CONCORD, N.C. -- Even for Charlotte Motor Speedway, it was a strange scene -- a cowgirl on horseback galloping past barrels, as stock cars zoomed around the 1.5-mile oval as part of a driving school. But for Taylor Earnhardt, it was a combination of two worlds she knows very well.
The youngest child of seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, Taylor is building her name in a sport that uses another type of horsepower -- rodeo riding. What started as a coping mechanism in the wake of her father's death in 2001 has blossomed into a lifestyle, and a career that keeps her on the move as much as her famous half-brother, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"It gave me another outlet to go fast and sometimes take out my aggressions," said Taylor, 24. "I can get mad at the calf sometimes, or the horse, or whatever. I can do that, and run that much harder, and do that much better. It's a passion of mine now."
It certainly showed Thursday, when Earnhardt appeared at the speedway as part of a Western-themed promotion for next weekend's Sprint All-Star Race. She was on hand to give calf-roping and barrel-racing tips to Sprint Cup Series rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose own famous cowboy hat was in his motorhome en route to Darlington Raceway, site of Saturday night's event.
"It's a good thing I drive instead of rope," Stenhouse quipped after making a few tosses at a dummy calf. But it was all second nature to Earnhardt, who rides on a pair of rodeo circuits that keep her constantly on the road. This weekend brings an event in Gates, N.C. Next week, there are rodeos in South Carolina and Georgia. She's done about 25 already this season, and has about 40 more to go.
"I'm on the road every weekend, and sometimes during the week and weeks at a time," said Earnhardt, whose husband Brandon Putnam is also a rodeo competitor. "We go all the way up to Canada, down to Florida and Texas, and all that stuff. It's a way of life for me now, and I really love it."
The daughter of Teresa and Dale Earnhardt, Taylor as a child often appeared in Victory Lane with her father. She started riding horses at 3, but it was after her father's death in the 2001 Daytona 500 where she first turned to rodeo in earnest. Back then, it was just a distraction for a 12-year-old trying to deal with life-altering circumstances. Soon enough, it became something else entirely.
"It really just gave me something to focus on after Dad died, something to keep me going and not focus on everything that was happening. And it turned into something that's an honest career path for me," she said.
"This just gave me something to really get into, dig into deep, and really focus on. And it really helped. All the people I know in rodeo and are friends with, they're some of the most honest and humble people, because they work so hard for what they have. And it really teaches you a lot. Especially when you're growing up, it builds your values really well."
Earnhardt started in local shows, progressed to the junior circuit, and now competes in the International Professional Rodeo Association and Southern Rodeo Association. Her specialty is barrel racing, galloping in a serpentine pattern around a course demarked by barrels, without touching any of them, which would be a penalty. She's in her first year going for a national title, and a few weeks ago took home a turquoise-inlaid saddle as a trophy for winning a barrel racing event.
Her ultimate goal is reaching the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas -- which, coincidentally, is often held the same week as NASCAR's Champion's Week. "That's in the plans," she said. "We're working on finding that right horse to take me there." Like a NASCAR driver, she's looking for sponsorship, given the costs of travel, entry fees, and horses. A good rodeo mount can run $85,000, she said.
Name recognition can't hurt. "I go to rodeos, and the announcers all know me, and they kind of play it up a little bit for the fans," Earnhardt said. "And everyone will come over afterward when I'm walking around the rodeo, and I'll sign autographs. I talk to people all the time, and they recognize me and they want to talk to me and see what it's like. That allows me to kind of build my reputation and build my persona, too."
Earnhardt and her husband have also ventured into breeding rodeo horses, which recently produced a new calf. But clearly competition is what drives her, as it does so many other members of her family. "It's in our blood," she said. Her schedule, though, doesn't often allow time to watch Dale Jr. compete on television -- at night she's driving from one event to another, she said, and during the daytime she's up on the horse.
"I get updates on my phone," Earnhardt said. "I'll check every couple of days. You always hope for the best for him, but I've got my things going too that I've got to worry about."
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