How the business savvy of Dale Earnhardt built a marketing empire for NASCAR stars

Dale Earnhardt business marketing
Kelly Jordan/USA TODAY Sports

NBC Sports will take a look at the life, legacy and long-lasting impact of Dale Earnhardt who died 20 years ago this week on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. This is the third chapter in an oral history series that remembers “The Intimidator” though the voices of those who knew the seven-time Cup Series champion who remains one of the biggest icons in NASCAR history.

Adjacent to the “deerhead shop” – an aluminum-sided inner sanctum of race cars surrounded by its owner’s trophy hunting-covered walls – Dale Earnhardt’s business empire started at a square maroon desk.

When Don Hawk joined Dale Earnhardt Inc in 1993 to help manage the appearances, branding and commercial opportunities for the seven-time NASCAR champion, his office primarily was in a converted brick farmhouse on Earnhardt’s sprawling property in Mooresville, North Carolina.

It’s where many major decisions were made by Earnhardt and his wife, Teresa, that charted the transcendent superstar’s course as a nine-figure marketing machine whose reach rivaled that of the most popular personalities in other professional sports.

ESSENCE OF THE INTIMIDATOR: What Dale Earnhardt meant to people

‘THE TWO DALES’: Drivers recall what it was like racing the seven-time champion

“I remember Dale and Teresa asking ‘What are we going to do that’s different?’ ” Hawk told NBC Sports. “I said, We’re going to market Dale Earnhardt as an athlete, not a race car driver.’

“The perception in’93 was that we were a barefoot, bib overall, redneck sport. That we had this whole reputation of being backward in business. What I saw in Earnhardt, once I traveled with him and watched the fan interaction, he was the Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus of his sport.”

Like those icons, Earnhardt became a household name in part from myriad multimillion-dollar endorsements that aligned him with ubiquitous trademarks ranging from fast food (Burger King) to toys (Hasbro) to beverages and snacks (Coca-Cola and Nabisco). Hawk said Nike founder Phil Knight had an autographed framed photo of Earnhardt, showing off the Swoosh on his shoes after winning the 1998 Daytona 500, prominently featured at company headquarters.

Dale Earnhardt business marketing
Dale Earnhardt’s firesuit carried the logos of several major brands before qualifying in November 1999 at Phoenix Raceway (Rick Scuteri/USA Today Sports/US Presswire).

But aside from expanding NASCAR’s footprint beyond endemic racing-oriented sponsorships, he also built a financial and licensing model for his peers to follow as merchandise revenues from diecast race cars and other souvenirs ballooned (Earnhardt’s Sports Image company licensed and sold his merchandise in trailers at the track).

“It was huge; he was really good at marketing and merchandising,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said. “He gave me advice that, ‘The most important thing you have is your name. Don’t ever give anyone the rights to your name.’ And he really thought about the business side and how to utilize the work he had done to build the name he had. Those were important to him.”

Some of Earnhardt’s biggest deals were joint partnerships with the drivers whom he slammed fenders with on track in feuds that built his sway.

Dale Earnhardt business marketing
Dale Earnhardt poses next to his hauler after practice Feb. 11, 1997 at Daytona International Speedway (USA TODAY Sports).

While Jeff Gordon’s rise threatened his victory totals, Earnhardt viewed the emergence of a young championship foil as a vehicle for building interest in NASCAR, and they entered business and real estate ventures together (including as shareholders in Action Performance, a major diecast retailer that also bought Sports Image from Earnhardt for $30 million).

“He would know who was selling (how much) every weekend,” Gordon said of Earnhardt during a December 2018 appearance on The Dale Jr. Download. “Where his sales are, where the other drivers are, he knew it all. I think my stuff started getting up there. I’m sure there was a little rivalry and competition, but he embraced it and said, ‘Man, I think we got something here we can grow.’ ”

Dale Jarrett owned three businesses with Earnhardt and said Cup drivers appreciated being able to draft off the enormously popular “Intimidator” persona into their own profitable windfalls.

“He didn’t have to do that, he could have made his own money,” said Jarrett, the NASCAR on NBC analyst and 1999 Cup Series champion. “And even though it was about making money for all of us, it also was about bringing a service and opportunity to the fans. I think we all appreciated that and what helped drive the sport.”

Hawk said Earnhardt’s drive at the office started early after 5:30 a.m. rounds of his shop and the livestock on his farm.

“When he came to the office, he wanted to know how much money we made last week and what did we plan on doing this week,” said Hawk, who started as general manager and rose to president of DEI during his 1993-2000 tenure. “The minute the helmet was hung up and Monday morning came, it was, ‘How many dollars of souvenirs did we sell? What was our gross profit, revenues and expenses? What did we net?’ And he started doing that with endorsements, sponsorships and spokesmanships. For an eighth-grade education, he was very sharp. You didn’t have to tell him twice, and one thing he understood was money.”

Through interviews with those in his business orbit during the 1990s zenith, NBC Sports explored Earnhardt’s meticulously constructed Q score clout in this chapter of a weeklong series recalling the legacy of Earnhardt 20 years after his death:

Don Hawk, former DEI president: The relationships start to build bridges. Coca-Cola was huge. It took a long time to get that done. Earnhardt had a different deal than just being part of the Coca-Cola Racing Family. He had the true endorsement. That started to kick the door down. We did Remington Rifles, and it wasn’t just Dale got guns, he got money to endorse it. The Nabisco deal, Dale spoke at their annual convention to their employees and leaders, and they paid a regular speaking fee like someone in the Washington Speakers Bureau, and they paid him over six digits to come just to speak.

We went to the QVC (home shopping network) with one goal in mind — and Michael Jordan and (agent) David Falk couldn’t have been better sports about it. But in one hour, we broke Michael Jordan’s record for selling products on QVC. We sold $768,000 worth of product in one hour on QVC. And it was diecasts, it was clocks, watches, pennants, T-shirts, hats. You name it, we sold it. A year later, Dale was at Michael’s restaurant, and he and Dale met, and Michael was joking about going back on QVC to blow up Earnhardt’s number. And Dale said, “Why don’t we both go on together and both kill it?” We never got to that point, but it was pretty neat.

Jeff Burton: There were a lot of people who sold a lot of merchandise with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. And they would tell you how great they were, and I’d be like, “No, you sell my shit, that means you’re good. I could sell his stuff.” Anytime one of them would say to me, “I did this for Dale!” I’d say “OK, you’re not my guy.” Because anyone can do it for him. He was just the guy.

Hell, I had a Dale Earnhardt T-shirt. I was racing at Orange County Speedway on a Saturday night, and we were going on a four-day vacation, and I went out to one of the souvenir trailers and bought a Dale Earnhardt T-shirt, so I’d have one to wear on vacation.

Dale Jarrett: He showed us all there was a whole other business out there besides driving a race car. When he and Benny Ertel and his whole group of people started in on understanding this whole other side of T-shirts and hats and other opportunities as diecast cars came along, it became another business. And Earnhardt showed us all the way, and he also led sales every year in that respect. Business opportunities came along for all of us because everybody couldn’t be associated with Dale Earnhardt.

But he also included a number of us in his business ventures because he was a smart businessman who understood that getting people like Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace and myself and Bobby Labonte was a part of it. People that were doing well in the sport at that particular time, and Gordon was a part of it, he knew we could be competitors on the track and every weekend we could try to beat other on the track, but as a group, we were much stronger in providing fans with what they wanted in souvenirs. He helped make a lot of us a lot of money.

Rusty Wallace on The Dale Jr. Download in March 2019: When they started the merchandise business, he got me involved in that and made some good money. He was a good guy when it comes to that. We spent a lot of time off the track. … One time at North Wilkesboro, Mr. France Jr. got a hold of us, and we were talking about T-shirts and on and on about merchandising. We were having a good time back then with all these different paint schemes. It was exciting.

So we get in the race, I come off Turn 2, he bangs me in the back end. I got hot and come off Turn 2, and I slammed the brakes. He hit me so hard, it tore off his grille and front end. I finished second, and Old Man France comes down and says “What in the hell are you doing out there, man?” Just selling T-shirts, boss. I really respected (Earnhardt). He taught me a lot. He made me want to be like him. At times, he made me want to dress like him.

Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace in the Daytona International Speedway garage during a Feb. 16, 2000 practice (Gregg Pachkowski/USA TODAY Sports).

Kyle Petty: When it came to hats, T-shirts, trinkets and swag, (Earnhardt) had a team of people and established a group that maximized the potential of the time. Would that work today? Maybe not. Would it have worked 10 years before (then)? Probably not. But if it hadn’t been Dale Earnhardt, it might have been Rusty Wallace. Whoever was in that position then could have taken advantage of that situation. Earnhardt took advantage of the situation that was presented to him. You can say — and rightfully so — that during that period of time he was a leader in what was going on from diecast cars to T-shirts to everything, and his team and his group did the best job of anybody in this sport. But I just think that was just the right timing. I think Jeff Gordon could have done the same thing or Dale Jr could have done the same thing if he was there at that time.

Hawk: Teresa was heavily involved. They played off each other, but they didn’t always agree. Teresa was tough. For a long time, people thought, ‘Man, Hawk, you’re brutal.’ Some of it was doing what I was asked to do, but I was just a loud voice in the room. Anybody in the boardroom knew Teresa was as tough, and I don’t mean that derogatory. Teresa was sharp because she knew they could have a big business. She wanted to make sure she saw every deal and every decision. There was a couple of deals that we lost because we were too onerous. We were too tough. We wanted a big number and wanted our cake and eat it, too. That’s part of how it went.

Dale Earnhardt with his wife, Teresa, before the March 23, 1997 race at Darlington Raceway (Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports).

Bill France Jr. and Dale were extremely tight, and Bill would call sometimes and go, “You guys are running fast, pal. Don’t forget, every single guy that races against you, needs to be taken care of,” so we formed a company owned by Teresa and I called Optima Consulting LLC. And we helped other race car drivers and teams with deals because Bill France told me “If you take all the money, none will be left for the guys racing against him, and your champ will be a chump.”

You have to give credit to Hank Jones and Joe Tillman at Sports Image for getting this idea to put souvenirs out there in the trailer and sell them. And to Ken Barbee, who recently died. He had RJR’s license and eventually got Jeff Gordon. The dangerous part of this sport was when Earnhardt and Gordon started marketing together. It was phenomenal. We owned companies and real estate together. He was Pepsi, we were Coke. He was the champ, we were the challenger. He was The Kid.

Jeff Gordon on The Dale Jr. Download: Our relationship started growing. One of the first times we interacted, your dad asked about signing autographs at Greenville Pickens (Speedway). Big crowd. And so I went. Crazy lines of people. I went there just blown away, and they were all there for (Earnhardt). But I had a pretty good following at that time, too. He was there for hours upon hours signing autographs. There was some money involved. It was a business deal and a good one. We talked after that and the souvenirs started to build up.

Hawk: Chase Racewear was the apparel company formed on a napkin in Ken Barbee’s condominium, No. 407, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. As Ken and I talked, Joe Mattes (now the vice president of licensing and marketing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.) was writing on a napkin the deal points that I took to Dale and other drivers. We offered the rights to the company if they’d allow us to have Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt and a couple of other drivers to own a small piece of it. We gave shares to Earnhardt and Gordon. Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte and John Force, because we wanted the NHRA involved. I remember walking around and handing those guys checks that were in the hundreds of thousands after the first quarter.

Gordon: Fred Wagenhals was coming along with Action Performance and said we need to get more drivers. He talked to me, and it was one of the best business decisions I ever made. They did a great job with the diecasts and made a bunch of us a lot of money. I was very appreciative, and it worked out good for (Earnhardt), too. After that I didn’t mind going to talk to Dale about contracts. He was the first one that came to me. Things were different back then. We’d get on his plane and go to places to sign autographs and do sponsor deals. You start talking on these planes. (Earnhardt) told me right away you need to get all the rights to your likeness. If you can get your licensing deal, too, you need to get that. A lot of things he was doing, he talked me into doing it.

Dale Earnhardt signs autographs Nov. 2, 1997 at Phoenix International Raceway (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports).

I just wanted to win and perform on track, but Dale would do things — we’d be on Lap 10 of the Daytona 500 and he’d take us three wide. I’d be going, “What the hell?” But he had this ability to know he’s got all these fans up there that are going to love this. They’ll eat this up — and they did! He had this ability to read what the fans were asking for.”

Hawk: Dale wanted to not be in debt, so he’d ask, “How much money do we need to pay every vendor every month on time? Then find me that many sponsors or endorsements and we’ll do that many appearances.” One year, we did 342 personal appearances or souvenir gigs with fans because that was when we were starting the building of DEI (the main building), and he wanted a boatload of cash to start. We were on the road somewhere that whole year.

Dale said, “I want a Learjet, but the only way I’m going to buy it is you tell me you paid for it (in full). Find the money to pay for it, and when you do, I’m going to tell you I want that jet. He and Teresa went to the Bahamas. I negotiated with the Learjet president, and I said to Dale we can buy that airplane. He said pass me all the info on it. He had to go to a phone booth on the island in the Bahamas because the yacht phone wouldn’t work. He calls in a phone booth and says, ‘Are you sure that we’re not taking any money out of the bank account?’ I said we’ll take money out of the bank account that we’ve accrued doing this deal, this deal and this deal. So I sent the paperwork to Lear, they sent me a bill of sale. I faxed it to the yacht, and we bought it while he was in the Bahamas with Teresa.

He said, “If the jet costs one dollar more than $3 million, I don’t want it.” I had the buyer’s order written up for $2,999,999 just because I love to win and wanted Earnhardt to know I came in under the number. He gave me a goal, and I had to beat it. I joked with the guy and said I’ll send you the buck.

NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

MORE: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?

“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.

Kamui Kobayashi to make NASCAR debut with 23XI Racing at Indy

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LE MANS, France (AP) — Left out of the NASCAR celebration at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Toyota used Wednesday at the track to showcase its own stock car program and the upcoming Cup Series debut for one of the top racers in the world.

Kamui Kobayashi will make his NASCAR debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Toyota in August driving for 23XI Racing, the team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

The announcement made Wednesday had several top NASCAR executives in attendance – including chairman Jim France – as Toyota found Le Mans to be the perfect backdrop to spotlight the one-race deal.

Toyota Gazoo, after all, has won Le Mans the last five consecutive years and Kobayashi, part of the 2021 winning effort, is team principal of the two-car organization that will try to make it six straight wins in the most prestigious endurance event in the world.

Toyota had initially felt jilted when NASCAR blindsided the industry last year by announcing it would bring its new Next Gen car to centenary Le Mans in a specialized category that showcases innovation, but the project was with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Toyota was the first rival NASCAR manufacturer to complain, and NASCAR has since tried to include all its partners in this weekend’s celebration and France signed off on holding the Kobayashi announcement at Le Mans.

It allowed Toyota to display the Camry it races in NASCAR; Kobayashi will drive the No. 67 in the Aug. 13 race. This will be the second race for the No. 67 car for 23XI Racing. Travis Pastrana finished 11th in the car at this year’s Daytona 500.

“We’ve been working on this assignment actually for a couple of years and Kamui has become a friend and we understood it was his dream one day to race in NASCAR,” said David Wilson, president of TRD, U.S.A. “With this great new Next Gen Toyota Camry TRD, the stars and planets started to align themselves and the next question became: Where should we announce this?

“It dawned on me with Kamui’s record of success, and being the team principal, to do it on this global stage at the biggest sports car race in the world.”

Kobayashi will be only the second Japanese driver to race in NASCAR’s top Cup Series and only the fifth to race in one of NASCAR’s top three national series. Kobayashi will be the first driver from Japan to race in the Cup Series in a Toyota, which entered NASCAR’s top series in 2007.

“It’s my dream, actually,” Kobayashi told The Associated Press. “It’s such a big sport in the United States and racing in Europe, I never had the chance or opportunity to race NASCAR. I think the opportunity will be challenging for myself because it is such a different category.

“But if I have success, I think it will make more opportunities for Japanese drivers. Toyota has been in NASCAR a long time, but there has never been any Japanese drivers for Toyota. That’s also why I say I appreciate this opportunity for myself.”

Kobayashi won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Toyota in 2021 and hasn’t finished lower than third since 2018. He has six podium finishes in eight appearances in the iconic endurance race.

Toyota trails only Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari, Audi and Porsche for most wins at Le Mans. Porsche holds the record with 19 victories.

Kobayashi in 2021, after winning Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title driving for Toyota Gazoo, was named team principal.

Kobayashi started his racing career karting in Japan but was discovered by Toyota while racing in Europe. He was named one of Toyota’s reserve Formula One drivers and made his debut during the 2009 season at the Brazilian Grand Prix. He raced in F1 through 2014 with one podium finish in 75 career starts.

Following his F1 career, Kobayashi returned to Japan and switched to the Super Formula Series, a class he still actively competes in. He’s since won the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and was the anchor on an IMSA endurance sports car team in the United States for two seasons that was formed by seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Kobayashi loves racing in the United States, but IMSA’s adoption of new regulations to make its top class eligible to compete at Le Mans created a conflict of interest between Kobayashi’s Toyota responsibilities and continuing to race in IMSA, where Toyota is not represented in the top class. Toyota does field a Lexus in a lower IMSA division and Kobayashi raced for Vasser Sullivan Racing last June in Canada to get a feel for the GT car.

Many consider NASCAR’s Next Gen car to be very similar to the GT Lexus sports car that Kobayashi drove in IMSA last year, and that’s his closest experience to driving a stock car. He’ll be permitted to test with 23XI at a small track in Virginia ahead of the race at Indianapolis, and expects some time on the simulator.

Either way, he isn’t worried about seat time.

“I think I’m a guy who doesn’t need much practice, to be honest,” the 36-year-old Kobayashi told the AP. “I think once we jump in the car, we will be OK in a couple of laps. So I’m not really concerned about form.”

Drivers to watch at Sonoma Raceway


This weekend begins a key period for Cup drivers. Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway begins a stretch of four road course events in the next 10 races. The race to make the playoffs and to score playoff points is intensifying.


Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 10th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Circuit of the Americas)
  • Past at Sonoma: Does not have a top 15 in two previous starts

Reddick has won three of the last five Cup races on road courses, but Sonoma has been his kryptonite. He has yet to lead a lap there. Reddick’s three road course wins have been at Road America, Indianapolis and COTA.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Fontana)
  • Past at Sonoma: Four top 10s, including a runner-up, in six starts

Elliott returns to the series after sitting out last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway due to suspension. He’s in a must-win situation to make the playoffs. Known for his prowess on road courses, Elliott’s last win at such a track came in 2021 at Road America. In the nine races at road courses since that win, Elliott has two runner-up finishes and six top 10s.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 7th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Fontana, Talladega I, WWT Raceway)
  • Past at Sonoma: Had six straight finishes of seventh or better before placing 30th last year

Busch is tied with William Byron for the most wins this season with three. Busch has placed in the top three in the last two road course races. He has led in five of the last seven Sonoma Cup races. He is a two-time Sonoma winner, taking the checkered flag in 2008 and ’15.


Denny Hamlin 

  • Points position: 8th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Kansas I)
  • Past at Sonoma: Five consecutive top 10s until finishing 31st last year

Hamlin has not had a top-10 finish at a road course in the Next Gen car. He has an 18.4 average finish at road courses since last season. His best finish at a road course in that time is 13th at the Charlotte Roval.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best finish this season: 2nd (Dover)
  • Past at Sonoma: Two straight top-10 finishes

Chastain lost the points lead last weekend after his third consecutive finish outside the top 20. His fourth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas this season broke a streak of three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 at road courses.

Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best finish this season: 3rd (Talladega I)
  • Past at Sonoma: His runner-up finish last year was his first top 10 there in six starts

Until last year, Sonoma had not been kind to Buescher. He enters this weekend have scored six consecutive top 10s at road courses.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron, Kyle Busch rank 1-2


Kyle Busch moved closer to the top spot after his win Sunday at WWT Raceway, but William Byron keeps hold of No. 1 after another top-10 run.

The series heads to Sonoma Raceway this weekend, the second race of the season on a road course.


(Previous ranking in parenthesis)

1. William Byron (1) — He goes into Sonoma with six consecutive top-10 finishes after his eighth-place result at WWT Raceway. Byron has led a series-high 717 laps this season.

2. Kyle Busch (4) — Recorded his third win of the season Sunday. He is tied with Byron for most wins this year. Busch scored 59 of a maximum 60 points and won his first stage of the year Sunday. He has 16 playoff points. Only Byron has more with 17 this season.

3. Kyle Larson (3) — His fourth-place finish continued his up-and-down season. In the last nine races, Larson has two wins, four top fives, a 20th-place result and four finishes of 30th or worse. He has led 588 laps this season, which ranks second this year to Byron.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (2) — His fifth-place finish is his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. He ranks third in laps led this year with 383.

5. Denny Hamlin (7) — Runner-up result at WWT Raceway is his fourth top 10 in the last seven races.

6. Ryan Blaney (10) — Followed Coca-Cola 600 win with a sixth-place run at WWT Raceway. He had an average running position of 2.6 on Sunday, second only to winner Kyle Busch’s average running position of 1.9.

7. Joey Logano (9) — Third-place finish is his second top 10 in the last four races.

8. Kevin Harvick (NR) — His 10th-place finish is his fourth consecutive finish of 11th or better.

9. Ross Chastain (6) — Lost the points lead after placing 22nd, his third consecutive finish outside the top 20.

10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (NR) — Headed for his eighth top 15 in a row until he was collected in a crash after the contact between Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon late in Sunday’s race.

Dropped out: Chase Elliott (5th), Tyler Reddick (8th)