After keeping his history as a smoker out of the public, Dale Earnhardt Jr. now shares his story to help others kick the habit, and he EXCLUSIVELY tells us the one moment that made him realize he had to quit – or else.
One time, smoking and NASCAR went together like a driver and his crew chief. The sport grew up in the Carolinas, prime tobacco country, and for over three decades, NASCAR’s premier circuit was known as the Winston Cup, named after the cigarette brand. Now, one of the biggest stars in NASCAR history, Dale Earnhardt Jr., hopes to help millions quit smoking, a habit he once kept secret from the public. “I was a smoker for 16 years, and have been a non-smoker for over six years now,” Dale Jr. said EXCLUSIVELY to HollywoodLife while discussing his partnership with Nicorette. “I, basically, kind of had hidden that part of my life from as many people as possible.“
“It’s been an open secret in the industry and with my friends,” said Dale, who teamed with Nicorette for the Taste Test Drive video campaign to help launch the Nicorette Coated Ice Mint Lozenge, “but for the most part, it wasn’t anything I’d do in public. I didn’t want anybody to know about it and, as far as I was concerned, I was never really going to show that part of my story because there was really no positive benefit of it.” When Nicorette approached Dale Jr. about teaming up, he said he was actually nervous about coming forward and sharing his history of being a smoke because “it’s nothing I’m proud of.”
“I’m embarrassed about it, actually,” he said, “but if it helps somebody on their journey, then it’s worth doing.” Dale revealed to HollywoodLife that this embarrassment led him to develop “real major insecurity” about over his smoking. “Did my car smell? Was riding in my car unpleasant Was my breath bad? On top of those insecurities, I wouldn’t go to places and do things with friends and family. I wouldn’t experience things because smoking would be an issue or wasn’t allowed in that environment. It’s just silly to think back to all of the ways it basically dictated the decisions I made throughout the day. The insecurities I had carried with it, sort of may have developed into this negative stigma, and I was ashamed of it.”
“I tried to hide it from my dad [Dale Earnhardt],” Dale Jr. said. “I didn’t want my dad to ever see me with a cigarette in my hand. In my mind, it’s wrong, I was doing something wrong. I was embarrassed or ashamed for anyone to know. That is sort of how I carried that habit for all those years, and eventually my wife [Amy Reimann] — we weren’t married at the time — but she said to me, ‘Look this may be a problem for me if you can’t quit.” I think that is the moment I took it seriously.”
Quitting for Dale was “about trying to preserve my relationship with Amy,” he says. “Also, I wanted to get rid of the insecurity, that anxiety. We’d travel on race weekends. When I came back and walked into my closet, I could smell a difference in my closet. I could smell the cigarette smoke on my clothes, in my dirty clothes hamper. That made me think, “Wow, if I could smell it and I’m around it all the time. For someone who doesn’t smoke, this must be really unpleasant.” I was so anxious to get rid of that insecurity of worrying about my own appearance and how I have affected other people today by bringing that around them.”
“When I finally did get rid of that,” he adds, “I think that was probably the greatest reward. In knowing that now I am not a burden or I’m not a bother or, and my wife isn’t bothered by it or worried about it, in having to deal with it. I was just so glad to get it out of my life so it could stop affecting all these people who are close to me.”
“So,” he adds, “I’m excited about the new [Nicorette] product and giving people the opportunity to assist their journey in quitting. I didn’t have this product around when I was younger and trying to get rid of that habit is very, very hard to do. [Nicorette] would probably make that process for me much, much shorter had I had a product like this to use. It’s a challenge to quit and I know how hard it is for someone who’s trying.”
Six years after successfully quitting, Dale is freed of that anxiety — and able to enjoy life to the fullest. That, as it turns out, includes trying new things like driving the pace car at the 2019 Indianapolis 500, taking place on May 26. “I know. I was really taken back when they called with that invitation,” the retired NASCAR superstar tells HollywoodLife. “I’m honored to be able to do it. It’s one of the greatest events in motorsports. So to be in any kind of part of it, it will be special for me.”
Dale joins Jay Leno and fellow former-NASCAR drive Jeff Gordon as the third celebrity to drive the pace car in both the Indy and Daytona 500. When asked if he teased his former rival about no longer being the only NASCAR driver to lead the pack at IndyCar’s premier event, Dale said he hadn’t. “I think I might actually send him a text for any advice,” he said.
“Actually, he was the first one his connection to Indy and that area,” he added. “That’s sort of like his home track. I’m glad he paved the way. I don’t know if I’d want to be the first NASCAR guy because it’s a bit of an odd company. For a NASCAR guy to drive a Pace Car at an Indy event — people are very protective of each individual sport. They rarely cross promote or work together, but they’ve been extremely welcoming. Everybody seems to be excited that we’re a part of it. I’m glad and happy to get there and meet some people and make new friends.”
Speaking of which, Dale Jr. would love to make new friends as part of the broadcast booth for NBC. “I think going back to an Olympic event and be able to feel that energy and watch that happen would be something I enjoy doing,” he says. “I’d love to go back to the Kentucky Derby next year. Hopefully, get that opportunity again. I’m having a lot of fun working with NBC, doing the broadcasting. We have podcasts, called The Dale Jr. Download, that we’re enjoying great success there. So there is a lot of things we are working on.”
“Plus being a father and a husband, I don’t want to fill up the plate too much. I want to be able to spend time with them. As my little girl gets older, she’s only 13 months now, so I want to be around for as much as I can too. So it’s a balance: have fun, do things, have a professional life and a personal life that would complement each other.” Thankfully for Dale, there’s no room on that plate for smoking, and thanks to tools like Nicorette, he’ll never have to feel those insecurities and embarrassments ever again.
This interview has been edited.