You knew it was a big deal, this first official function at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated new "Garage Mahal."
Inside what looked more like a ballroom than part of a 133,000-square foot race shop, there were uniformed caterers and tables of fancy hors d'oeuvres. There were car-parkers outside in the rain and pretty girls in red shirts directing guests along corridors to the press conference. Dale Earnhardt had done many things in racing, but hosting a press conference was a first-this time as a father and car owner.
A few of us who have covered Earnhardt throughout his long driving career couldn't help but reflect on the seven-time Winston Cup champion's humble start, which was in his racing father Ralph's two-bay garage with one race car at their modest home in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Talent and determination far exceeded money. Racing became a struggle for Earnhardt after his father, as good a short-track driver as there ever was, died unexpectedly. A dream has mushroomed into benchmark accomplishments and millions of dollars in earnings, much of which has been plowed back into the first-class operation and ownership of three race teams with 114 employees.
On this day, though, some 25 years later, 23-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his grand entrance riding shotgun on the Budweiser wagon drawn by several tons of horsepower-eight Clydesdales. All this was fit for the king of beers and the would-be prince of Stock car racing. Oh, if Ralph Earnhardt, as good a short-track racer as there ever was, could see his son and grandson now.
The deal was much bigger than most in the room could imagine. Anheuser-Busch had signed Dale Earnhardt Jr. and DEI to a six-year contract to tout its premier brand, Budweiser, in the Winston Cup Series beginning in 1999. Junior will compete in five selected Winston Cup races for Budweiser next year, while driving his second full season in the Busch Grand National Series, and tackle the big circuit full time in 2000. His '99 schedule and car number will be announced later.
Although the price tag was removed from the sponsorship and personal services package, an educated guess places the value as high as $60 million. Wow! Is this NASCAR or professional baseball? Given that Winston Cup agreements are normally three years, this has to be the biggest team sponsorship outlay in NASCAR history.
DEI President Don Hawk declined to divulge the figure, but he says, "I believe if everybody is telling their true numbers, this is one of the biggest deals in Winston Cup, including Dale Sr.'s [with GM Goodwrench and Richard Childress Racing] and Jeff Gordon's [with DuPont and Hendrick Motorsports]. And I'm not talking about endorsements. Dale Sr. already had an endorsement agreement with Budweiser. I will also say that no one company handed no one person $10 million per year, but Anheuser-Busch's agreement with Dale Jr., in racing language, is really stout."
There are sound reasons why Anheuser-Busch would risk millions on a rookie driver who had not even driven a Winston Cup car in competition at the time of the agreement. Obviously, based on Little E.'s first full Busch season, he has the Earnhardt racing genes and is considered the best prospect since Gordon appeared in 1993 and took the series by storm. Through 27 races, Earnhardt Jr. led the Busch Series, NASCAR's triple-A league, in most performance categories, with six victories, three poles, 14 top fives, 20 top 10s, earnings of $718,000, and a 97-point lead toward his first championship. Not bad for a youngster who had competed previously in only a dozen Busch races. By comparison, Jeff Gordon, the current Winston Cup rage, won three Busch Grand National races, 12 poles, had 13 top fives, 23 top 10s and $519,000 in earnings in 62 starts over two seasons.