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.
Additionally, Budweiser has been associated with Big E. for many years, more closely over the past five, and knows his illustrious record and his passion for excellence. Also, it was a matter of opportunity and timing.
Dale Jr. had planned to join Winston Cup in 2000 and Budweiser, the country's leader in money spent on sports advertising, was looking for another team to sponsor. The company has gotten very little positive exposure from the winless Hendrick Motorsports team it backs, although it will continue to sponsor that team and driver Wally Dallenbach for the '99 season.
It has been a whirlwind year for Little E., what with things happening so fast. "Our Busch team was a winner when I became the driver and now it's a championship contender," Dale Jr. says. "Maybe we were lucky in that we've done so well. That allowed us to think about new opportunities. Budweiser was ready to make an agreement and was interested in me and my program. A year ago, I never thought I'd be driving a Winston Cup car prepared on this scale and sponsored by one of the most prestigious companies in all of sport. I'm not real surprised at our Busch team's success, but I am amazed and thrilled at getting Budweiser."
Dale Jr. is having to adjust to the series of events in his life-but not too much. "I want to continue to be myself and do the things I want to do," he says. "I'm just taking things as they come and trying not to be overwhelmed." Little E. says being himself means living in a mobile home across the highway from the Garage Mahal near Mooresville, North Carolina. "That's me and it keeps me sane," he adds.
He can now expect to live in a dish bowl and the trailer to turn to glass.
Budweiser is convinced Dale Jr. is a blue blood. "Dale Jr. has demonstrated he has the ability to become the next star in Winston Cup," says August Busch IV, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of marketing. But, Dale Jr. will be a rookie, and still the deal is a multimillion dollar gamble for Budweiser if Little E. falls below expectations. Patience is a key word here.
Life In The Big Leagues
Practically all rookies hit a literal and figurative wall when they advance to the big league, which is a giant leap from Busch. Rookies in 1998, Steve Park, who drives for the Winston Cup team Dale Sr. owns; Kevin Lepage; Kenny Irwin; and Jerry Nadeau were a testimony to that fact. Park missed 14 races with injuries. Highly billed Irwin had one top five and ranked 28th in points after 29 races. Lepage, 35th in points, quit his ride and signed on with Jack Roush, and Nadeau, 36th in points, changed rides.
There are former Busch champions who haven't won in four or five years in Winston Cup. Even Jeff Gordon was winless his rookie year before he took off in 1994. In fact, only five rookies of the year since 1958 have won a race, and Dale Sr. is one of them.
Perhaps Little E. will be the exception after a taste of Winston Cup competition and another full season of Busch.
"I'm not going to neglect the fact that everybody is taking a risk here," says Dale Jr. "That's obvious. I don't have that much experience, but I think I know what I'm doing, and think I am capable of doing the job Budweiser [and his daddy] want. If I didn't think I've proved myself, I'd be a lot more worried about the situation. Deals like this are like investing in the stock market. Will it go up or down?" Dale Jr. is convinced he and his team can make the transition from Busch to Winston Cup together and be competitive.
Dale Jr. bears a physical resemblance to his daddy, expresses himself pretty well and isn't as shy as Big E. He seems to be a nice kid. But Dale Jr. is the 1979 image of his father in a race car-very aggressive. Well, he was. Excellent coaching by his daddy and crewchief Tony Eury Sr. has reeled in Little Intimidator.
"I think Dale Jr. will be OK," says Big E. "He is using his head and racing much smarter. He's shown a lot of poise and was ready to do what it takes to win. That's hard to do. When you've got a good race car and you're aggressive, it's hard to back that thing down a little and stay out of trouble. One lesson I learned from my father when I was a kid is that you can take a driver who drives the car over his head and wrecks nearly every race and calm him down and pull him back a notch and make him a winner. You can't do that with a driver who won't drive the car hard, especially into the corners. Dale Jr. will drive the car. We've got to harness and detune him and he'll be a winner. I am very proud of him and what he has done in the Busch Series. I'm proud of all my (four) kids." Big E.'s older son, Kerry, advances to Busch next year.
"As a parent, you always want the best for your children," adds Earnhardt Sr., "and that's what we're doing for Dale Jr. and his career. Budweiser's support guarantees he'll be starting in Winston Cup with the best of everything.
"As a driver, though, he's one more of these young guns I'll have to beat."
Earnhardt Sr., 47, whose black #3 Childress Racing Chevrolet is almost as famous as Richard Petty's #43, has driven around the world almost eight times-more than 194,000 miles-in more than 600 Winston Cup starts dating to 1975, and has won about everything the sport offers. Even though he rebounded from a winless '97 season to victory in the Daytona 500, he and his team have slipped inexplicably into what is mediocrity for them. He has tried four times unsuccessfully to win a record eighth championship. Earnhardt's loyal fans have had little to cheer about, though they've embraced Little E. They have been occupied, however, booing the feats of Jeff Gordon.
Earnhardt is not ready to pass the torch to his son, but that may come sooner than expected if performance doesn't return to a high level. "My performance and that of the team together, I think, will be a major factor in determining how long I drive," Earnhardt says. "I feel comfortable racing through the year 2000, when my contract with Childress is up, maybe beyond.
"I don't know how I'll feel in two years, whether I want to race past 50. We'll have to wait and see. I don't like the way we've been racing, whether the problem is part team or part driver. I want to be the car to beat. Right now we're not that kind of force in Winston Cup and we've got to get back to that position. I want to win by beating the best or run second and get beat by the best. I want to quit driving on my own terms and avoid a situation where people write me off." Some people think that now, but wouldn't dare say it.
Earnhardt won't drive for himself. "I don't like myself that good," he says, adding levity. "And I don't want to argue with my wife (Teresa) about her car or my driving. I can argue with Richard Childress, not her, because I'd lose."
Big E. wants to remain a part of the NASCAR family as a car owner for many years. He's busy preparing for that day.