lunch, like any other customer.
If only it were as simple as that. If only she could just snap back to when she waited these tables as a senior in high school. If only she could find someplace like Randy’s in Indianapolis, where she’s now a freshman at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. If only the toughest choice was always hushpuppies or fries.
She’s back home for the funeral of a close family friend, renowned NASCAR artist Sam Bass, and she’s staying an extra week to try to figure out her future. She’s come to the realization that her chosen major, criminal justice, probably isn’t right for her. So, she keeps asking herself, now what?
Elledge would spend the rest of her life racing if she could. Driving for Tucker-Boat Motorsports, she won two heats at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in January in Oklahoma, then secured a partnership with TMC Transportation that will help her run her first season on the USAC National Midget Series. And she certainly has the racing genes, which we’ll get to later, but not yet, because those genes are what every other story about her mentions first. Karsyn Elledge is an 18-year-old woman now, not just the granddaughter or niece or daughter of other people, and she’s coming to understand that adulthood is complicated.
“I thought adults had everything figured out, and now I am an adult and I have no idea what I’m doing,” she says, laughing. “I mean, I know I want to be a race car driver. But my Plan B, I have to have that figured out, and I have no clue.”
At Randy’s, answers are cleaner. The servers are all in the same red T-shirts with the cartoon pig in a chef’s hat. She used to wear that shirt and make $2 an hour, plus tips, loving every minute of it. She wrote orders on a ticket and, in a cash-only restaurant, she counted change by hand.
For Elledge, Randy’s is the epitome of home. The owner, Randy Pittman, walks through the restaurant most afternoons handing gummy candy out to kids. The big dining room has NASCAR pictures on the walls alongside chalkboard signs that list ice cream flavors, from butter pecan to cookie dough. The pictures around tables 14, 15, 16, and 17 have a special meaning. They’re all of her grandfather.
There’s a sketch of him with that mustache known around the world, and an old Busch Beer ad where he’s in a leather jacket with checkered flags down the sleeves, and a Gatorade ad of his black No. 3 car leading a field of other cars.
I know I want to be a race car driver. But my Plan B, I have to have that figured out.
Customers would always sit at those tables and tell her about the man on the wall as if they knew him. She’d laugh and say that yeah, she’d heard of him, too.
Eventually it would click, and those customers would notice her big brown eyes and dark hair and tilt their heads back and smile. We’ve all probably experienced a moment like this at some point, those two or three beats when you know who you are, and the person across from you is just now realizing it, too. To most of us, though, it happens once or twice a decade. To Elledge, it happened almost every day.
“Oh!” the customer would say. “You’re that Earnhardt girl!”
• • •
Almost two months before that day, Karsyn Elledge, daughter of Kelley Earnhardt Miller, niece of Dale Earnhardt Jr., granddaughter of Dale Earnhardt Sr., pulled off the track in Oklahoma after winning a heat race at the Chili Bowl. She doesn’t remember the reporter in the blur of the moment, but she won’t forget his first question: “Has Uncle Dale said anything to you about this heat race win?”
“I’m like, ‘I’m still sitting in my car!,’ ” she says, laughing again. “Let me just pull out my phone and check it really quick!”
Elledge understands why people ask. She knows how much people love her family. She loves them, too! She just finds it a little amusing. In her mind, it’s clear: She’s not her uncle or grandfather, and she doesn’t worry about matching their careers. She spends more time comparing herself to her driver peers than family history.
“I get the same 10 questions in every interview, pretty much,” she says. “What’s it like being related to Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Does your family pressure ever bother you? Do you have any memory of your grandfather before he passed away?”
She lists the rest, but stop for a moment at that one, about whether she has memories of Dale Earnhardt.
THROWBACK: Karsyn wins race, plays hooky
Karsyn was born in September 2000, five months before her grandfather died after hitting the wall in Turn 4 at Daytona. She has no recollection of him, other than what people tell her.
As a kid, she thought it was ordinary to spend weekends at the track. Her mother, Kelley, managed Junior’s business affairs after Dale Sr. died, and then Kelley built a career as one of the most respected business minds in NASCAR. She now co-owns JR Motorsports with Junior, guiding it to three NASCAR Xfinity Series championships in the past five years. Meanwhile, Karsyn’s dad, Jimmy Elledge, worked as a NASCAR crew chief through more than 400 races. Kelley and Jimmy divorced when Karsyn was young. She stayed with her mom, who’s since remarried to L.W. Miller. But Jimmy Elledge plays a major role in Karsyn’s life. And it’s clear after only a few minutes talking to Karsyn that if she idolizes anyone in her family, it’s her mother and father.
When she was 10, Karsyn and her mom rallied a group of elementary school kids and went to Raleigh to convince the North Carolina Legislature to adopt NASCAR as the official state sport. When she was 14, she became the host of NASCAR Hammer Down, a Nickelodeon Nicktoons television series. On the show she interviewed Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, and several other drivers, including her uncle.
The more people she talked to, the more she gathered stories about her grandfather. Or, as she calls him, “Papaw Dale.”
One way we measure time is by distance from major events. One generation remembers what they were doing when Kennedy died or when Armstrong planted the flag on the moon, and the next only knows those moments through grainy videos. Later this year, we’ll hit the momentous occasion when the first child born after 9/11 turns 18.
In NASCAR time, the sharpest indication that years are flying by is the coming of a generation of drivers who never saw Dale Earnhardt race with their own eyes. And leading that generation is the Intimidator’s own granddaughter.
“Growing up, that was just something that was a thing: Papaw Dale passed away in the Daytona 500 when I was 5 months old,” she says. “I don’t want to say it’s normal; it was just a thing in our lives. As I’ve gotten older and read stories and heard people’s stories and watched videos and really be able to understand the legacy that he left, now I have a better understanding of it.”
• • •
A few weeks after the Chili Bowl, in February, Karsyn is in her Indianapolis apartment after classes, putting together lunch from a Hello Fresh kit.
“Pineapple poblano beef tacos,” she says, reading the label. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and she’s about to get on a plane to Florida for a USAC race in Ocala, Florida. “I’m not exactly sure what’s about to happen, but they sounded good.”
Karsyn started the school year as an IUPUI cheerleader, but when the team had a coaching change before basketball season, the new coach said she’d have to choose between racing and cheering. That was an easy one.
“I thought I was going to be more upset about it than I am,” she says, “but I’d much rather race than be a cheerleader.”
In fact, she’d much rather race than do just about anything else. She and her mom joke that Karsyn’s Plan A is racing and the Plan B is college/career, while her parents’ list is the other way around.
She went to a private Christian school in Iredell County for her ninth and 10th grade years. Then she followed the lead of her driver friends and completed 11th grade online. She didn’t like the solitude and wanted a more traditional senior year, so she enrolled at South Iredell High School and got the job at Randy’s.
My weekend plans aren’t to go party. I’d rather go race.
Now she lives a quiet college life. She and her roommate, Cassidy, watch movies and make dinner, hardly an Animal House existence. Karsyn considers herself an old soul. She’ll take a Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard song over anybody in modern country music. She daydreams about going back in time to when everybody wore bell bottoms. She prefers old cars to new ones.
“The things that matter to these kids at college, and the things that they are interested in, are like the total opposite of me,” she says. “My weekend plans aren’t to go party. I’d rather go race. … Plus, I have to be careful.”
There are a thousand differences between Karsyn’s childhood and those of previous generations of Earnhardts. When Kelley and Dale Jr. were kids and living with their mother, Brenda, a faulty kitchen light sent their Kannapolis home up in flames one early morning. Kelley remembers the school bus passing by while they watched the firefighters put it out. This was 1981, before Dale Sr. was making millions. The fire forced Brenda to move in with her mother in Virginia, while 8-year-old Kelley and 6-year-old Dale Jr. went to live with their father.
When Dale Sr. sent Junior to military school at age 12, Kelley, always an excellent student, was so worried about her brother that she joined him. Later, Kelley went off to college at UNC Wilmington, but her father asked her to come closer to home and finish at UNC Charlotte. She agreed, on the condition that he let her race. She had a successful few years as a late-model driver after graduating in 1995. But working five days a week and racing on weekends was tough, and she had to pick one. She cut out racing.
Kelley’s been telling her daughter lately about that period in her life when she tried to do it all. She knows how badly Karsyn wants to race for a living, and she’s seen enough growth to know it’s not out of the question. Karsyn won two Box Stock Class championships and had more than 40 feature wins in Outlaw Karts. But it wasn’t until this year, with the Chili Bowl showing and the sponsorship, that it started to feel real. What was for years a novelty story — Oh, look at that Earnhardt girl drive those go-karts! — now has a business model.
Through three events in the sporadic spring schedule, Elledge is 17th in the USAC Midget Series, and she walked away from a gnarly flip in the semifinals of the Shamrock Classic in March in Illinois. She’s shown plenty of poise at times, too.
After winning a heat at the Chili Bowl, she was answering a reporter’s questions when a grown man started hollering at her. It’s hard to understand his frustration from a video clip, but it had something to do with what she did on the track. As people restrained him, Karsyn’s dark brown eyes darted back and forth, as if to tell the man, “Get a grip, you’re yelling at an 18-year-old.” The clip took off online, though, because he wasn’t yelling at just any 18-year-old; he was yelling at the granddaughter of Dale Earnhardt.
She wishes Papaw Dale could be here for nights like that, not just to see her race, but to see how she races. She’s aggressive, unafraid, and she can make competitors furious. Her father, Jimmy, who used to work with Dale Sr., tells her regularly: “My goodness, girl, you remind me of your grandfather.”
Maybe the biggest difference between Karsyn’s generation and the ones who came before her is the amount of time she spends thinking about social media.
Karsyn has understood her potential to spoil the family name since she became old enough to use a phone. After Dale Sr. died, Junior went through a well-documented stretch of partying. But back then, he didn’t have to worry about pictures being sent around the world. Now, when Karsyn says she has to be careful about partying in college, what she means is that she doesn’t want a mistake to become online fodder.
It goes back to something her mother has preached to her for years: When Karsyn Elledge posts something, it’s not just a reflection of her but a reflection of the whole family.
As much as Karsyn loves her uncle Dale, though, her driving role model was actually Danica Patrick. One highlight of Karsyn’s career as a Nickelodeon host was the time Patrick joined her for an interview.
Karsyn sees the up-and-coming generation of women drivers — including NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series driver Natalie Decker; K&N Pro Series West driver Hailie Deegan, who won February in Las Vegas; and recent college graduate Holly Shelton, who finished second in a USAC Midget race in Missouri last year — as extensions of Patrick.
“I look at it as we’re building a building,” Karsyn says. “It’s all of our job, us young women who are coming along, to add bricks to that building … to add to the foundation until it’s not seen as crazy that there’s women out there.”
• • •
“You gonna try your Jell-O or are you still working on your tea,” Kelley Earnhardt says to her mother, Brenda.
It’s mid-March now, and the family’s coming to terms with some earth-altering news they received earlier in the month: Brenda Jackson, the mother of Dale Jr. and Kelley and ex-wife of Dale Sr., has lung cancer. Doctors have given her only a few months to live.
Although Karsyn never knew her Papaw Dale, Brenda (“Mimi”) plays an outsize role in her life. She lives in a home on Dale Jr.’s property in Mooresville, North Carolina, and manages his finances while bouncing back and forth between grandkids. Karsyn has two younger siblings, Kennedy Elledge and Wyatt Miller, and cousin Isla Rose, the 1-year-old daughter of Junior and Amy.
Before the diagnosis, every time Mimi came up in our conversations, Karsyn reflexively laughed at something Mimi had done. Mimi’s joked for years that she wants a Twitter account, and Karsyn keeps shaking her head no: There’s no telling what Mimi might say.
During one of Mimi’s hospital visits, Karsyn called home to tell Kelley that she’d lost her wallet somewhere in Indiana. “Of course, she was with Mimi,” Karsyn says. “And Mimi’s cracking jokes in the background: ‘Hey, could you spare a dime!’ ”
One of Karsyn’s favorite things to do when she’s home is play cards with all her family around the table. Their top game is Skip-Bo. Ryan Newman and his wife, Krissie, introduced it to them several years ago. The gist is that each player starts with a bunch of cards, and the object is to play all of them in numerical order. For a family, it’s a nice mix that’s challenging enough for adults and easy enough for Wyatt, who’s 7.
Personalities clash sometimes. L.W. is a methodical player, but Kelley and Karsyn work fast. Someone usually gets mad and quits. Karsyn and Kennedy, 13, have had a few shouting matches.
Yes, they’re as competitive as you might expect.
Karsyn and Kelley’s relationship blossomed five or so years ago, Kelley says, after they started seeing a therapist. Kelley had essentially motored through all of her life — from the home fire, to boarding school, to her father’s death, to watching over her brother’s booming career, to her divorce — without taking time to talk about it.
It’s the same thing my dad told me: She has a caviar taste on a beer pocketbook.
When Karsyn was young, Kelley spoiled her. She says she always wanted to give her kids the things she didn’t have in childhood. The therapy sessions taught her how to let them make mistakes. That’s, in a way, how the job at Randy’s came about. Kelley expects Karsyn to be able to make it on their own as an adult, and she needed to learn how to manage money.
“It’s the same thing my dad told me: She has a caviar taste on a beer pocketbook,” Kelley says. Later, she adds, “Now I try to let her make decisions, understanding that maybe I already know the answer to what’s going to happen.”
It’s brought them closer. Now when something comes up — like when Karsyn considers changing her major — she talks to Kelley first. The week after Bass’ funeral in February, Kelley and Karsyn would play Skip-Bo with the family, then spend time discussing the future. Each morning Kelley went to work running JRM, while Karsyn checked things off the daughter-do list.
They agreed that Karsyn would finish the semester with general education courses, then decide on a major. It was only a few days after Karsyn went back to school that the family learned about Mimi’s cancer.
During a phone call with Karsyn to pass along an update, Kelley asked her daughter if she was doing OK with the news.
“Yeah, mom,” Karsyn said, “I’m tough, like you.”
Karsyn may go on to win more races than every other Earnhardt in history, but moments like that will always make Kelley prouder than any trophies.
Sometimes, though, even the most level-headed 18-year-old gets overwhelmed. On the track this spring, Karsyn has a bad flip at the Shamrock Classic, and she struggles over two races in Kokomo, Indiana. She calls home after the Indiana weekend, and Kelley answers from the hospital room with Mimi.
“This sucks,” Karsyn tells her mom about failing to qualify for one feature race and finishing 20th in another.
“You know what sucks? Sitting here with Mimi,” Kelley responds. “Your racing and being at the track doesn’t suck.”
“It definitely gives you perspective,” Karsyn tells me later.
In mid-April, doctors say it’s time for Hospice; all they can do is keep Mimi comfortable.
On the Thursday afternoon before Easter, I call Karsyn to check in. She’s in Indianapolis and getting ready to pick up Kennedy, her 13-year-old sister, from the airport. They’re good friends despite the age difference; Kennedy likes to joke that she’s living in Karsyn’s shadow.
Karsyn, like always, turns the conversation to stories about Mimi.
Mimi’s favorite game isn’t Skip-Bo but left-right-center, a simple dice game where you keep or pass chips based on your roll.
“Her and Jesus will be playing that game together,” Karsyn tells me.
On Easter weekend, Karsyn and Kennedy take in a Pacers NBA playoff game, the three NASCAR national series go quiet, and Brenda “Mimi” Jackson dies at 65 years old. Condolences pour in from across the world on Monday.
Her legacy is as vital in this family story as anything her ex-husband did on the race track. That was evident in one quiet exchange from her March hospital visit.
“You don’t maybe like how your parents parented, but then you turn into how your parents parented,” Kelley was telling me that day, talking about her children while watching over her mother. “With my dad I learned, ‘Do this because I said so.’ I’ve been trying to, with my kids, explain why I think we should do it this way.”
Just then, Brenda chimed in from her hospital bed:
“You got that from me.”
RELATED: Brenda Jackson left indelible mark
• • •
Back in booth No. 14 at Randy’s, with pictures of the grandfather she never knew on the walls all around her, Karsyn Elledge is remembering where she came from.
“I could probably tell you all the specials,” she says. “Monday’s spaghetti. Tuesday’s taco salad and pork chops. Wednesday is barbecue chicken, slaw, fries and a roll. Thursday’s waaaaasss … dang it, and I always used to work Thursdays. I should know this.”
She looks it up on the napkin dispenser.
“Oh, Thursday is fresh flounder. Yep. And then Friday is ribeye. … I don’t know why I couldn’t think of Thursday when Thursday was the day I would always work. I should’ve known that.”
When people ask Karsyn whether she feels the pressure of being an Earnhardt, they’re revealing their own assumptions, and those assumptions fall a little short. Yes, she feels that Earnhardt pressure, but it has nothing to do with expectations placed on her by her mother or uncle or the media or her sponsors or even the ghosts of the family’s past. The pressure she feels is internal, and it’s hereditary. The gene that pushed her grandfather to seven championships and her uncle to 26 career victories — including two in the Daytona 500 — and her mother to the top of her profession as an owner, it’s the same gene that pushes Karsyn to want to have a successful USAC season, to want to know what her college major should be, and to want to remember that Thursday is fresh flounder.
It’s a deeper pressure, and it makes answering that initial question a cinch.
“I get a lot of tweets that say, we need you in Cup. We need an Earnhardt in Cup,” she says. “And I’m just like, y’all, I just ran my 10th midget race. Chill.”
As a member of our family, I know the crazy things that run through your mind.
She may have more figured out than she gives herself credit for.
In one of Karsyn’s last days home before going back to school this spring, Kelley gives her one more errand to run.
The year before Dale Sr. died, Chevrolet designed a line of black Camaros for him called the Intimidator SS series. Dale Jr. got the prototype, but Kelley didn’t initially request one. After Daytona that February 18 years ago, she had the manufacturer make one just for her.
The 84th Intimidator SS, 2002 edition, stays parked most often. Occasionally Kelley takes it out for a joy ride. She keeps it immaculate. She had to take it to the shop in February to fix something in the gas system. She gave Karsyn the responsibility of picking it up and driving it home.
Karsyn can’t hide her excitement when the mechanic hands her the keys. He’s a family friend who’s been working on this car for 18 years. He knew her grandfather well, he tells her. “I can’t imagine all the stuff that you two would get into,” he says.
She slides into the driver’s seat and puts her hand on the shifter. A lot of ideas run through an 18-year-old’s imagination sitting in a machine like that. But as much as she’d love to take off and go crazy, a few instructions from her mother weigh on her:
Do not get it in the mud.
Do not run off the road.
Don’t do anything crazy.
“I know what it’s like when you sit down in the seat and get a hold of that shifter and a hold of that power,” Kelley says. “As a member of our family, I know the crazy things that run through your mind.”
It’s been a tough enough spring as it is, so Karsyn doesn’t want to give Kelley more reasons to worry. The daughter of the daughter of the man whose nickname is on the car does exactly as she’s told, and she gets the Intimidator SS home without a scratch.