The Man Behind the Image
by Bobby Markos
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. burst onto the NASCAR Cup scene in the 1999 Coca Cola 600 race, he was already well known by race fans for being a Busch Grand National Champion and the son of Dale Earnhardt Sr., one of the most recognizable figures in the sport’s history. Earnhardt Jr. would go on to win a second consecutive Busch title, and carry the momentum into a full-time Cup ride in 2000, where he won his first race in his 7th start of the year at Texas Motor Speedway.
All the while, Dale Jr. was establishing himself as a unique figure in stock car racing, shying away from the “country boy” image that racers traditionally donned and embracing pop culture and rock and roll music. The departure in identity seemed daring at the time, but appearances in MTV and Rolling Stone connected Dale Jr. with a whole new generation and audience, bringing relevancy to a sport that was aging with every coming race season. On today’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, listeners get some insight into a man who was instrumental in cultivating that personality, Dale Jr’s former publicist Jade Gurss.
As Dale Jr. and co-host Mike Davis welcome Gurss onto the set, the connection is immediately felt. The conversation starts out discussing Gurss’ success as a writer as he prepares to release his sixth book, Al Unser Jr: A Checkered Past, on October 1st. Gurss talks about his entrance into becoming an author, which was through the New York Times Best Selling book Driver #8, a detailed recounting of Dale Jr’s first season in Cup. Gurss explains that he originally pitched the project as a documentary, but visual media had not quite developed into what it is today.
He kept extensive notes on everything he and Dale Jr. did that season, and once he had a stack of them he thought “there’s something we’ve got to do with this.” The book was released on December 1, 2002 and was wildly successful, spending 17 weeks on the Best Seller’s List. Gurss recalls rewriting the book in the eleventh hour when the publisher informed him that stories told in third-person sell less than those in first-person. This realization helped him with his future projects, which included telling the stories of Darrell Waltrip, John Andretti and now Al Unser Jr.
An interesting fact that listeners will hear is that Jade Gurss actually hired Mike Davis, who was working for Cup driver Jimmy Spencer at the time. Gurss was looking to scale back his hours and really admired Davis’ work, so he set up a meeting for them all to meet, which Davis amusingly remembers Dale didn’t show up for. Davis and Gurss compare stories of trying to get Dale to appearances on time and having to stall. Davis also asks Dale and Gurss what media hit they were most proud of. The two agreed that their work with MTV in the early 2000s was most impactful.
Dale Jr. and Gurss recall their experience at the 2001 MTV Music Video awards and tell some hilarious stories from behind the scenes. They also speak on the 2000 feature in Rolling Stone written by Touré and the time they spent together in Mooresville.
Listeners can expect a look behind the curtain on some of the most iconic Dale Jr. media appearances in his early career, and some hilarious stories from a person who knows him well. Also on this week’s episode, Dale Jr. and Mike discuss the possibility of Isla becoming a fourth generation driver and Noah Gragson’s recent win at Darlington. During Ask Jr, fans ask if Dale is excited to run against Josh Berry at Richmond this weekend, how much drivers pay attention to the flag man, what teams do with leftover tires, if he watches car restoration shows and if he knows where Dale Sr’s pink K2 ride is located. All of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.
Additional reading about our guest:
Jade Gurss entered the racing world by attending races at an early age with his aunt and grandparents at various speedways in the Midwest such as Topeka Fairgrounds, Topeka Raceway, Belleville High Banks and Lakeside Speedway. Upon graduating from high school he attended Washburn University to earn a Bachelor’s in Broadcast Communication. He began working for Topeka-based Admark in the video division, which brought him to Heartland Park Topeka. He eventually would transition to working for the famed race track as the Director of Publicity.
Gurss would move to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1994 and begin working with Mercedes-Benz as an account executive and Director of Marketing and Publicity. In 1999 he took all of his prior experience and knowledge gained to form his own company, Fingerprint Inc. He began providing media and public relations for Anheuser-Busch and more specifically their Budweiser sponsorship program in NASCAR. The driver of the Budweiser number 8 car was one Dale Earnhardt Jr, and he and Gurss began working very closely together.
Gurss kept extensive notes on Dale Jr’s rookie season, knowing this would be a landmark time in stock car racing’s history. When initial pitches to television and documentary film making weren’t received, he decided to publish a book recounting the season. The finished product, Driver #8, was an immediate success and became a New York Times Best Seller, spending 17-weeks on the list.
Two years later Gurss would follow up with his second book, DW: A Lifetime Going Around in Circles, which also became a New York Times Best Seller. He has since written four more books: In the Red, Beast, Racer and upcoming Al Unser Jr: A Checkered Past.
Today Gurss continues to publish books and operate Fingerprint Inc.