When he opened his first restaurant in uptown Charlotte a decade ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could have gone with a NASCAR theme to bank on his hall of fame career at the racetrack.
Instead, Earnhardt went with something else that was dear to him: a western theme based on the replica Wild West town he built on his property outside Mooresville. Earnhardt's third Whisky River restaurant is now open at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, with meaty entrees, a wall covered with belt buckles and a stationary mechanical bull named Junebug.
"I have a bit of an interest in the Wild West and old Clint Eastwood movies. Those were my dad’s favorites," Earnhardt said Monday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at RDU. "So we sort of bring that to life in the decor of these locations."
The RDU Whisky River is the second in an airport, after one that opened at Charlotte Douglas International in 2015. Earnhardt's partner in both airport restaurants is HMSHost, which operates 15 eateries at RDU, including Whisky River's neighbors at the end of Concourse D in Terminal 2, Starbucks and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
Steve Johnson, HMSHost's president and CEO, said he could see Whisky River restaurants in 30 to 40 airports within a decade. Johnson said they'll be popular in the South, Las Vegas and other places where NASCAR is big and where Earnhardt's name has particular cachet.
"He's one of our national heroes," Johnson said. "He's an entrepreneur, and he loves food."
For now, there are two more Whisky Rivers set to open, at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and in North Myrtle Beach. Earnhardt said his family is interested in working with HMSHost to open Whisky Rivers around the country, encouraged by the volume of business so far. He said they had to take the mechanical bull out of the Charlotte airport restaurant.
"There just weren't enough seats, so many people trying to get in," he said. "That’s a good problem to have. We hope to have that same issue here.”
Earnhardt helped draw a crowd to Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony that included state senators and House members who were allowed through security without a plane ticket for the occasion. Steve Brown, who helps book musical acts for the small stages in the Whisky River restaurants, started a set with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," while Earnhardt fans who happened to be passing through the airport craned their necks and their cellphones hoping to get a good glimpse of him.
Earnhardt, 43, retired from NASCAR racing last fall, ending a career that began when he was 17 and earned him NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Award 15 years in a row. In an interview Monday, Earnhardt said he doesn't miss being on the circuit.
“There’s times when I’m watching the guys practice where I’m like, you know, I wouldn’t mind running a lap or two, get out there and do some running a little bit," he said. "But I don’t miss the actual racing and the week-to-week travel and all that.”
Earnhardt has a number of projects to keep him busy. In addition to the restaurant business, he and his wife, Amy, have made a four-part show for the DIY Network called "Renovation Realities: Dale Jr. & Amy," which follows the couple as they rebuild a 150-year-old house in Key West, Fla.
“That will keep me at the racetrack," he said. "Keep me talking about it, hanging out with the guys, seeing all the folks.”