Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been an accomplished professional competitor all of his adult life, but he hasn't always been the picture of fitness.
Early in his career he was known as a party goer. He smoked cigarettes until 2004. One of his favorite meals was a banana and mayonnaise sandwich. But in recent years Earnhardt has steered toward a healthier lifestyle, driven partly by his wife, Amy, and health-conscious Hendrick Motorsports teammates, and accelerated by his recovery from a concussion that kept him out of racing for the second half of 2016.
Earnhardt returns to racing at Sunday's Daytona 500. Ahead of the race, Earnhardt told STACK about the changes he has made, how his dad stayed in shape, and whether those banana-mayonnaise sandwiches are still being made in his house.
STACK: So I gather that this whole working out thing is kinda new to you.
EARNHARDT: Yeah, my workout regimen has kinda been on-and-off throughout the years—a couple of years on, a year off.
I enjoy being in the gym. It's just trying to get the motivation to get in there and do it.
Why are you taking training more seriously this time around?
Going through the injury, I think, got me fired up to get back into training. I had to do a lot of rehab—physical and mental rehab—through the recovery over the last year. That and our race team [Hendrick Motorsports] has put together a program that encourages drivers to do more. They're setting minimum requirements per week—how many minutes you spend doing cardio, strength, stretching and so forth.
Your teammate Jimmie Johnson once told us how triathlon training made him a better driver. Meanwhile ESPN quoted you as saying that races don't tire you at all; and that the walk back to the motorcoach is more tiring. Safe to say you guys have different outlooks?
Look, I think that the more fit you can be, obviously, the better. I think what I meant is that the physical part of driving isn't that hard, [but] the heat is terrible. You need to be in shape to be able to withstand the heat and stay mentally strong as much as physically strong. Any time you lose your focus due to the heat, you're going to be slower at making decisions and not as sharp as the guy beside you. But yeah, I've never really had a hard time with the physical side of it. I've never gotten out of the car and been like, "Oh man, my arms feel like jelly."
Early in your career you were known for partying. You smoked until 2004. Would you say the sport came easy for you? What if anything were you doing back then to prepare?
Yeah, I did not work out at all up until about eight years ago. You know, when you're 20 and 30 [years old] you can get away with cutting some corners. And I certainly did that.
As I got older I realized that, as my body started to change, it was harder for me. I couldn't continue to eat the things that I ate. I had to change my diet. I had to be much more healthier about the choices I was making.
And yeah, I thought that if I could quit smoking, that would be very important to my quality of life down the road. So I was able to do that. And you know I curbed the partying quite a bit.
I just want to be sharper. You know, mentally sharper. And I want to have a better quality of life beyond racing. So those are some choices that I made personally as I got into my late 30s, I think.
How different do you feel after the changes you made?
I feel like I have gained a lot of self-esteem and confidence. I think I have more energy. More durability and endurance. I think it's just made me a lot more confident.
I knew that I didn't like being a smoker. And when I was raisin' hell and partyin' so much, I wasn't—you know, I didn't have my priorities in order, as far as my partnerships with my sponsors and my relationships with friends and family. I feel like I'm a better person today.
Very good to hear. So what does a typical week of your workouts look like now?
Well I like to get on an indoor bike. That's probably my favorite cardio. I will run on a treadmill, but I'd rather do the bike or the elliptical machine. I might do some road biking in the future. Jimmie is certainly encouraging his teammates to do more road biking, which is something he's really good at. So that's probably something that's in my future.
I do like to get in there in the gym and do some weightlifting, but that's personally just because I enjoy it. I don't do it so much for an advantage or anything in the car. The cardio is probably the most important and most closely related to what we do.
For strength, it's all free weights. I just got a lot of new equipment from Bowflex, to be honest with you. I said something in a tweet a couple of weeks ago, so they sent me some stuff for my home gym. But I do a lot of dumbbells and Bench Press and I work on my core with a [med] ball and all that stuff.
Also, Hendrick Motorsports' plan includes some stretching. So I might be going to attempt a yoga class or two with my wife.
I've heard that you and Amy work out a lot together. What's that like?
Well, she was a big part of my recovery. We used a lot of movement—turning, twisting, rotating of the head and neck—to work on some of my balance issues. She was there with me every day, pushing me and encouraging me to continue to work and get better. I don't think it would have happened as quickly as it did without her. She kept me working hard and pushing through it.
I wonder if you'd take me back to your upbringing. What sort of workouts do you remember Dale Sr. doing when you were young?
Well, we didn't have any gym or home gym or anything like that. My dad was an up-at-5-o-clock-in-the-morning guy. He'd go out and pick up hay bales and work on the farm. So his workout was pure, hard, dirty manual labor.
He didn't have to, but he would get into the core work of the farm that all of the farmhands he'd hired were doing. He'd get right into the middle of all that stuff. I don't think he did that intentionally to stay in shape. I just think he wanted to be in there to make sure the work was done right.
He was certainly very strong. Imposing. And I think that's how he stayed in shape. Just being active. Doing the work. Doing the hard labor.
It's pretty well known that one of your favorite treats is—or at least was—a banana mayonnaise sandwich. How has your other healthy changes adjusted your eating?
Yeah, that's actually one of the sandwiches I grew up on as a kid. I still have those from time to time. But I eat a lot of sushi. I really enjoy sushi, which happens to be quite tasty and good for you. I still have cheat days where you get some buffalo chicken wings. And I like to make barbecue. Getting some brisket out there and smoking it on the barbecue is a lot of fun.
Really, you can eat anything you want. It's all about portion control. But I do have to work really hard so you gotta watch what you're doing, you know, as far as keeping everything in check.