Note: This was originally posted February 11, 2007.
Wow! It's been a really long off season for me! I hope you've all enjoyed your own off season and are ready to go racing again. I know I am!
First of all, Congratulations to Tony Stewart for winning the 2007 Budweiser Shootout! I found the race to be exciting, but then again, I find them all to be exciting, except when some driver I don't like is winning and nobody can catch him. That little move (tap?) he put on Kyle Busch was what I consider racing to be all about. Kyle Busch might not agree, but I think he made a great save, anyway.
One of the biggest stories of the off season and of this racing season so far has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s contract dispute with his step-mother, Teresa Earnhardt. The contract dispute itself is nothing new, but Dale Jr. really threw in a new twist this past week when he boldly stated that he wants a majority ownership in the team.
I'm guessing that Dale Jr. is no dummy. I doubt that Nascar's most popular driver was simply running off at the mouth. If nothing else, Dale Jr. is aware of how the media hangs on his every word, and I think it's safe to say that he would not make a rookie mistake and make a claim he's not willing to back up.
After a meeting this week with Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s President of Global Operations Max Siegel (does this company sound like it's getting a little top heavy?) Earnhardt Jr. made his bold claim, adding that he would not sign a contract for 2008 and beyond if his conditions were not met. President Siegel commented later that he was happy with how negotiations were going. Max Siegel should be the US Ambassador to the UN if he can say that and keep a straight face.
First of all, let's take a look at Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s (DEI) position. Teresa Earnhardt, widow of racing's great Dale Earnhardt, apparently owns DEI outright. She basically always has, even well before Dale's death in 2001. This is not an uncommon practice among husband and wife race teams, where the husband is also a race car driver. It makes sense, from any point of view. Drivers sometimes die in their pursuit to win races and championships. Theirs is a high risk job. Theresa Earnhardt has proven to be a genius when it comes to marketing racing memorabilia. Many folks new to the sport might not know this, but Dale Earnhardt is basically the driver responsible for all those little trailers that stand in rows outside the race tracks every weekend during the racing season. Earnhardt, advised by Teresa, realized years ago that there was a lot of money to be made by selling tee shirt, hats, and other racing souveniers The merchandising business which is practiced by all racing teams now has turned into a mighty cash cow, the profits of which dwarf race winnings to the point that it makes one wonder why these drivers actually bother getting in the cars anymore at all. Let's face it, if I were a driver who sold $10 million worth of merchandise and only made $1 million off race winnings, I'd pay very special attention to the merchandise sales. Teresa and DEI have proven to be masters at merchandising. There are probably none better in the business than Teresa and DEI.
The problem with that is that in order to sell merchandise, you have to have a product that you can print on shirts and hats that will make people want to buy them. I could have a few Jimmy C. shirts and hats printed up and could set up a table at Daytona and wait for the bucks to roll in, but there's the distinct chance that 100 per cent of the passers-by would not know who Jimmy C was, or in fact understand what a wonderful guy he really is. I say this with full knowledge that I'm likely to need a bandage for my fragile ego, but facts are, as they say, facts. In fact, at last count, the members of my fan club included only 2. One of them was me. The other one was my cat, for which I am eternally grateful. Unfortunately, I have 3 cats, and 2 keep making all kinds of ridiculous excuses not to join, like "Jimmy, sorry, but it's been a lean year for catching mice."
I hope you're starting to get the picture. Since I'm not a race car driver, my chances of selling a hat at Daytona are pretty slim. If I am a race car driver, chances are I'll sell a few. If I've actually won races, I'll sell a lot more. If people actually like me and I win races, then I'll sell a whole lot more. Do you begin to see a pattern here?
Dale Earnhardt sold a ton of merchandise when he was alive, and following his tragic death in 2001, he actually sold a lot more. I know, because I bought a lot of it. DEI has made a lot of money off of Dale Earnhardt merchandise to this very day, and will continue to. The biggest draw they have at this time is clearly Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he's threatening to quit. He now fully owns the rights to his own name, which apparently was a major dispute that was settled within the hallowed halls of DEI last year. If Dale Jr. leaves, he takes his name with him.
Dale Earnhardt is now one of the most respected and posthumously loved drivers in Nascar. His merchandise will probably always sell, even though he'll never win another race or championship. With the hiring of Max Siegel, it would appear that DEI, under Teresa's leadership has taken a very aggressive stand on ensuring that the merchandising side of DEI will continue to be a very major part of the business. What I fear is that DEI has taken merchandising as DEI's primary business goal, rather than producing competitive race cars and drivers. Dale Jr., as popular as he is, will not win races or championships on his looks or personality alone.
Dale Jr.'s life is increasingly more complex. He owns his own race teams now, JR Motorsports. He owns jets, he is the boss to untold numbers of employees including his biological mom and his sister Kelley. He has his own radio show. He does photo shoots for magazines like Rolling Stone. He appeared in a video last year with a popular hip-hop artist. He's living a young man's dream, basically. I too am eagerly awaiting my chance to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, but as each year goes by, my hopes fade a little. In fact, it's looking as if my big show business break will be in a Geritol commercial, if indeed I get that break at all.
Dale Jr. does have a few things in his advantage other than his famous name. He's won 17 Nascar Nextel Cup races, and the All Star race in his rookie year of 2000. He's won the Budweiser Shootout. He's won a lot of Busch series races, including 2 championships in 1998 and 1999. This boy's got talent, and he's got personality. He's also got a lot of money, which helps too. Personally, I just wish I possessed an appliance in which to relieve myself.
I doubt that Dale Jr. really wants the big office at DEI right now, because he's too busy staying focused and trying to win races and championships. I think what he does want is a little more input into the racing side of the business. He wants the best mechanics, the best fabricators, the best engine builders. He's a race car driver, isn't he? Of course he wants that. Dale Jr.'s vision appears to be let's just win a lot of races, a lot of championships, and the rest will fall into place. I have to agree with that. Win races while you're young and fit and able to win races, and let the merchandising come later. Jr.'s stuff already flies off the shelves as it it, and it doesn't appear to take a very aggressive marketing campaign to sell his merchandise. My guess is the more races a fellow wins, the better his merchandise will sell.
As a casual fan, and I'm about as casual as they come, I must say that although I appreciate DEI's quest to sell more tee shirts and hats and diecast cars, I appreciate a very friendly and engaging young man winning races even more. Dale Jr.'s got too much talent to waste, in my opinion. I'd rather see him driving for a more racing oriented team now while he's in his prime, than to see him simply driving around the track to sell more tee shirts.