CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has driven plenty of different cars in his lifetime, but never one quite like the vehicle he wheeled Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
NASCAR's most popular driver rolled into the track's theatre behind the wheel of a long, black automobile once owned by the King -- and we don't mean Richard Petty. As part of a promotion for the track's upcoming auto show, Earnhardt slid into the seat of Elvis Presley's 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III, the last car the iconic musician drove before his death in 1977. Still with its Tennessee license plate and a few royal scratches and dings here or there, the car has been preserved in the condition in which Presley kept it.
"I'm a big fan," said Earnhardt, who has an entire room of Elvis memorabilia in his home. "Knowing how big of an entertainer he was, what he means to so many people, it really meant a lot to me today to be able to drive it."
Earnhardt said he became an Elvis fan while spending time at the house of his grandmother while his father was out of town racing. Martha Earnhardt's "whole house was Elvis, from one end to the other," he said. It was full of photos, figurines and other mementos, and Elvis music on the radio all the time. Growing up in that environment, it was natural for the younger Earnhardt to become a fan, and soon enough his own fans were sending him so many Presley souvenirs that he dedicated a whole room of his house to them.
Earnhardt said he has "a couple of hundred" albums, and even a cape someone sent him. He even likes Elvis' movies -- such as "Speedway," part of which was filmed at the Charlotte track, though the King of Rock and Roll was never on the property. "My girlfriend loves the movies because of Ann-Margaret and all that stuff," Earnhardt added. "We watch the movies and stuff like that."
So getting a chance to wheel Presley's car, which will be the centerpiece of a car show to be held at the track April 3-6, was clearly a thrill. The Blackhawk was built in Italy to Presley's specifications, which included a vertical front grille, whitewall tires, exhaust pipes running down either side, and even a fur-lined trunk. According to Jack Soden, chairman of Elvis Presley Enterprises, the trip to the Charlotte area marked the first time the vehicle has left Graceland since Elvis' passing. Earnhardt said Presley drove the car only a few hours before he died.
"It's got his personality written all over it, with the side pipes and the character lines and the interior," Earnhardt said. Riding in the passenger seat Tuesday was Earnhardt's car owner Rick Hendrick, a noted automobile nut who once saw Elvis in concert in Las Vegas.
"I've seen pictures of this car. Never thought we'd get the chance to sit in it," Hendrick said. "? I never thought we'd get to touch it or see it, let alone sit in it and drive it. Pretty special."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets behind the wheel of Elvis' 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III. (Photo credit: CMS/HHP Photo)
The Blackhawk hasn't been the only car on Earnhardt's mind this week. On the flight home from last weekend's race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Earnhardt took part in an exchange on Twitter with open-wheel driver Graham Rahal, who shares Earnhardt's National Guard sponsor and proposed they undertake a ride swap like the one Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya did at Indianapolis in 2003.
Although Earnhardt initially seemed receptive to the idea, the manufacturer conflict it would present makes it about as likely as him wheeling the Stutz in this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.
"He drives a Honda, which I believe is more than just a speed bump," Earnhardt said. "If I wanted to drive an IndyCar, I'm sure I could get with Penske or somebody who owns a Chevy and take a couple of laps somewhere. But it would have been fun to do that with Graham, with the relationship of our sponsors and the histories of our families. And I look forward to meeting him one day. But I think the fact that he has the relationship with that manufacturer is going to make it challenging if not impossible for me to drive that particular car."
Earnhardt emphasized he has no desire to race an open-wheel car, just take one for a spin. His more immediate racing concerns revolve around Martinsville, a half-mile track not unlike those he competed on during his late model days, and a place where he's yet to win at NASCAR's highest level.
Adding to the personal significance is the fact that this weekend marks the 30th anniversary of Hendrick's first premier series victory, which came at Martinsville with a small team that would blossom into the Hendrick Motorsports empire.
"I have wanted to win a race there for so long, and trying to get the grandfather clock for my house," Earnhardt said, referring to the Ridgeway clocks Martinsville awards to its winners. "I love short-track racing, and I've gone to races there all my life. That was one of the races we could go to even in the school year while we were kids. Lot of history there, lot of memories there. Had some good cars there, just never been able to get the job done. I'd love to be able to win there."
Is there space somewhere near the Elvis room for a grandfather clock?
"Absolutely. I got room for a lot of grandfather clocks," said Earnhardt, whose father won six times at Martinsville. "To have one in my house, it's definitely a trophy I grew up around. We had many in our home. I'd love to have one in my house as well."
Sunday, he gets another opportunity to take one home. As for the Stutz Blackhawk? As much he loves Elvis, Earnhardt turned the keys back over to the folks from Graceland following his brief, rain-shortened spin Tuesday afternoon.
"I don't know if this is exactly my style," Earnhardt said. "But back then, in the '70s, I bet this was pretty cool."