Dale Earnhardt Jr.: ‘I don’t know how the hell I retire, so I’m going to have to do this a lot longer’

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CHICAGO – Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t get scared by much on or off the racetrack, but he’s dreading next month – and it has nothing to do with the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Hard as it may seem for some of his fans to believe, Earnhardt turns the big 4-0 on October 10. And as he approaches that milestone, Earnhardt admits he’s thinking about it more and more.

“Real nervous,” Earnhardt said during Thursday’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Media Day in downtown Chicago. “I don’t know what to think about that. I don’t want to grow up.

“You don’t have much of a choice sometimes with your age when you hit these milestones, but I feel physically and mentally 10 years younger than that. I guess that’s a good thing.”

Earnhardt realizes that he’s seen a lot in his 15-year Sprint Cup career and knows things will eventually start going downhill.

But for now?

“I’m still enjoying what I do,” he said. “I’ve had the best time driving race cars this year. Which surprised me, because I hadn’t been having a good time several years ago and I didn’t know if that was ever going to change.

“I feel really fortunate, to be honest with you. I feel lucky to still be enjoying what I do, the passion. It’s a big deal with this championship Chase and I really hope we can make our fans proud, make all our supporters proud of the job we do.

“I feel there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of people are relying upon us and depending on us. We want to be able to deliver.”

But can he deliver and finally give his long-suffering fans – and himself – that long dreamed about first Sprint Cup championship?

“I do,” he said unequivocally. “I think this is our best shot in the last six, seven years.

“You always see that when the Chase happens, there’s a team that just sort of comes out of nowhere or really ramps up the performance. We don’t have to ramp it up too far, we’ve been doing pretty good. Hopefully, we haven’t shown our best yet and haven’t delivered the goods just yet.”

With that said, Earnhardt admits he’s trying to put thoughts of retirement out of his mind and as far down the road as possible.

“How do I retire? I don’t know how the hell I retire, so I’m going to have to do this a lot longer,” he said matter-of-factly but also with a smile on his face. “I’m fine with that. I’m having fun. I’m having as much fun as I’ve ever had.

“When I was younger, I was so naïve about it and just didn’t realize how fortunate I was, how lucky I was to be in the position I was in. I thought I did, but I think I take it more seriously now and really appreciate the situation I’m in.

“That appreciation and passion is still there, and as long as that stuff is still there, you do the details, the extra little things that really matter in the whole picture as a driver.

“When you lose that passion, that drive, you stop doing those little things because you don’t think they’re that important or they don’t quite matter. That’s when you see the performance drop and everything follows suit behind that.

“I think the fact I’m still there, still having fun, hell, I can go another 10 years.”

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American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida