Jeffrey Earnhardt belongs to auto racing. The grandson of legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, he has been working his way towards the sport's major league circuit for years. At 22 years old, that's a goal he's still chasing. It's in his blood. But he's been infected.
Like many young athletes, Earnhardt has fallen in love with mixed martial arts, first as a fan, and now as a practitioner. And on Tuesday, Earnhardt will become a two-sport athlete when he makes his MMA debut at an event called Fight Lab 25 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The bantamweight bout, which will be contested under amateur status, came about organically, after Earnhardt decided to pick up MMA as a way to get in optimal shape.
In many ways, it is a story similar to many others we've heard before. He had wrestled for a couple years in high school, and after some time off, eased his way into jiu-jitsu classes. That seemed fun enough, and before he knew it, he was adding boxing training to his schedule.
That went well, too, to the point that the people around him were quick to let him know that he was good. Perhaps even good enough to take things to the next level and compete.
"I personally was really enjoying the training until we talked about it, and one thing led to another, and we decided we'd try an amateur fight," he told MMA Fighting. "So here we are today."
Like many, Earnhardt first got into MMA as a spectator as the UFC grew its business in the mid-2000s. But by that time, he already knew what he wanted to do for a living, racing on the local scene from the time of his early teenage years.
At the time, he had never had a thought about training. It was only when his two roommates -- both college wrestlers -- decided to try it out that he decided to tag along. Ironically, Earnhardt is the one taking it the furthest, as neither of them has yet to fight.
Unlike most others who sign up for that first fight, Earnhardt has no illusions about a bigtime MMA career. From the beginning, this has been mostly a side project for him that complements his main job.
He is candid about where MMA ranks on his personal hierarchy, and even if the dropoff isn't far from racing, it's still at No. 2. This is mostly about being ready for the big races, with his next being the NASCAR Nationwide Daytona Subway Jalapeno 250 on July 6.
"I've never been in this kind of shape in my entire life, and that includes back when I was wrestling in high school," he said. "It's real intense, it's a lot of fun. I've really enjoyed it ever since I started. I like being fit and prepared for these races, especially in the summer when it's really hot out. It's definitely going to come in handy."
That doesn't mean he's not taking his fight seriously, preparing with his team at Renegade Fighting Systems in Charlotte. He also has a scouting report on his opponent, Chris Faison, as one of his training partners -- David Worrell -- previously fought with and beat him.
"It's kind of an advantage to have a little insight from working with him," said Earnhardt, whose fight will be available for purchase on his website. "Those things will help me in my fight. These guys are preparing me extremely well for the fight, and I'm going to go out and do the best I can. Whatever I come out with is what I got."
Earnhardt doesn't draw many parallels between auto racing and MMA except for the extreme competition level and the mental focus needed to win.
Around the track, word of his foray into a second sport has gotten around. So far, the reaction has been mixed. Some think he's crazy to take the risk of fighting; others are impressed at his courage to do so. Because the two sports have similar demographics, he thinks there will be some crossover in terms of interest surrounding his fight, and maybe even some mainstream sports observers watching, and he has a message he'd like to get out.
"A lot of people don't see race car athletes as true athletes," he said. "They don't think we're capable of doing anything other than sitting in a car and driving in a circle. A lot of people don't understand the reality of it. This is an opportunity to prove to people that race car drivers are athletes. It's a lot harder than people realize. Hopefully this MMA fight will help people realize that, and that we can hold our own as athletes."
And if he does help people learn that, and he does so by winning, is there any chance that Earnhardt scraps racing, or makes MMA his primary sport? For now, he's shut the book on that possibility. Like his famous grandfather, he plans to make his name in a car, even if it takes him on an occasional side route from track to cage.
"Racing is my priority," he said. "I'm going to keep pushing in that. I love MMA, but it's only going to be in my spare time. They're both a lot of fun, but I'm definitely keeping my day job."