You can go anywhere in the country and say Earnhardt and people know who you’re talking about. And then with Andretti it’s pretty similar, in fact you can pretty much go further around the world and say Andretti. People know what you’re talking about.”
|Credit: Jonathan Ferry/Getty Images|
“I had some opportunities to, if I had chosen, to make a quick buck, to write a story that would have detailed his relationship with Teresa, and all that went on,” Gurss told me. “I could have done that but I have a lot of respect for Dale, and I have built a reputation with my career and I’m not in this to throw people under the bus … I’m very sensitive to that and aware of the allure of trying to write a crappy novel about the family drama. I’m not in it for that.”
Gurss co-authored two New York Times bestsellers: 2004’s DW: A Lifetime Going Around in Circles with Darrell Waltrip, and 2002’s Driver #8 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Driver #8, which spent 17 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, is Junior’s first-person tale of his rookie year in the Winston Cup series. Gurss penned In The Red with Earnhardt’s approval but without his direct participation. The book chronicles all the drama, tragedy and triumph of that pivotal 2001 season.
Why public relations? “My degree is in broadcasting and that’s kind of how I had aspired to go professionally, but I grew up around racing, and I loved going. I always had a real fondness for it. They built a multipurpose facility in my hometown of Topeka called Heartland Park, and through a sheer lucky streak of timing, right place-right time, I was able to go to work for them, and suddenly I was in the PR business. It’s been non-stop since then.”
So how did he go from working for a regional track to working for A-B, as Anheuser-Busch is known in their hometown of St. Louis? Gurss explained, “It’s really a great example of building good relationships. In my time at Heartland Park, I worked with a gentleman who was from the St. Louis area. He moved back to St. Louis, and just happened to end up in the sports marketing department for Budweiser.” At the time, Gurss managed publicity and marketing for Ilmor Engineering, the race engine design and manufacturing division of Mercedes-Benz. His friend contacted him, saying "Hey, we’ve signed this kid Earnhardt and we need somebody to be based in Charlotte and keep track of Junior." The next thing Gurss knew he was starting his own agency (fingerprint inc.) and moving back to Charlotte.
I wondered what his first day at DEI was like. Gurss chuckled and explained, “It wasn’t really as remarkable as you would think. I have a background in music and I knew Dale Jr. really liked music. My first time meeting him was at a test session in Michigan, so I brought him a CD of a bunch of cool songs I thought he would like, so that kind of helped get our relationship off to a good start.”
Of course, it was a bit different for Gurss because he worked for Budweiser, not DEI, but I didn’t see how one could step onto the Intimidator’s turf without it being a significant event. He had to search his memory, but said, “My first encounter with Big E would have probably been in 2000 for the season-open media event. I have to admit it seemed relatively normal at the time. It was not a huge deal.”
Gurss qualified that statement by saying, “But if you were around Big E for any amount of time, he was a presence that seemed to expand to fill any place he might be in whether it was at Daytona or at DEI. He just had that presence about him that was really just almost indescribable, which as a writer is frustrating because it’s been really tough for me to explain. He had a kind of charisma that’s hard to define.”
Was Earnhardt was really larger-than-life? The phrase is often used but rarely true.
Gurss said, “Yes. Absolutely.”
The events of those first two seasons with Dale Earnhardt Jr. are chronicled in the books and have been covered in other interviews. While the death of his father affected him more profoundly than anything else did, there were a few other situations that I think affected Earnhardt Jr.'s career more than people may realize, so I focused on them.
Safety crews cut Park out of the car that day, and during the process put up the dreaded blue tarps that hadn’t been seen since Earnhardt’s death at Daytona. Park was airlifted to an area hospital.
Gurss said, “It was horrible and ominous because we were watching the same video feed the rest of the world was. So they airlifted him, and to me one of the chilling quotes in the book [In The Red] was when Junior said, ‘Someone named Earnhardt needs to be at that hospital.”
When Junior and Gurss arrived at the hospital, the PR rep from NASCAR was there, saying Park was OK. “So we were really relieved. Junior went in to see him, and Steve Park recognized Junior but it was very clear that he was not all right, he was not OK. So it was a very strange day in the some of the same ways that the day we lost his dad was a strange day. It just was heart-wrenching to write about both of those.”
While Park ended up back in the No. 1 car, "In 2002 it became very, very clear that Steve was not going to be the Steve Park that he was before. He tried to come back and just was never the same.” Gurss said. “And I think that affected Junior’s performance, because he and Steve were similar in their style and they shared similar setups and without that teammate I think it affected Junior’s performance for the next couple of years.”
He went on to explain that it was not his (Junior’s) damper, but DEI and Budweiser who curtailed Junior's non-Cup racing. "We, I mean Budweiser, had invested millions and millions of dollars for the equity in Dale Jr. and that race team and he was very valuable to us.”
Gurss explained that they, DEI and Bud, told Junior that he would need “a lot of approval if you’re going to drive anything other than that red No. 8 car. So, it was more that than anything on his behalf.”
“People say he’s never been the same since but I don’t think that’s the case.”
While the burns affected him to an extent, they didn’t have nearly the long-term effect that the team changes between the 2004 and 2005 seasons did. Ty Norris left DEI, Tony Eury Sr. was promoted, and Tony Eury Jr. moved to the No. 15 team with driver Michael Waltrip, who had fewer wins in his entire career than Junior had in the 2004 season. Why make such a massive change when the team had such success that season and from the outside seemed they’d be favored for the championship in 2005?
“That, I think, was probably the worst decision of his career," said Gurss, "And it was not entirely his decision. It was very complicated, having to do a lot with personnel at DEI. There’s about 100 layers that went into that decision, and like I said I think it was probably the worst decision that affected his career for years, I think it was unfortunate, I guess is the best way to say it.”
Speaking of the move to Hendrick, did Junior consult with his long-time publicist about it? “My client was Budweiser, so when he decided to go to Hendrick, that was all between him and Teresa and Mr. Hendrick. I was not involved in it,” he said. “I have to admit I was glad to not be a part of that."
“I think at the time it was the right decision,” Gurss concluded. “He hasn’t won as much as I think we all expected, but it was the right thing for him to do at the time. You can always be a Monday morning quarterback, but I think it was the right thing for him to do.”
"It’s the same as if I had gone to work with a different team, it’s going to be a little bit different. At the end of the day it’s somewhat the same doing a lot of the same things I did with Junior. For me it’s just been getting up to speed on learning who’s who, we've been promoting the Milwaukee race…give me a few races, I’ll be geared up and in the loop a 100 percent."
"I’m ready for it to be here that’s for sure. There’s a heck of a lot of unknowns. We’ve got new cars, new engines, so much stuff it’s a lot of unknowns but that also means a lot of intrigue and excitement. I feel like I’ve got three pretty good young hotshots on my team ready to go, so I’m anxious to get the thing started. I’m not good at prognosticating, but I think it’s going to be very exciting."
Gurss stepped into a series and an organization that just experienced a tragedy similar to the one he navigated more than a decade ago. What challenges came with beginning the season under the pall of Wheldon's death?
I wish him the best in his new position, and hope you will all join us in following his progress as Skirts and Scuffs launches full-season IndyCar coverage.