Jade Gurss: From Earnhardt to Andretti, NASCAR to IndyCar

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 
Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the DEI No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet from 1999-2007. During the years he was “in the red” of that Budweiser firesuit, most of his life was managed by Jade Gurss, the publicist employed by Anheuser-Busch on Earnhardt Jr.’s behalf. Now Junior drives for Rick Hendrick and Gurss recently began working for Michael Andretti, another legendary name in motorsports.

Gurss came to my attention on Twitter in a #Motorama chat promoting his new book In The Red: The 2001 Season with Dale Earnhardt Jr., He later agreed to speak with me about his background, his time working with NASCAR’s most popular driver, as well as a bit about his new gig as director of corporate Communications at Andretti Autosport. He was candid, but guarded in some areas because of the personal and sensitive nature of much of the subject matter. As publicist for a Cup driver, especially this driver during those years, Gurss witnessed more drama than many people experience in a lifetime. It’s a testament to his integrity that he did not yield to the temptation of selling stories he witnessed from his intimate vantage point.

“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. 

The beginning   

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. 

The Budweiser years of Dale Jr. from 1999-2007

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. 

Steve Park's Darlington crash

In the book, Gurss briefly mentions Junior's DEI teammate Steve Park's horrific crash in the Busch race at Darlington in September 2001. Park, driver of the DEI No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy, was piloting the Whelen Engineering Chevy for Ted Marsh. As the field began moving after a rain delay, Larry Foyt, who was a lap down, rushed to get back to the front of the field for the restart. Park’s car made an abrupt left turn, directly into the path of Foyt, who could not avoid crashing directly into the driver's side at what he later estimated to be about 100 mph. I was watching the race when the accident happened, and wondered how Earnhardt Jr. and DEI as a whole reacted to the situation.

"It’s intriguing that you ask about that," Gurss said, "Because if there’s a scenario that develops where I do the followup to this, the 2002 story, Steve Park’s crash takes on a much larger role."

Analysts believe Park must have removed the steering wheel during the delay and didn't get it back on properly. Park doesn't remember. He was wearing a Hutchens Device, the series of straps and buckles developed by RCR engineer Bobby Hutchens, but was knocked unconscious by the impact, suffering a traumatic brain injury that left him with blurred vision and slurred speech. He missed the rest of the season and the beginning of the 2002 season.

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.” 

Junior's burns

During the #Motorama chat, I'd asked Gurss about the burns Earnhardt, Jr. suffered during a crash at Sonoma in July 2004, while practicing for an American Le Mans race. He said that they'd affected him more than most people realized. During our interview, I observed that it seemed those burns had kept him from doing much racing outside the Cup series. Gurss said, “Well, yes and no. Yes, it did put a damper on it but not in the way you might think."

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.” 

The Great Crew Swap

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.” 

Gurss was a bit more direct in this 2010 blog post, saying, “despite being teamed again with Eury Jr. again at DEI and Hendrick, [Earnhardt Jr.] hasn't reclaimed the performance of the 2004 season.”

Driver No. 88

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.”

The IndyCar season starts this weekend, and Jade Gurss now works as director of corporate communications with drivers Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and James Hinchcliffe, along with a number of young drivers in supporting series. Was there a learning curve with the move?  

"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."

So Gurss moved from Earnhardt to Andretti. Not directly, of course, but he worked with the son of a stock car legend, now he works for the son of an open-wheel legend. He said, "It’s similar that 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. It’s really pretty heavy stuff." Gurss explained that he feels responsible for taking care of that history and the family name. "It’s cool, it’s fun. You want to honor that history and build new history going forward and make the best of it."

When I asked whether he preferred stock cars or open-wheel, he said, "I’m an open wheel guy, I grew up around sprint cars, midgets, IndyCars, so that’s the closest to my heart."

Any comments on the upcoming IndyCar season?

"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."

A lot of eyes will be on the first race, given the way last season ended. The on-track death of Dan Wheldon brought a lot of attention to the sport, though not in the way anyone would ever have wanted. To further add to the emotional impact of the situation, just that morning Wheldon had signed with Andretti to take over the seat Danica Patrick was vacating with her move to NASCAR full time. Now that car will be piloted by the irrepressible James Hinchcliffe. 

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?

"The challenges are the same thing that we went through with Dale Earnhardt," Gurss said. "How do you move forward in a way that allows you to honor Dan. Not move on, but move forward in your life and do the things that you’re sure Dan would have wanted you to do." 

"You know, Marco Andretti talks about a lot about the fact that Dan was a competitor, that he would want us to compete, he would want us to go forward, so you try to honor that spirit."

The first race is The Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Gurss said, "The fact that he was from St. Pete I think is going to be sad. We were all at the memorial service at St. Pete where they dedicated the Turn 10 area to him, so that’s all wrapped up in the race weekend. That’s part of moving on, I guess. To make him proud of how you go from here, how you move on from a great tragedy."

"It won’t be easy, but I believe it’s part of the healing process to move on."

If anyone has experience in moving on in this kind of situation, it's Jade Gurss. And no one is more qualified to help build the brands of the drivers while protecting the Andretti family name than Gurss.

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. 
Jade Gurss: From Earnhardt to Andretti, NASCAR to IndyCar Jade Gurss: From Earnhardt to Andretti, NASCAR to IndyCar Reviewed by Janine Cloud on Sunday, March 25, 2012 Rating: 5