EIGHTY MILES OFF THE COAST OF JACKSONVILLE
Dale Earnhardt Jr. gazed out over the vastness of the Windex-blue Atlantic Ocean. The flight deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt just minutes ago was a maelstrom of sound and fury as fighter jets were cast out over the bow with steaming catapults, then brought safely home aided by hooks on braided steel arrestor cable. The deck was now comparatively serene, clear but for a few crewmen.
Eight days into maneuvers before an eventual deployment many of the 5,000 crew assumed would be to the Middle East, the middle-aged nuclear behemoth was making 29.2 knots in placid seas. Earnhardt, who as the most popular race car driver in the nation would seemingly have a high threshold for awe, was humbled.
His JR Motorsports' Nationwide Series team's sponsorship with the Navy had brought him to CVN-71 for an all-access, all-admiration tour with a crew whose outpouring of appreciation had overwhelmed him, whose competence had humbled him. It was apparent the 33-year-old wondered if, at age 21, he could have handled what so many of these men and women — one eye on station, one eye on him — do as routine.
"Want to steer?" asked Seaman Keith Ketterer, noticing that Earnhardt was eying his work.
"You mind, man?"
The 21-year-old from Cincinnati slid aside and Earnhardt eased into control of his most expensive ride ever: $5-billion.
"Heavy wheel," he nodded, gingerly pulling it back
"I'd rather drive a race car," Ketterer smiled.
• • •
Boarding a warship at sea is not supposed to be easy. A helicopter is an option, but the size of Earnhardt's party and the desire to show him the complete experience in his first trip to a carrier required a Carrier On-Board Delivery plane, a snubby turbo-prop with spartan seats facing backward in its dank innards. And though Navy pilots are graded on each landing (snagging the third of five arrestor cables is considered optimal), touching down on a carrier is decidedly not easy.
Witness the first attempted landing on Thursday. With a vicious metallic scraaaaaaaaaaaape!, the 80-mile journey from Naval Station Jacksonville continued for one more hard bank around. The second time, success, and the rear doors of the plane swung open to a rush of sea air and the din of frenzied activity on deck.
As for the eventful landing, Earnhardt said he was "never too worried about it," or so he said once free of the helmet and horse collar flotation device.
"I figured it was some kind of thing they had up their sleeve," he said. "I was ready to go in the drink if we had to. I thought that would be even more exciting than the typical landing.
"I wanted to be the one to pop that hatch and save us all. That would be awesome."
• • •
Drivers know the game. NASCAR teams require money, and that means sponsors.
Sponsors in return demand a certain amount of tribute. Sometimes it's a handshake, a photo, a speech before the middle managers.
But this is different, and Earnhardt knows it.
The Navy has attached itself to his fame, not only as a recruiting tool but also as a sense of identity. In his stateroom, Roosevelt commanding officer Capt. C. Ladd Wheeler keeps a collection of memorabilia from various DVs — "Distinguished Visitors" in the neverending acronym lexicon of the Navy — and an array of Earnhardt merchandise was splayed about his table. Wheeler, a fan of the late Dale Earnhardt, had brought aboard a diecast car for Earnhardt Jr. to sign.
After a quick welcome, Wheeler shuttled the group to the mess hall, where 12 sailors (from a lottery of 400 entrants) had won the right to dine with Earnhardt. This might have been better, said much of the rank and file, than when the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders stayed for two days. Because "every day is just the same as the previous one," said aviation electronics tech Kylie Hamilton, this five-hour break was special.
"This boosts morale," said Seaman Jenna Meny, who snapped a photo to e-mail to her jealous family back in Utica, Ohio. "This lets us know people appreciate what we do."
Earnhardt feels the conflict of being used as a recruiter in such a world climate. It's not like convincing consumers to sample an energy drink. Young people can find fulfillment and a career in the military, but in today's world, the risks are obvious.
"There's a huge amount of respect to the commitment that these people have … and what they're going to be asked to do for the country," Earnhardt said. "It is a lot clearer, I guess, when you're standing in the ship with them and you see how young they are."