For the first 15 years or so of his high-profile NASCAR career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a secret that he kept from fans, media and sponsors.
But most importantly he kept it from his father.
There had been times that Dale Earnhardt had entered his son’s house unannounced and seen the ashtrays full of cigarette butts.
And while his mother, uncle and grandparents also indulged in smoking, Earnhardt’s seven-time champion father didn’t, nor did he approve of it.
“When I was a kid, everyone seemed to be smoking except for dad for whatever reason. He just never did,” Earnhardt Jr. told NBCSports.com in a phone interview Tuesday morning during a round of media appearances in which he spoke about his former habit in-depth publicly for the first time. “He knew I did, and I never, ever would have let him see me holding a cigarette. He hated it. We never had a conversation about it. He might have said a few times, ‘You need to effing quit that.’ Or something like that real short.
“I know that was something that extremely disappointed him.”
Ultimately, it was another family member who helped Earnhardt Jr. snap the habit about eight years ago.
Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, put up with his smoking the first few months after they began dating.
“I was trying to quit and tried a couple of times and failed, and it was so disappointing for her,” he said. “Eventually she said to me, ‘Look man, are you really going to get this done? Are you really going to eventually quit?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I can.’ And she goes well, ‘Honestly, that could be a dealbreaker for me.’ And I said, ‘Damn, really?’
“She said, ‘Yeah, if you’re not sure, and this is something that is going to be part of our relationship going forward, I just don’t know. So that was a tough conversation that had to be had, and I finally figured out how to get it out of my system when I truly wanted to quit. You have to have that conviction to do it, but it was really, really hard.”
“I figured it wasn’t a super-duper secret that I was a smoker, but maybe it might be worth exposing that little lie and secret to see if I can convince other people to quit because honestly, once I decided to quit, I didn’t realize all the things that smoking was affecting in my life,” he said. “And I was super insecure about it.
“Obviously I didn’t want anybody to know about it, but I worried about whether my car smelled, my clothes smelled, my breath smelled, and then I worried about my long-term health. I had a doctor that’s pretty straightforward, and he’s hammering on me all the time that, ‘Like, dude, you’ve got to quit.’ I seemed to get a lot of sore throats and a lot of colds more frequently than other people that weren’t smokers.
In addition to feeling much healthier, Earnhardt said it changed him for the better socially as well.
“I realized how much control (smoking) had over me,” said the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who also has been open about the impact Amy and Steve Letarte had on him getting out more. “The decisions I made every day were based around smoking. It sort of encouraged that hermit mentality that I had before me and Amy met. Where I wouldn’t go anywhere, do anything. You wouldn’t hardly see me leave the bus on a race weekend. I would shorten visits with family on holidays and just avoid activity.
“I’d just sit in the house and play video games because I could smoke. Then I realized once I got done how much that was dictating my day and predicting the choices I made every day. It was all based around my habit of smoking, and that’s pretty stupid, but it’s true.”
Earnhardt said he picked up smoking in his early 20s, just before he began running in the Xfinity Series, while being around friends who did it.
“It wasn’t popular, cool or trendy,” he said. “I wasn’t so much worried about sponsors as just worried about disappointing people. I just tried not to really push it in front of anyone’s face. I wouldn’t walk up and down pit road holding a cigarette. I just thought that would be a mess.
“People would be like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get your head on straight. You’re supposed to be this race car driver,’ and I already had people questioning my focus and my determination. If I’m walking around smoking a cigarette on Saturday between practices, I’m sure that was going to just feed into that.”
NASCAR commercials that deserve to be in Hall of Fame
I’ll be your guide as you take a tour of the museum’s newest wing – the Michael Waltrip “I’m at the wrong track” Advertising Hall of Excellence.*
Yes, it’s a mouth-full, but here in NASCAR we’re no stranger to saying a lot in Victory Lane to pay the bills.
And that’s what this exhibit is dedicated to – excellent examples of NASCAR and its teams paying the bills that also entertained loyal fans during breaks in the TV action.
Now, enjoy your trip through this loving look at some of NASCAR’s best commercial campaigns., and remember to watch the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction tomorrow night at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
*This isn’t real, but it should be.
Aside from last season’s NASCAR Fantasy commercial, there’s a severe lack of ad campaigns these days that feature multiple drivers from separate teams and showcase their personalities all in one place. But back in the 2000s the Gillette Young Guns campaign was the standard-bearer for such a concept. Oh, and John Cena was in one.
How Bad Have You Got It?
How do you advertise NASCAR in an entertaining way without including a single shot of a stock car, a track or a NASCAR driver? Via the heightened reality of the “How Bad Have You Got It?” campaign.
The series is helped by depicting the actions of one man and his NASCAR addicted family over a majority of the ads.
Personal favorite: spraying champagne at a wedding anniversary.
When Dale Earnhardt came to Daytona under different circumstances, the preparation remained the same for shepherding the seven-time champion with an enormous fan base.
Corvette Racing manager Doug Fehan recalled arranging security for Earnhardt and his son for getting to and from their motorhomes while they raced the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. It turned out to be mostly unnecessary as they drew large packs of respectful fans but without a mob scene.
“They were very respectful,” Fehan recalled during the second half of a two-part NASCAR on NBC Podcast about the Earnhardts racing the 2001 Rolex. “It was amazing to see.”
Earnhardt was moved by it enough to remark about the sports car atmosphere while having lunch with Fehan.
“(Earnhardt) said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’” Fehan said. “‘This has been one of the most rewarding experiences in racing seeing this.’ I said, ‘I want you to enjoy it.’ It’s what racing can be when you’re not running for a million dollars a race. When you put big money on it, it wouldn’t be like this. This is a family. Every team in this paddock is in the same boat paddling. We just have a different oar.
“He loved it. He liked the whole experience. He loved that form of racing. Which led to further conversations about wanting to (race the 24 Hours of) Le Mans. Going to Le Mans was going to be like the pinnacle for him.”
It might have been the first of many post-NASCAR excursions in racing for The Intimidator, who was killed in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 two weeks after the Rolex 24.
“When I think about (the 2001 Rolex 24), sometimes I think about that, and sometimes I don’t,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the podcast. “I just appreciate that we got to do that, before he was taken away from us. Because that was probably one of the first dominoes in a series of things that he might have wanted to do outside this life as a race car driver in NASCAR.
“He may have had other unique things that he had to check off his list. And that was probably the first one because I was real surprised when he came up with the idea to even do it. I didn’t think he was the type of guy who would do these extracurricular things outside of his immense responsibilities. He was a busy, busy man.”
Earnahrdt Jr. said he was “absolutely, 100% sure” that his father would have run Le Mans. Fehan said the logistics already were being formulated for getting Earnhardt to France, and Corvette Racing had a spot in one of its cars.
“We worked out how to fit scheduling for testing and travel,” Fehan said. “I don’t want to say it was 90 percent of the way there, but everybody agreed on doing this. We had the framework and the foundation pretty solidified.
“It was his dream. He was only going to run one more year of Cup. Then he saw himself to be able to compete a number of years. Not just a Le Mans race. He wanted to do more sports car racing.”
After Earnhardt’s death, Corvette honored the NASCAR Hall of Famer with special stripes on its car for a few years. Earnhardt Jr. ran a black-themed bumper on his No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports as a tribute to the Rolex 24, where the No. 3 Corvette finished second in class and fourth overall.
Earnhardt Jr. also has a street model replica of the No. 3 Corvette. His father was supposed to have a matching version.
“It means more to me now than I ever thought it,” Earnhardt Jr. said of the car. “When we decided to have these cars made, I didn’t know Dad was going to be taken from us just a short time later. It took a while for these cars to get built. The wing on my car came from the second place-finishing Corvette at Le Mans that year. The wing on Dad’s car came from the winning car.
“Dad didn’t want his wing painted. He wanted all the rubber and debris from the race still on the wing. I wanted mine to be painted because I wanted it to match (and) I wanted to drive around town. I wasn’t even thinking or I’d have left it alone. That’s why Dad was so smart! He left his wing dirty.”
Earnhardt Jr. drove the car for several years but doesn’t anymore after replacing the splitter (“because it’s so low to the ground, I don’t want to hurt it”) and re-decaling.
“This is a bit of a symbolic piece for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Something that we did together at the end of his life.
“I only have a handful of cars to my name, and there’s only one or two that I will never ever get rid of, and this is one of them. I’ll always have this.”
Also in the podcast:
–Earnhardt Jr. discusses whether he will return to the Rolex 24 (“The door is always open to run that race again. I’d never run full time. Never want to really run Le Mans. But the Daytona 24 Hours race having done it before makes it very special to me. The cars are so much fun.”);
–The lasting bonds and friendships formed by the Earnhardts during the Rolex 24;
Their first spins around Sebring International Raceway in sports cars were a little too literal for Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
There were some lucrative silver linings from a crash course in learning how to race a Corvette, though.
In preparing for the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, the Earnhardts went to Sebring to learn the nuances of driving a GT car, which have more sophisticated cockpit technology and precision braking and handling than the stock cars of which they were accustomed.
Within his first 15 minutes on track, Earnhardt Jr. had crumpled the back end of the Corvette. Late in the day, his father joined him
“We got a pile of parts sitting there from both of them crashing,” Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan said in a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast (links below). “Dale says, ‘This isn’t really the way we wanted to start.’ I said, ‘I think it was inevitable. End of the day, I’m not sure it wasn’t a good way to start because you both have learned the limits of the car.”
Earnhardt told Fehan he still felt bad about the expense and trouble for the team. Fehan pointed at the pile of parts.
“Don’t worry, you and Junior are going to sign all those, and we’re going to sell them,” Fehan said. “We’re going to get the money back.”
The Earnhardts then grabbed Sharpies and headed to the scrap heap.
Beyond making the best of it with their autographs, Earnhardt Jr. said crashing early “probably was a good thing” in getting acclimated to the Corvettes.
“I’m the guy that everyone looks at and thinks, ‘Man, he’s probably the weakest link,’ ” Earnhardt Jr. said in the podcast. “So I put a ton of pressure on myself right out of the gate to be very fast.
“I mashed the gas, and it just spun out. It had so much power, you could just spin that thing out so easily just by touching the throttle pedal. I backed into a bridge abutment. I thought I had killed this race car.”
Once the car was back in the garage, though, the Corvette team unzipped some large black bags and had the rear end replaced in about 20 minutes.
“‘OK, get back in!’” Earnhardt Jr. recalled the team saying. “I tore this thing to hell, and you’re going to fix it with new stuff and want me to get back in it! You’re not going to let me take a couple of hours to think about what I did, send someone else out there. ‘No! Get back in, you’ve got to learn!’
“I got back in and took a little better care of it the rest of the day.”
It was near the end of the session when his father lost control on a fresh set of tires, and Earnhardt Jr. believes he was partly responsible.
“Dad’s out there, I’m way faster than him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’m like, ‘Dad, look at me, doing good!’ and he’s like, ‘It’s not important how fast we’re going. We ain’t even racing here. I don’t know what the big deal is.’ I’m like, ‘OK.’
“Well right at the end of the day, I think it was eating away at him a little bit. He wouldn’t admit it. It’s 5 o’clock. It’s time to stop. He’s like, ‘Put me some tires on this!’ One last run, he goes out and is running a lap by the flagstand to start his run. He nosed the car into the tire barrier head first in the last corner.
“I knew he was pushing as hard as he could to match or better my time. So there was some competition between us two that I think he would never admit to. Because I’d be like, not ‘I’m better than you,’ but ‘Look at what I’m doing! Isn’t this cool?’ He’d be like, ‘We don’t even race at Sebring. We race at Daytona! I don’t know why you’re pushing so hard, you’re going to tear it up.’ We had two completely different approaches.”
But there was much common ground for a duo that didn’t always spend much time together at the track. When Earnhardt Jr. was up and coming in Late Models, his father rarely attended his short-track races. They competed together for only one season together in Cup but on separate teams.
The Rolex 24 provided a unique opportunity to work together on a full-time basis.
“This is the closest I’ve ever been to him to be able to do that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Usually we’re racing on the racetrack and against each other. He might not even see me all day or know what I’m doing. Here we are together, debriefing and talking about the car and changing things on the car together.
“This is a really great opportunity for me to show him just what I thought about race cars and how I communicated.”
Listen to the NASCAR on NBC podcast to hear more stories about the Earnhardts’ run in the 2001 Rolex 24, including:
–How Dale Earnhardt grew close with the Corvette Racing team (“He said I want to be treated like any other guy on this team,” Fehan said. “I don’t want to be treated as Dale Earnhardt. I’m just a driver like anyone else on this race team. Coming from anyone else, I would have thought it was BS. Coming from him, it was genuine. He was serious about it.”)
–The welcoming reception he received in the sports car community (“Dad had a lot of respect for people all across all forms of motorsports. He sort of crossed those lines and boundaries. So I think everybody was like, ‘This is great!’ They weren’t intimated by him from a competitors’ standpoint. He didn’t act like, ‘Boy I’m going to light the world and show you guys. I’m Dale Earnhardt, move out of the way and give me my space.’ He just came in there inquisitive, asking all the right questions. Easy to approach, and people just liked it, man.”
–Why Earnhardt initially believed the team didn’t necessarily need a fourth driver, and the Daytona test that told him otherwise.
MORRISVILLE, N.C. – The shiny new restaurant bar’s location is a prime one at the bustling crossroads inside Terminal 2 of Raleigh Durham International Airport.
It sits at the transitional nexus of Gates D14 to 20 (where a bevy of passengers are awaiting midmorning flights to Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Newark and Trenton, N.J.), next door to a Starbucks and adjacent to a corridor that will hum with daily foot traffic for countless destinations.
On a recent Monday morning in June, the proprietor of the establishment casually stood near its signature mechanical bull, waiting to be announced at the grand opening of the newest location for Dale Jr.’s Whisky River.
Booming over the din of an annoyingly loud airport PA crackling with boarding announcements and lost items at security, the introduction was a grand one.
“He once was known as a great race car driver … now he’s known as a great restaurateur and businessman!”
The entrepreneurial description of a two-time Daytona 500 winner might have seemed a curveball, but this also isn’t the Dale Earnhardt Jr. you’ve known for the past two decades in NASCAR.
In trading a helmet for the headset that he will don as an official broadcast analyst for the first time Friday, Earnhardt hasn’t left racing behind by a long shot, but it’s also clear that as one phase of his life ends — the competitive driving synonymous with his family’s famous surname for more than a half-century – a new chapter is unfolding that will feature some of the same ambition and competitiveness.
It’s the race to make Earnhardt more transcendent as a brand ambassador and cultural touchstone than he’s ever been — without ever taking another checkered flag.
“I don’t want to stop working or doing,” Earnhardt told NBCSports.com about his life outside racing full time for the first time since 1998. “I just didn’t want to drive a car anymore. I’ve got a lot of businesses that are growing or trying to grow.
“I didn’t retire from driving race cars to just not do anything or take a break.”
In many ways, the schedule is more harried now for the 43-year-old who’s gotten married and became a first-time father over the past 18 months.
There is the work that will begin as NBC Sports Group takes over the 2018 NASCAR schedule this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Earnhardt will join former crew chief Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Rick Allen in the broadcast booth for a career that he hopes will go “for a long time … 10 to 20 years.”
But that’s only the most highly visible endeavor of a well-crafted business portfolio whose tentacles touch the media, automotive and food and beverage industries.
Whisky River, which already had bustling locations in Uptown Charlotte and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, recently opened its newest branch at RDU, soon will open a sprawling 14,000-square-foot footprint (much of it retail) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and is planning another airport location in Fort Lauderdale.
The Beverly Hills-based WME talent agency has Earnhardt, its first race car driver client, slotted for three to four TV series on which he will serve as executive producer, as well as several other projects (including licensing and endorsements, an “experiential” project and more frequent speaking engagements and personal appearances that aren’t necessarily tied to racing).
Hammerhead Entertainment, Earnhardt’s longtime production company, will handle some of the TV work and more, while Dirty Mo Media, his burgeoning content network, has expanded his Dale Jr. Download podcast into a weekly show on NBCSN.
There also are the Chevrolet and Buick GMC dealerships (co-owned with former car owner Rick Hendrick’s automotive sales empire) in Tallahassee, Florida.
And a DIY show (“Renovation Realities: Dale Jr. and Amy”) has been providing an often lighthearted glimpse at a house restoration project in Key West, Florida (that he took on with his new wife, an interior designer whom he credits often for helping him become more comfortable in public).
He is barely seven months removed from his last start in NASCAR’s premier series, but the foundation for a full and smooth transition to beyond the wheel was being laid since Earnhardt approached his 40s.
Mike Davis, the director of brand strategy at JR Motorsports, said the discussions began five years ago “about pressing Dale to think about what life after racing would look like.” It was long before a concussion sidelined Earnhardt for the second half of 2016 and helped cement 2017 as his final season (he will detail how he wrestled with concussions and when to end his career in a new book, “Racing to the Finish,” with author Ryan McGee that will be released in October).
“For a lot of athletes, their whole identity is wrapped up in their sport that they compete,” Davis said. “When they lose that identity, get replaced and retire, and don’t have whatever needs being met, they don’t know what to do with themselves, and it affects their happiness. I was concerned about Dale in that regard. I had a feeling he had his stuff together and wasn’t going to go through, ‘What am I going to do without my racing?’ but you never know how people are going to react until you go there.”
Earnhardt has reacted by filling (but not necessarily replacing) some of the competitive void through investing more time on his businesses. Though his older sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, runs his long-term financial planning, Earnhardt is looking at his company’s monthly balance sheets more closely and asking “Why?” more often about how and when the profit and loss numbers shift (“We remodeled the house in Key West, and you had a wedding,” was a recent answer).
For Earnhardt’s millions of fans, retirement might mean a beachfront condo and cashing in the 401k in their happy golden years, yet it means something entirely different for a 15-time Most Popular Driver whose professional career has ended while arriving at a completely different station in middle age.
“I think one of the reasons he doesn’t miss being in a race car that much is that he’s got this whole new thing called marriage and family in his life,” Earnhardt Miller said. “Where a lot of people, that kind of simultaneously happens: You get married, you have kids, you build your career.
“For him it’s these two different things: He’s had this driving career for 20 years where he hasn’t had a wife traveling with him or family. So now he’s got this attention in this whole new way, and this whole new life of things he gets to do, so I think that those whys are important because of that. Because he wants to be involved and know, ‘What’s this going to do for me? What kind of effort am I putting into it? Why am I doing it?’ He wants to understand.”
And that’s driven as much by the finite realities of being a family man.
“It really isn’t the sky is the limit because with success comes responsibility and devoting more time to those things, and there’s only so much time I’m willing to spend on anything,” Earnhardt said when asked about his financial ambitions. “So it’s really going to be whatever you put in, you’re going to get out of it.
“I don’t really have a big long-term vision. We didn’t have one for JR Motorsports. It just sort of grew and had success and more success and got bigger and bigger and bigger, and you turn around one day, and you just can’t believe how much it’s grown from where we started it, and I hope that’s what I feel about all our businesses one day.”
Over the last 17 years since Kelley Earnhardt Miller came to help run the businesses, JR Motorsports, which most publicly functions as a four-car team in the Xfinity Series, has grown from six employees to more than 150.
Perhaps that exponential growth won’t happen for his businesses, but there is potential for properties such as Whisky River to expand nationally.
It will be predicated, though, on Earnhardt remaining a cross-cultural force with the commercially appealing power that he commands simply by being himself.
That’s why he has aligned with WME, which has worked to help slide pro athletes into new business ventures (Kobe Bryant, who recently won an Academy Award as the executive producer of a short animated film after five NBA championships, would be a good example).
“Dale is unique because he has really shown some of the greatest courage to go into a sport that unfortunately took his father,” said Sean Perry, a partner at WME in the non-scripted television department. “He then excelled at it both on the track and being an ambassador. He speaks to Americana in the best way. There’s really nobody that you could say, ‘Dale is like this.’ Because there is nobody like Dale.
“We think he’s only done Chapter I of his career, and there’s a lot more.”
A blueprint was left by other popular athletes, such as Magic Johnson and Peyton Manning, who have continued to leave a mark long after their playing days were over.
“Athletes with strong and monetizable personal brands that extend well beyond their careers tend to have three things going for them,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute and principal of The Sports Business Group. “They have a comprehensive approach which includes tactically marketing themselves, finding the right mix of investment options and surrounding themselves with ethical, capable advisors. They then deliver and reinforce a consistent message and do so with just the right amount of exposure.
“Earnhardt is well positioned to excel long term because he comes across as authentic and has a committed and avid following, one cultivated over a very long time.”
Former NBA Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal (another WME client) and Charles Barkley (whose renown as an NBA analyst and celebrity endorser probably exceeds the fame of his All-Star seasons) are the two retired role models for Earnhardt.
“You’ve got to still want to be a personality that people are interested in working with and have to do things like broadcasting,” Earnhardt said. “You look at Shaquille and Charles and what they were able to do with their brands after they played. They make a good living doing what they do. People still want to be involved with them. Not only just Corporate America, but people still want to be in business with them.
“Those are two guys that would be good comparisons to what you’d like to accomplish after your playing career is over. They have fun. They enjoy what they do.”
The atmosphere is loose and festive during the Whisky River grand opening at RDU.
As a guitarist strums and sings “Ring of Fire” on a low-slung stage in a corner of the restaurant, a crowd of airport dignitaries, regional business leaders and some members of the North Carolina legislature are met by carving stations offering samples off the menu (Earnhardt’s favorite is the buffalo chicken salad) and nearly 200 Mason jars filled with the bar’s most popular cocktails.
Earnhardt moves effortlessly among them, glad-handling VIPs while constantly signing autographs and taking photos with everyone from congressman to waitstaff.
He shows off a few Whisky River traditions – a wall of welded belt buckles (like Earnhardt’s tastes, it’s eclectic and ranges from the cover of The Clash’s self-titled debut album to traditional cattle drive motifs) and Junebug, the mechanical bull.
He encourages everyone to try the latter while they can. The Charlotte airport location no longer has one “because there were so many people trying to get in, there weren’t enough seats. That’s a good problem to have.
“We took it out to pasture, but it’ll be back,” he said. “We hope to do that here.”
The CLT location has become one of the airport’s biggest restaurants in revenue, breaking some monthly sales records, according to Earnhardt. Partnering with HMS Host, which operates restaurants and stores in more than 100 airports, there could be as many as two to three dozen Whisky River terminal locations in the future.
“However many they want to put in these airports,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve got a great partner, so we’re working with people who have so much success, so they can plug us right into these airports, and we can hit the ground running. You don’t go in wondering if it’s going to work or apprehensive, you feel pretty confident going in that it’s going to have success and people are going to like it because of your involvement with HMS Host and their experience with doing business in airports.”
With nearly 12 million passengers coming through RDU last year, there’s an inherent customer base, but Earnhardt prides himself on serving “amazing food because that’s the reason people really come” to the franchises that bear his stamp.
Whisky River is an offshoot of the replica Wild West town that Earnhardt built on his 200-acre property north of Charlotte, an homage to a favorite movie genre inherited from his late father (who loved the spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood).
It makes it easier to make the sales pitch.
“I tell people all the time we don’t have to give him talking points or say, “Hey, you need to say this,” because he speaks from the heart and that’s what we operated based off,” said Tony Mayhoff, Earnhardt’s director of brand marketing and partnerships. “He’s very genuinely Dale Jr. and every business has his personality.”
That’s been true from the outset for Earnhardt, a technophile and shoe maven who once had personal service agreements with Sony and Adidas, but there also have been some misses on business investments.
A standalone Whisky River in Jacksonville, Florida, closed after a four-year run (its sales couldn’t support its size, Earnhardt Miller said). An early attempt at a social network called Infield Parking might have been too far ahead of its time; a racetrack in Mobile, Alabama, never got off the drawing board; and two lines of chocolate bars and potato chips bearing his name and likeness fizzled despite strong corporate backing.
“There are certain partnerships that haven’t always materialized for some reason or another,” Earnhardt Miller said. “A lot of people come to you and think if they just put Dale’s name on something and turn it into bucks. We’ve learned through trial and error through the years of what has worked and didn’t.”
And as her younger brother has gotten older, becoming more selective with opportunities has been a byproduct. Even Whisky River, which has evolved from its origins as a bar that also was a trendy nightclub into a more accessible restaurant that also has a bar, is indicative of Earnhardt Jr. gracefully aging into family man.
“Probably 10 years ago, we could have done a few things that maybe weren’t exact alignments with him and pulled it off, but I think with his growth and maturity that it’s more important now in his businesses,” Earnhardt Miller said. “If we do things that are consistent with who Dale is, they’re going to flourish and grow in a greater way because he gets to speak to it in a real and true way. I think that just opens up opportunities for us because there’s certain things that really haven’t made sense in the past because he wasn’t married (and) didn’t have a family.”
It’s certainly a marked change from the hell-raising lifestyle of “Club E”, the parties in his basement that Earnhardt regularly threw in the early 2000s as the Budweiser-sponsored bachelor with a 200-mph ride and a famously edgy Rolling Stone interview.
Now the avid social media user often has used Instagram and Twitter to promote his love of grilling meats and BBQ. When her brother recently sent invites to his boat for a summer excursion, Earnhardt Miller cautiously asked if it would be family oriented for her oldest teenage daughter to attend.
“He was like, ‘Everything is family friendly from here on out!’ ” Earnhardt Miller said with a laugh. “OK, now I don’t have to ask anymore.”
It’s benefited his JR Motorsports’ Xfinity Series sponsors, too, as Dale Jr. and his wife, Amy, have helped marketed family products for Suave and Dove.
Marriage also earned him a deal with QALO, a silicon ring company. When the announcement was made on social media, a Twitter troll asked in a (since-deleted) tweet what he was becoming.
There’s still time to be a husband, a father and a sports fan, though, and Earnhardt has made the most of NBC Sports Group’s reach.
Since January, he has filed reports or made on-air appearances at the Super Bowl, the Winter Olympics and the Stanley Cup. If not for his niece’s high school graduation, he’d have watched Justify win the Belmont Stakes in person.
Beyond promoting NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage, the network exposure also helps Earnhardt keep his sponsors happy (he retained Nationwide and Goodyear from NASCAR).
“We weren’t after the deal that paid us the most, we were after the deal that kept us the most relevant,” said Davis, one of Earnhardt’s chief lieutenants for more than 12 years. “That’s the beauty of the NBC deal: Find me another way in which you go to the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics. That’s incredible for us.
“Relevancy is what we’re after, and that’s why this is awesome. The businesses of Dale Jr. thrive based off that. That’s the top of the pyramid.”
On a much lesser scale, the DIY show (which has drawn solid social media buzz) is another example of “staying in the conversation.” Envisioned originally as a path to defraying the costs of an expensive Key West house renovation, the financial return wasn’t as expected for a major time commitment (Dale and Amy spent most of their off days doing shoots during the second half of last year).
“We ended up breaking even on it,” Earnhardt said. “We couldn’t get deals on the parts and pieces and wood and lumber and things like that, so we ended up paying for that ourselves. Basically it was just to do the TV show to keep partners happy like Nationwide and Goodyear, you have to be relevant. That’s part of being on NBC broadcasts is to be out there. Because if you don’t, you’re out of sight, out of mind.”
The project also is indicative of how ideas get generated by Earnhardt’s brand team, which was reorganized about 18 months ago and meets weekly on big-picture ideas. Earnhardt Miller’s friendship with an HGTV producer (from a show long ago about her passion for scrapbooking) helped spur “Renovation Realities.”
As the leader of the family oriented company (Earnhardt’s aunt, Cathy, has run his retail store for years, and his mother, an uncle and cousins also work at JRM), Earnhardt Miller has been the final say on her brother’s business directions for nearly two decades, and the dynamics seem to be working well enough to impress WME, which also counts Novak Djokovic, Draymond Green, Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James, Cam Newton and Serena Williams among its clients.
“As agents, you often times get involved with a major star and make a determination of, ‘OK, who’s really good on their team, and who are we going to educate and have honest conversations with someone who doesn’t have your best interest in mind,’” Perry said. “When you look at his core team. Kelley could be the chairwoman and CEO of any company, racing or otherwise, in the country. We were most impressed that these were not just really good men and women in the racing world, he had exceptional people, a very tight-knit group all rowing the boat in the same direction.”
But the cues now also are coming frequently from Dale Jr., who is “a lot more involved, collaborative and interested,” Kelley said. “Before it was just tell him what you were doing and tell him when to show up.”
Letarte, who will be reunited with Earnhardt as an NBC co-worker after guiding him as his crew chief from 2011-14, said Earnhardt is more calculating than some realize with his business acumen.
“Dale is one of those guys who has a very original brand because it’s who he is,” Letarte said. “He doesn’t try to be anybody but himself. I think that makes him very comfortable to be his brand because it’s not make believe; what you see is what you get.
“With that said, the success and reach of the brand isn’t by just dumb luck. I think he’s way smarter than that. I don’t know if they’re all his strategies or if he’s smart enough to surround himself with people and empower people to spread his brand. I think Dale has a vision, more than anything, of surrounding himself with smart people believing in their vision.”
Dale Jr. laughs when asked about what kind of businessman he is.
“Shoot, I don’t know,” he said before a long pause. “I like to have success. Just like you do on the racetrack. I think it’s real similar as far as I’m competitive. I hate losing. I like to be the best at whatever business we’re doing, whatever we’re trying to accomplish. You want to win.”
That was driven home two months ago when he was the featured speaker for a Chevrolet dealership convention in Las Vegas.
“They entertained the top 250 managers from the top 250 dealerships across the country, and we’re not there,” Earnhardt said. “I want to be there.”
How close is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet to being there? Earnhardt, who visits the Tallahassee showrooms at least twice annually to support his staffs, shrugged as he hops out of a van and heads for a door leading to the Whiskey River grand opening.
“That’s a good question, and I just know we weren’t there,” he said. “We should be. And our dealership does great. I try to see everybody, show my appreciation and come across as appreciative to the people doing the work.
“But you got to win. You’ve got to want to win — and kick some ass and everything.”