None of us are just one thing. We are all the sum of our parts.
But sometimes that's hard to remember, especially where famous people are concerned. We only see them as a series of vignettes and too easily assume those brief glimpses indicate everything we need to know, even though those assumptions are invariably wrong.
But it is still sometimes possible to learn an awful lot about a person in just a few moments--and that's definitely true where Dale Earnhardt Jr. is concerned.
I sat down with Dale to talk about the new television series he executive produced, Nascar: The Rise of American Speed. (The first installment airs May 8 at 9 p.m.) He's justifiably proud of the show; it's a cool look at the history of Nascar and the sport's entrepreneurial roots, blending historical footage with interviews and reenactment sequences.
For a while we talked about the history of Nascar. I asked what driver he wished he could have raced against. He admired Cale Yarborough: his ability inside the car was awesome, but Dale also appreciated the way he approached his job, the way he interacted with other drivers, and how he handled conflict.
He would have liked to have raced on Bristol and Dover when those tracks were asphalt (both are now paved with concrete). He would "die to race at Atlanta" back when it was a true oval, before its 1997 reconfiguration.
He cried when Jimmy Means crashed out of the World 600 in 1987; the perennially underfunded Means got the opportunity to drive a Hendrick car, and Dale was excited to see what Means could do with great equipment. But after a handful of laps, Means was out of the race, an amazing opportunity gone.
And he has a "giant, heavy fear" of one day being broke, making him feel the need to save, to push money down the pipeline and out of reach, to put fail-safe programs into place, to not wind up like athletes who go broke. It happened to them, and he doesn't want it to happen to him.
Then I decided to talk about role models.
The person you choose as a role model--and it is a choice--often says more about you than about the person you choose. We tend to admire certain people because we see something of ourselves in them.
Choosing a role model is one part aspiration and many parts affirmation: We choose qualities that don't just reflect what we would like to be but that are already extremely important to us.
With at least 150 employees spread across a variety of businesses, Dale is also a boss, so I asked, "Who is your leadership role model?"
He answered immediately, without hesitation or reflection.
"Mr. Hendrick, my boss," he said. "I don't know how he works as hard as he does and remembers everyone's name. He has 80 dealerships across the country and racing is his hobby. He has 500 employees at his race shop, at his 'hobby' ... and he has this amazing knack of remembering everything that is happening to everybody. He knows everybody's kids and their wives. He's just an amazing person."
Dale could have talked about Rick Hendrick's estimated net worth of approximately $1 billion. He didn't. He could have focused on the 11 Nascar championships Hendrick race teams have won. He didn't.
Hendrick is incredibly successful in a variety of pursuits; Dale could have emphasized any number of admirable qualities.
But, instead, he chose to highlight how engaged Hendrick is--on a personal level--with the people who work for, and with, him. Clearly, to Hendrick, his employees are more than employees. They're people. They matter.
That's what Dale admires most.
And that is clearly the kind of person Dale not only wants to be but already tries to be.
Interview enough people, especially famous or successful people, and you can tell when you're about to get a prepared answer; it's like you can see them shuffle through their mental file cards until they find the right one. (I'm not being critical--I do that too.)
I feel sure Dale does that sometimes. He must: Nascar drivers are more accessible to fans, do more interviews, and make more appearances than athletes from any other sport. That's part of the gig, and that's especially true for Dale, a guy who has been voted Nascar's most popular driver for the past 13 years.
But he didn't give me a canned answer. Unless he can somehow channel Meryl Streep, the answer I got was genuine and sincere.
And even though we are all the sum of our parts, that answer tells me just about everything I need to know about Dale Earnhart Jr., the same way the person you choose as a role model could tell you just about everything you need to know--about yourself.