Hurricane Michael caused a lot of damage in Florida, so Dale Earnhardt Jr. joined Team Rubicon to help veterans rebuild the Panhandle.
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PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Changing diapers. Bottle feeding. Giving baths.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a semi-retired race car driver, said he’s now a full-time father and doing his part with his wife, Amy, to raise their 9-month-old daughter, Isla.
“Oh yeah, I do it all,’’ Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports. “I want Isla to really know me and to know she can really depend on me.
“So I get her up in the mornings, me and Amy, we share responsibility with getting her up and putting her down for bed. Or getting her up or putting her down for naps. Changing her diapers, all those things, making her bottles, feeding her. …
“I give her a bath by myself sometimes. I mean, Amy trusts me to do it. So she loves her bath. I’ll put her in the tub and she just plays and smiles and loves the water.’’
Earlier this week, Earnhardt was here to help launch a partnership between Mountain Dew — for whom Earnhardt has served as a spokesman for 10 years — and Team Rubicon, a non-profit organization that supports recovery efforts in areas devastated by natural disasters.
During a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY Sports conducted before and after his event here, Earnhardt talked not only about fatherhood, but about his personal growth, his broadcasting career and couples therapy.
Therapy ‘saved our relationship’
Before their engagement in 2015, Earnhardt said, he and Amy agreed they needed outside help.
“We ended up meeting a therapist named Jane, and Jane was a bad-ass,’’ Earnhardt said. “I’ve been in and out of therapy all my life and I think therapy is great for anyone and I encourage everybody to do it. Everybody’s got a little bit of something they need to tune on. And Jane saved our relationship, I think.’’
As Earnhardt describes it, his relationship with his wife, the former Amy Reimann, was strained almost as soon as it began about 10 years ago.
“When we first started dating, I was more interested in going away taking five of my buddies and hanging out for a week than hanging out with her alone for a week,’’ Earnhardt said. “And she’d say, ‘Well when are we going to go?’ And I’d say, ‘Well that doesn’t sound like much fun. Just us?’
“I was just very spoiled and I had had a lot of things given to me and handed to me and I was used to getting my way and doing what I wanted every single day. Whatever I wanted to do is what went down. And Amy comes into the picture and she’s like, ‘This is crazy. I can’t believe this is how you live your life everyday.’
“She was patient, but she was frustrated. It was a lot of frustration at times.’’
And so they ended up in the office of a couples therapist.
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“We never hit rock bottom or anything like that,’’ Earnhardt said. “But Amy’s like, ‘Man, let’s go to this lady. I’m like, ‘I’ll do whatever we need to do.’ And I went in there thinking this lady is going to tell Amy that I’m right, that Amy needs to adjust and so forth and that I’m right in most cases.
“But I went in there open-minded ‘cause I wanted to be with Amy the rest of my life. So we sit down and Jane’s like, ‘You know what, this is how a relationship works’ and ‘This is where your mind should be mentally.’ Everything we brought up, she would tell us how that should work.
“And she didn’t talk down to me. She made me want to adjust and want to change. She made me see Amy’s side of the relationship and it wasn’t hard at all to change, right? It wasn’t hard at all.’’
When Earnhardt and Amy got married in December 2016, their couples therapist was in attendance.
“Without Jane, we would have tried (marriage) probably but it would not have been as good,’’ Earnhardt said. “Yeah, it would have been a struggle.
“We still go to see Jane like once every six months, if we think we need it or not. She’s like, ‘What are you all doing here?’ Well, we just thought we’d come talk to you. It worked out so good.’’
Regrets and fatherhood
Earnhardt describes himself as a deeply fulfilled, 44-year-old father — but with regrets.
“I wish I’d a got married sooner,’’ he said. “I wish I’d a had kids sooner. I wish I’d a figured all that out sooner. …
“I was so selfish, thinking about me and what I wanted to do, what made me happy. It was fun for me that day or whatever, but I was very selfish. I didn’t realize how much happier I would be sharing my life with somebody else and having children.’’
He said he waited in part because he realized his own father, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., had been an ill-equipped young parent.
“So I was frightened that I was going to do that and not be prepared for it,’’ Earnhardt said. “Just not being responsible. I would’ve never known how to handle fatherhood at that age.
“I was way behind in my maturity. I was a 30-year-old acting like a 23-year-old. So when I was 21 I was probably acting like a 15-year-old.’
Earnhardt, who said he and Amy hope to have another child, credits his work with the couples therapist and Amy for the father he is.
“I didn’t expect to want to be that involved,’’ he said. “When you don’t know about the love that you’re going to have for that child, you’re like, ‘Oh, that sounds like work, changing diapers,’ and I was telling myself, ‘I’m going to do some of it. I’m going to make myself do it.’
“I don’t have to make myself. I want to do it because you love her so much and you want to be around her, and you want her to know you’re doing things for her and for her to see you as a provider and so it’s not like I thought. It’s not work or it’s not tough to sort of get in there and get in the game.’’
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What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ A.J. Perez spoke with sources around NASCAR to gauge the sport’s feelings on Jim France. Here’s what they said.
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‘I like Joe Buck’
Earnhardt, who retired from full-timing racing after the 2017 season, said he’s serious about his post-racing career as a TV broadcaster for NBC, which has used Earnhardt not only for NASCAR broadcasts, but also at the 2018 Winter Olympics and 2018 Super Bowl.
“Just as important, maybe not to everyone but to me it’d be as important, as my driving career,’’ he said. “One day I want it to be something I’m as proud of as my driving career.
“… You sit up there and you talk like you’re hanging out with your buddies about what you’re watching on the track. I can’t believe that that’s a job.’’
While praising the work of motor sports broadcaster Ken Squier. Earnhardt also clearly is aware of broadcasters outside of racing.
“John Madden I always thought was awesome,’’ he said. “He just talked like he was talking to me and you. You felt like if you were going to sit down and watch a game with him, he would talk the same way, that he wouldn’t be any different than he was in the booth.
“I like Joe Buck. I know there’s a big divide on people that like Joe Buck and people that don’t like Joe Buck. But I love his cadence and tone and professionalism and he’s smart.
“Even though I’m a Redskins fan, Troy Aikman does a good job. Obviously everybody’s in love with Tony Romo, and he’s doing an amazing job too. He’s really awesome. I think he’ll be around for a really long time.’’
And how long will Earnhardt be around? Truth is, he sounds more interested in enjoying the moment than worried about what’s next.
Follow Josh Peter on Twitter @joshlpeter11