Family-owned NASCAR racing has found a true legend. Dale Earnhardt lived fast, died young and has now been immortolised in a film about his life. However, as Marc Smith reports, Earnhardt’s legacy also extends to a successful family business empire.
Marc Smith is deputy editor of Families in Business.
If you don't live in the US, chances are you may never have heard of Dale Earnhardt. If you do live in the US, you – or at least someone you know – are probably rushing to buy tickets to the film about his life, which was released last month.
Dale, aka "The Intimidator", is best known for his success in the Winston Cup Series, NASCAR racing's premier event, where his record seven championships are tied with Richard Petty. A popular if somewhat controversial figure, his status went off the scale following his untimely death aged just 49 in February 2001. Dale's image adorned that week's TIME magazine, video from the race was played on nearly every major televised newscast, and his funeral was shown live on multiple television stations. According to his official website, "the mere mention of the name Dale Earnhardt provokes emotions of respect, idolization and a stilling sense of awe".
Partly due to the Hollywood nature of his death in a spectactular crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 – NASCAR's most important and prestigious race, and voted as the fourth most valuable sporting event in the world by Forbes magazine – and partly due to the family legacy of his wife and children who are still involved in the sport, the Earnhardt name is now big business.
The Earnhardt phenomenon includes Dale Earnhardt, Inc (DEI), a NASCAR team managed by Dale's widow, Theresa; his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr, who is continuing in his father's racing footsteps; the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, which aims to sustain Dale's commitment to education, children and environmental/wildlife causes through charitable grants; the new film; and his legion of fans.
DEI is today one of the most successful enterprises in NASCAR. It fields several full-time racing teams and houses a shop, a licensing department, engineering, communications, sales and marketing, and speed brokers offices covering 240,000 square feet – not bad for an enterprise that started out as a small husband-and-wife double act back in 1980. The firm's rapid expansion was founded on a successful racing team, but it also led the industry in merchandise and sponsorship sales, and it was innovative in trademarking Dale's image and signature. The licensing department in particular is a lucrative business with many products manufacured bearing the Earnhardt name.
Like his father, Dale Jr captured the Rookie of the Year prize and has had several championship wins. He was voted NASCAR's most popular driver for the fourth year in a row and, again like his father, has signed a lucrative deal with clothing firm Wrangler Jeans.
The foundation kicked off its charitable endeavours with a special tribute concert in 2003. Since then, various initiatives have helped to fund schemes including the founding of a Dale Earnhardt forest and a grant supporting the preservation of 58,000 acres of wetlands in Louisiana.
The film, DALE, for the first time tells the story of the legend through his own words and includes interviews, race footage and outtakes. Narrated by Paul Newman, it was made in collaboration with Theresa Earnhardt and Richard Childress, owner of the team for whom Dale had so much success. Notoriously circumspect about authorising projects about Dale that are beyond their immediate control, the film is a watershed moment for fans and family members alike.
In an exclusive interview with co-producers CMT Films, Theresa said, "It is a great project, an inspiring piece. I just can't wait for people to see it. They're going to learn things about Dale that they didn't really know other than what a great seven-times champion he was."
Away from the business and film-making side, ordinary fans have been well provided for, too. A memory wall – an online forum for fans to place their feelings for their hero on record – runs to 3,471 pages on www.daleearnhardtinc.com. Every year, on 18 February, you can pay your respects at a silent candlelight tribute at DEI HQ. The website also encourages those who are unable to attend to light a candle in their homes with the aid of a hand crafted aluminum cylinder candleholder (price on application). If that is not enough, every 29 April, Dale Earnhardt Day celebrates the man's life on his birthday. So, wherever you reside, Dale's legacy seems in safe hands.