In this age of ubiquitous social media, how Dale Earnhardt Jr. initially emerged as among the most culturally transcendent drivers in NASCAR history now seems a virtual afterthought.
The 14-time most popular driver is as adept as any professional athlete in communicating via Twitter, a postrace regular on Periscope and the weekly host of a podcast that is the anchor of a burgeoning digital empire created by his branding team.
But the wheels were turning on leveraging Earnhardt’s renowned authenticity long before the technological platforms of the 21st century made him much more easily accessible.
There were edgier appearances in mainstream media such as Rolling Stone, Playboy and Men’s Journal. An unconventional ad campaign in which a NASCAR driver in his mid-20s was marketed more as James Dean than Jeff Gordon. And a presenting spot at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.
“I do know now better than I knew then how impactful that is and how much that does for your recognition and the sport,” Earnhardt, 43, said. “I never really did it for me or myself.”
If Gordon’s class and polish helped deliver NASCAR to Madison Avenue and Tony Stewart was the workingman’s vehicle for reaching the blue-collar fans on Main Street, the road to multicultural hipness with a technophile’s savvy was paved best by Earnhardt – the last of a retiring triumvirate of stars who led NASCAR to the heights of popularity over the past two decades.
It’s possible to draw a through line over the 18 seasons of Earnhardt’s Cup career to appreciate how the seeds were planted for him to become so comfortable in nontraditional racing mediums, but it would need to come with an asterisk that none of it was by design for an admittedly shy star who often was petrified of being in the spotlight.
“Those things, I had nothing to do with all of that,” he said. “Those things happened because of our relationship with Budweiser and (PR representative) Jade Gurss’ work ethic and his ability to get us into those doors and into those conversations with those publications.”
The Rolling Stone profile – titled “Kurt is My Co-Pilot” in reference to Earnhardt’s fandom of Nirvana and frontman Kurt Cobain – was published in May 2000 in the aftermath of the No. 8 Chevrolet driver’s first Cup win at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000. It was just days after another victory at Richmond International Raceway and a week ahead of Earnhardt’s breakthrough victory in The Winston all-star race.
Gurss remembers that stretch early in Earnhardt’s rookie season as “insane” for the doors that it opened for reaching a new wave of media outlets.
“It was really a couple of months that set in motion a lot of momentum that theoretically continues today,” said Gurss, the author of two books about Earnhardt Jr. “Obviously, the horror with his dad at the Daytona 500, that changed a lot as well. But people who think it was only because of the death of his father, this train was rolling before 2001.”
Though some of it was a driver’s affability married with sheer happenstance, there also was the multinational corporate muscle of a beer giant known for its sports marketing prowess but not for taking its NASCAR spokesmen into such uncharted quarters of the media landscape.
“It was unlike anything Anheuser-Busch had ever seen before out of the NASCAR program,” said Tim Schuler, a partner at StrongBridge Sponsorship who oversaw Anheuser-Busch’s sponsorship of Earnhardt as a senior manager from 1999-2005. “It was, ‘What can we do with Dale Jr. to take him out of NASCAR and make him more mainstream?’ A lot of things we did early on were counterculture to what NASCAR had seen before.”
Greg Busch, president of BeSpoke Sports & Entertainment and a veteran of more than 20 years working with NASCAR brands such as Miller, Lowe’s and ExxonMobil, calls it a “perfect storm” that enabled Earnhardt’s rise as a media darling to the unconventional for NASCAR.
“There’s no other way to put it,” Busch said. “He had the name, and unfortunately because of what happened to Senior, that nation needed to migrate somewhere, and it was easy to go over to Junior. So there was a built-in base. He won on the track, so it was relevant and credible. And NASCAR was at an incredible upswing. There was an appetite for drivers, especially big-name drivers with built-in name equity. And then a sponsor like Budweiser, that’s a marketing vehicle behind anybody that put his face on thousands of point of sale collateral in retail stores. They put him in commercials.
“So it was all of those things together. I wouldn’t say any one of them. And last but not least, he’s a great personality. He comes off well. He can play in those audiences. It was really just an incredible time from all fronts.”
NBCSports.com asked Earnhardt and others about their memories of some pivotal moments from his first two seasons in NASCAR’s premier series and the legacy that will be left by Earnhardt’s brand. Here’s what they said:
THIS BUD’S FOR HIM
Earnhardt’s partnership with primary sponsor Budweiser produced one of the most iconic paint schemes on the track and one of the more ambitious driver campaigns off the track. Plastered on billboards and cardboard standups in leather jackets and backward ball caps instead of firesuits and massive logos, the selling point was exactly who Earnhardt was – a mid-20s beer drinker with a penchant for partying and a trend-setting attitude that bordered on rebellious. Though it was driven by Budweiser’s desire to enhance its demographics, Earnhardt also played a critical role in setting the tone for the approach.
Schuler: “We were looking for what do we do with him outside of that time that we could take him to more pop culture areas because Budweiser had been declining for many, many years. What could we do to try to turn that around and hopefully invigorate life into the brand itself? Instead of that drinker being a 35- to 65-year-old, we were trying to get it down to 21-35 year old. And it was interesting because Dale has learned to embrace things. He is an introvert by nature, but once you get to know him, he’s not at all. He’s very deep and very introspective.
“Early on, we brought him to St. Louis and put him through a whole day of media training. I asked, ‘How’d it go at the end, did we make some strides?’ The answer was, ‘Well, I think so. But every time we took a 10-minute break, he took a nap.’
“That was on Day 1. On Day 2, we went into what the brand wanted to do for point of sales and taglines and what the season was going to be about. We had six or seven people coming in and presenting with different agencies, and I could see his eyes just rolling into the back of his head that he wasn’t even paying attention. So toward the end of it, I said, ‘Junior, what do you think? What strikes a chord with you?’ because he was in the demographic we were going after as well.
“He stands up and went to a whiteboard in the front of the room, and he said, ‘The tagline, this is what it should be,’ and he wrote on the paper, ‘100% non-B.S.’ Budweiser’s campaign at that time was ‘True’ and about being honest, but he said, ‘No, no, don’t say, “True,” that’s not what it is. It’s “100% non-BS.” ’ I told him, ‘Well Junior, we can’t use that as the tagline,’ but it is one of those things that I savored. I went to the board, ripped off the piece of paper, and he signed it. I still have it in my collection somewhere.”
Gurss: “Our intent was to present him as he is. In that era, it felt like the drivers were very slick.”
Schuler: “Dale was great at challenging us to think better and different. He was one who didn’t like the whole merchandise line. He thought it was really uncool to wear this big Bud print over a T-shirt. He’d say, ‘That’s not what I would want to wear as a consumer.’ We brought him in, and they presented 20 different lines of clothing, and he picked out what he wanted to wear and how to wear it. He wore his hat backward for how long. ‘Junior, we get no publicity from you wearing a hat turned around.’ ‘Well, put “Bud” on the back of the hat, I’ll still flip it around.’ Sure enough, it worked. I don’t know if he started it, but he was clearly part of that evolution 17 years ago.
Gurss: “When drivers read a list of sponsors, it would drive me batty. Budweiser agreed if he just said, ‘Budweiser’ in context, they’d be thrilled. They wanted him to just be who he is and not read off a list of sponsors in every interview. He’s such a compelling personality, and they recognized it. That was a part of it. The internal discussion, it was, ‘Let’s let him be a guy that guys want to have a beer with and the ladies want to have a beer with,’ so that played into the way they did their photos and promos.”
Schuler: “He was telling us, ‘If you want to reach consumers, this is what you need to go for,’ and he was dead on. He did a lot of things for us through the early days.”
Sometimes, the driver took matters into his own hands, such as after a wreck at Pocono Raceway that Schuler recalled.
Schuler: “They put more duct tape on the left-front quarter panel then I’d ever seen, they had to spray paint it. Dale took the spray paint and put a ‘DMP’ on the front of it. I’m watching at home and it’s got this huge ‘DMP.’ I called Jade to ask, ‘What is that on our car?’ ‘Junior thought it would be fun if he gave a shoutout to his friends. It’s the Dirty Mo Posse.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God. OK.’
“That’s something you can’t control, and he did it. I think he got more fans because of that than anything else, because he was ‘100% no BS.’ ”
Gurss: “He was himself and had this great attribute of about every six months, almost getting bored with something, so he had something new to discuss. He got into boxing and wanted a ring, so we could discuss that for a few months. He would always come up with unique hobbies or interests that from a media standpoint, we were always refreshing. Every time we came to Texas, we had something new to talk about vs. the same old thing.”
Schuler: “We bought an in-car camera every race, and on the first lap at Richmond, there was a skull and crossbones. I’m like, ‘Oh God, now what?’ I called Jade again and asked, ‘Why is there a skull and crossbones next to the Bud sticker on the in-car camera?’ ‘That’s the Dirty Mo Posse emblem.’ It’s also the emblem for poison, and we are a food product! So that was an uncomfortable conversation I had with Junior that he’s no longer to put poison symbols next to Bud.”
NASCAR’S ROCK AND ROLL DRIVER
In the May 11, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone (and again in 2001), Earnhardt was profiled by Touré, a pop culture writer who would become an MSNBC host and remains a well-known freelance journalist and podcaster. Despite their disparate backgrounds, driver and writer had an instant rapport.
Touré: “I don’t think I knew anything about him before they asked. But nobody in Rolling Stone knew anything about him. They asked me to do the story on Dale Jr. because I did a story on DMX, the rapper, and part of the story included a fairly vivid description of him driving around LA at night. It was like, ‘He writes really well about the literal act of driving. So let’s get him to interview Dale Jr.!’ None of us knew anything about NASCAR, and I knew the least of nothing. I was like, “Sure!’ ”
Gurss: “They sent Touré in, but not intended to be a big, major feature, but Touré and Jr. really hit it off and the first day or two of interviews went so well, it gained traction to do something a little bigger.”
After a trip to Charlotte, Touré was dispatched to spend time with Earnhardt at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the rookie qualified third in the third race that season.
Touré: “I asked very stupid questions like, ‘Why are there lights on the car if you drive during the day?’ He was very patient with me. For somebody coming from a one-on-one kind of place, I’m learning what NASCAR is about this weekend. And he was very cool about like just taking me by the hand.
“That was part of Dale’s charm, I think, that he was clearly humble enough to do that. I think he understood that some of the national media have little understanding of NASCAR, and we’re going to have to educate them — and be happy educating them and pulling them in and not be arrogant about it.
“I remember thinking I didn’t know how epic his father was at that time, so when I’m interviewing him in his trailer, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of greatness. I could tell he was a respected driver, but I didn’t realize how great he was. I remember he undressed in front of me. He was just doing his thing. He was doing his job. He probably realized I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but there’s so much to talk about in that world.”
Gurss: “I don’t know who suggested it, but we decided to walk around the track. The track lights were still on, and the three of us took a mile and a half slow walk around on the apron and banking of the Texas track. It feels like forever ago because Touré was recording on cassettes. He had all these cassettes he’d put in a box, and the very next day, he had it shipped out for someone to transcribe. Lord only knows how many cassettes he went through.”
Touré: “I remember real vividly his (qualifying) run for the trials, the time trials, and his dad was like, “How’d you do that?” “Go straight, turn left!” I thought that was pretty funny.
“There was something special about Dale as a young guy and the son of royalty. He was fun to hang out with. And then just driving around his town, it was just cool. We hung out in Mooresville a couple of times. After his dad passed, I went and spent the weekend with him. I consider that a huge compliment that in that moment when you really don’t want to talk to anybody, it was, ‘I’ve got to talk to somebody, I’ll talk to him.’ ”
Gurss: “It’s hard in context now to appreciate how impactful it was in that era. It was important to Junior as a media outlet because it was something that he and his buddies appreciated and enjoyed. It was the same thing that happened in the next couple of years with MTV Cribs. Junior wanted to do it because his buddies thought it would be cool. Some of the stuff he would do because Budweiser or I thought it would be good. He was great and went along with it. Rolling Stone and MTV meant more to him personally than other stuff we’d been doing. He felt very open about really wanting it to be a good piece.”
Touré: “It was foreign. I think something probably said, ‘Yeah, it probably would be better to be at Vegas than Daytona.’ The official NASCAR folks at the races were all very inviting and welcoming to me, they were super thrilled to have Rolling Stone there and couldn’t have been nicer. They didn’t let on to me they were nervous about how I was going to perceive them.”
Gurss: “Some at NASCAR got a little concerned because Touré shows up with short dreadlocks, and they still were under some heat about the diversity thing. Touré asked about interviewing Brian France. They got very nervous that somehow it was some sort of subterfuge that he was going to write this scathing story about the lack of diversity.”
Touré: “I don’t remember everyone saying or doing anything that made me comfortable. I remember driving around with Junior (in Mooresville), and we passed an intersection and then you don’t see another street for miles. He said someone at the other intersection had made like a face, which indicated to him, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing driving around with him?’ He pointed this out in a way that wasn’t like ‘I’m so woke!’ which wasn’t a thing at that time, but just like, ‘That guy had something to say about it. Whatever.’ He was cool to me from the first second.”
Schuler: “The Rolling Stone story was probably the biggest attention-grabber because what it meant for the brand itself. (Budweiser) was heavily trying to get in with music and trying to brand itself with various genres. It was a magazine we advertised in quite a bit. Always wanted to get different stories in there. Here’s a young kid from Mooresville, North Carolina, on the cover of Rolling Stone. That really jumped us. He also was on the cover of TV Guide. I’ve got a poster of all the different publications we did with him — Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Sports Illustrated.
“Those were big because of the attention that we could get very quickly outside of the NASCAR world and fandom. That’s what we were truly going for. Go to a NASCAR race and ask anyone if they knew Dale Jr. drove the Bud car, and it was easy to get that done. It was, ‘How do we get him out of that?’ ”
Touré: “Rolling Stone definitely liked putting a fish out of water. It really worked putting me there because I had a discovery process. I was learning about NASCAR so I could teach the audience about NASCAR as well as tell you about this guy rather than the expert. That usually works quite well, but the expert knows so much, he may not remember what the audience does not know.”
‘I CAN’T GO THERE IN A MOORESVILLE SUIT’
The following season brought more opportunities, notably introducing Linkin Park at the 2001 Video Music Awards and a candid interview in Playboy.
Earnhardt: “I was super shy. I’m going to tell you that there is no bigger fear than going to the MTV Music Awards and introducing Linkin Park. I don’t think I have experienced fear like that ever since. If it was up to me, I would have never done those things. I would have said heck no, I’m not doing that. I don’t want to do that. That is scary.”
Gurss: “He was always really nervous on Kimmel and Letterman stuff. Then he’d do it and knock it out of the park, and I’d say, ‘I told you you’d be great!’
“But I don’t want to overstate I was badgering him. Before presenting at the VMAs, he said, in one of my favorite lines, ‘I can’t just go there in a Mooresville suit.’ We’d met a stylist from New York while on a People magazine shoot in Dover. We went to her office the afternoon of the VMAs, picked out what to wear, and the town car picked us up and took us to the event. Sometimes, there was no grand plan, it was just saying, ‘Hey this will be cool. This will be fun.’ ”
Earnhardt: “(Gurss) has a knack for helping me try and understand why we should do it. What the response and the repercussions would be from that, and the positives and the opportunities that would follow that. He would say like if this happens, then this could happen and this can happen.”
Gurss: “I’ve never seen him so nervous, he was wound tight. We didn’t know what to expect or how it works. We just knew the car was there, and a volunteer would meet us to be our guide. They sent us the script that was just terrible. We’re in our high-fashion suits in the car, and he says, ‘I’m not saying this.’ I said, ‘We’ll figure something out. It’s a live telecast, they’re not going to stop the show if you don’t say exactly what’s on that.’ Our volunteer handler was a dentist, a really nice guy. We got to the red carpet fairly early, and we asked him if we could change the script. The guy disappears, comes back and says, ‘I found the person doing the teleprompter.’ He takes us back to a cubbyhole in the theater, and Dale makes up something like, ‘I like my music like I like my cars, fast as hell. Some cliché but something better than what they had, and the person just typed it in the teleprompter! We were thinking, ‘OK, don’t know if someone needed to approve that, but it’s in there.”
“He did all the media afterward. They were stunned he was willing to do this, and we said, ‘That’s what the sponsor pays him to do. We do this every weekend.’ ”
Earnhardt: “That was just kind of a perfect storm between being paired with (Gurss) and having the clout that Budweiser had that could get us into those conversations. Being in the right place at the right time because if it was up to me, I would have never done those things. I would have been like ‘Heck, no! I want to just drive.’ I’m still very scared of doing those big hits, like music awards and things in front of a lot of people is very challenging for me.”
A SUCCESSFUL LEGACY
Earnhardt’s impact on Budweiser’s business was almost immediate, leading to more freedom in the campaign.
Schuler: “It was pretty quick the transition from normal NASCAR driver to a superstar with Bud on his chest. The first year, we had to put Budweiser in there somewhere and a reference to NASCAR. The next year, it was him completely away from the car. It was a contemporary adult. Every NASCAR fan would know who he was. If someone wasn’t a NASCAR fan, it was just a 26-year-old kid or model in the store trying to get someone to choose Budweiser.
“We measured a lot of what we did with properties based on the wholesale system and how much they ordered point of sale items. Prior to Dale Jr., July 4, Memorial Day and the Olympics would garner the vast amount of excitement. The first year with Dale Jr., the NASCAR program went from No. 12 to No. 1 very quickly because he was what they wanted to use to sell Budweiser beer. That’s a metric that’s easy to see because wholesalers have to buy that stuff. They’re putting their money where their mouth is.”
Gurss: “All the cardboard standups, the neon signs, all the bar stuff — the local wholesalers and distributors have to buy that from Budweiser. In the Ricky Craven and Wally Dallenbach Jr. days, roughly 50% of the markets would buy that stuff. Within the first year or two of Dale Jr., it went to 90% plus. I always teased people I was judged by the number of cardboard standups at the 7-11. I knew my job was safe when I saw a neon sign at the bar. I was fascinated by that being a point of real numbers to help them judge the impact it was having.”
The wave of young drivers replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s generation is heavily reliant on social media, which ensures their backing sponsors and brands are built around their genuine personalities. It’s an area in which Earnhardt was ahead of the curve
Schuler: “The built-in fan base with the last name certainly helped, but it was who he was as a person. Most of those stories were prior to his dad’s passing. He already was on a trajectory that no one thought he could get to, and then the tragedy happened and elevated him to icon status.”
Earnhardt: “Those things happened because of our relationship with Budweiser, and then Jade Gurss’ work ethic and his ability to get us into those doors and into those conversations with those publications. That happened because of a really dedicated, professional person that sees opportunity and does it just as much for himself if not for the person they are working with. I have to give Jade just a lot of credit. He worked really hard to get those opportunities for us.”
Gurss: “It wasn’t something we’d sit around and theorize. It’s great to say in retrospect, ‘You know we had this bigger picture.’ It sounds pompous. So we didn’t sit around his bus and talk about that. It was just an awareness of trying to get him to get out of his comfort zone. He was very shy. If it were up to him, he’d stay inside and play video games and watch movies. Which is all great.”
Though Earnhardt’s father reportedly grumbled about some of his son’s interviews, he was fully supportive of his progeny taking the namesake to new audiences.
Schuler: “When Senior was alive, he was the only person who snapped Junior into what we’re trying to do and where we’re going. That was a loss for Junior in terms of, ‘How do I do this and where do I go?’ I
give him and his sister an immense amount of credit for the empire they’ve built. They’ve done it by not making a whole lot of mistakes. I’d almost call him the Derek Jeter of NASCAR. He was most eligible bachelor for how long but never a racy story. That’s a true compliment to the moral compass that Big E provided him prior to him leaving. I’m proud of the man he’s become.”
Gurss: “At that time, his dad was saying, ‘I’ve done my part. You’re up and coming. It’s time for you to do your part for NASCAR.’ His dad had instilled in him that view. When (Mike) Helton would approve, that meant a lot to him. Before his dad passed, his dad was like that. He had a bigger picture of more than himself and a sense of the sport as a whole.”
Earnhardt: “Even today, it is still something I don’t have a total grasp on. But I know now, realizing what it could do for the sport and trying to be a good representative of the sport. Having a great relationship with Helton. I love making him proud especially. He and Dad were really close. When Dad was killed, I looked at Helton a bit as a father figure at times and would go lean on him and he would tell me about how well I was doing and if I was representing the sport well. It would push me to want to do that more to make him proud of me. That had a lot to do with it, too.”