Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be becoming a Parrot Head. The retiring NASCAR driver, who will be competing in his final race as a full-time Cup driver this Sunday at Homestead, spent the days leading up to that final race in Key West, the southernmost city in the United States at the end of a chain of islands that are a top tourist destination.
Earnhardt and wife Amy, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child, have spent the last few months off and on in the city renovating a home for a reality show that will be shown on the DIY network in January.
Friday at Homestead, Earnhardt met with the media for his last scheduled press conference. He had made the three and a half hour drive from Key West to Homestead after sending his private plane home to North Carolina to bring family members back to Homestead Sunday.
The Keys took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma in September. The category 2 Hurricane caused widespread damage to the fragile Keys, leaving many homeless and causing millions in damage. Tourists visiting were out of the question.
“The Keys had a difficult past several months with (Hurricane) Irma,” Earnhardt said Friday. “We have a lot of friends down there that were affected by that. On the drive from Key West all the way up here, oh man, they are still really, really struggling. A lot of people still displaced. A lot of people lost their homes. It is still a very difficult and challenging situation for a lot of people in the middle Keys. “
The people who call the Florida Keys home, to some it’s known as the Conch Republic, live by their own rules; living a carefree lifestyle, not seen on the mainland. In the aftermath of the storm, they’ve also come together to help rebuild and restore their lives. And Earnhardt said Friday the Keys now need those tourists to come back.
“One of the things that I saw that was really neat and kind of uplifting was not only Key West Old Town — the town itself, they are ready for people to come,” Earnhardt said. “They’re ready. It is as if they didn’t miss a beat. So, if everybody is wondering if the Keys are open for business, they are. And those people are ready to serve you. On the drive up here, every mile there is a makeshift sign out of plywood with whatever business name is painted on it with big OPEN spray painted on there. Those people are resilient and they need people to go down there and vacation and help the economy in that particular area. It looks like they are working hard to get back on their feet. That is really fun to see.”
Earnhardt owns a vacation home in the Keys, and now that he won’t be racing fulltime, may just end up making the Florida Keys his permanent home.
“We just love it down there,” he said. “It was really good to spend a couple of days down there are see how everyone is doing.”