Teresa Earnhardt keeps team on track
By Chris Jenkins, USA TODAY
Teresa Earnhardt has been to Daytona several times since legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt died three Februarys ago, a sign she has made peace with the place where the couple experienced so much success and immeasurable pain.
So Earnhardt's widow will be happy, she says and maybe a little nervous about introducing musical acts from Sheryl Crow to Alabama in front of perhaps 50,000 of her late husband's loyal fans at tribute concert to him Saturday at Daytona International.
Emotionally guarded by nature and not given to small talk, Teresa Earnhardt shines under office lights after business hours. Not in the spotlight.
"I'm not an entertainer," she says. "But I'll do what I need to do."
That's a phrase she uses several times in her first newspaper interview since the 2001 accident that claimed her husband.
Other NASCAR team owners regularly make backslapping tours of the garage area during race weekends. But the owner of Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) prefers to stay in the background negotiating business deals, dissecting contracts and sorting out employee issues, as she did when Dale was alive.
She'd like to attend more races, she says, but she just doesn't have time. The long hours are wearing but are offset by the satisfaction she gets from winning at the racetrack and in the boardroom.
She dismisses persistent rumors that DEI is for sale.
"I have no plans to sell," Earnhardt, 44, says. "Again, we're focused on building and making DEI stronger and more successful. All the people here are really dedicated to our future success and longevity."
Not only did DEI survive its founder's death, it's thriving on Teresa's watch:
• Her stepson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is perhaps the sport's biggest star and is driving like a legitimate championship contender, although they're still trying to achieve a comfortable relationship.
• Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500 in February.
• DEI is close to a contract extension with corporate sponsor Budweiser that is expected to bring the team approximately $18 million a year.
When things aren't going right, Earnhardt has been willing to make the tough decisions. Steve Park was the first full-time driver Dale hired when he started the team in the late 1990s, and Park even lived briefly in the Earnhardts' house. But he wasn't performing well. So Teresa fired him.
Although few people in NASCAR feel like they know her personally, they respect the job she has done.
"I think she could have very easily stepped aside and cashed in, and nobody would have blamed her if she did," rival team owner Chip Ganassi says. "Instead, she's riding the bull — and not doing too bad a job at it."
Navigating the ownership track
Things couldn't have looked worse for NASCAR on Feb. 18, 2001. But Teresa might have been at her best that day and in the months after her husband's death.
"I was in the hospital that night, and everybody was just walking around in shock," says Fox TV analyst Darrell Waltrip, a one-time Earnhardt nemesis on the track and a close friend off it.
"Nobody could believe what had happened. And everybody was just in a daze — except for Teresa. Teresa was thinking ahead. 'What have I got to do? What should I do? We've got to take care of this, and this is how I'm going to do it.' Even in the midst of that tragedy, she was the one that was in control."
Thrust into the role of owner, she suddenly had to keep the team together while also lobbying to prevent media outlets from gaining access to her husband's autopsy photos. It barely left her time to grieve and must describes such feelings only in general terms.
"We had quite a shock wave to go through, you know. We crunched on because we knew we had to. We had so much at stake; we had to keep moving fast to stay established and to stay strong. But I think everybody's got their feet planted firmly back on the ground. Everyone here understands that we're growing and we're building and we're getting stronger. We're not going anywhere. The time (to heal) helps."
A week after Dale died, his team showed up at the race — and won. Teresa eventually worked out a compromise with media outlets, keeping the autopsy photos from becoming public. And soon after assuming control of DEI's business decisions, she trimmed some financial fat by selling Dale's helicopter, a luxury that no longer seemed necessary.
"When it's the gloomiest and the darkest and other people say there's no way, that's when she really shines," Waltrip says. "She comes in with her style and takes control and fixes things."
In many ways, she unintentionally began training to become a team owner when she became Dale's third wife, in 1982. She studied interior design at Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, N.C., but doesn't have any formal business training.
Like many people who ended up being successful in the business side of racing, she simply learned by doing.
Tony Ponturo, Budweiser's vice president of global media and sports marketing, admires the self-taught nature of NASCAR business negotiations.
"It's sort of the street-smart kind of savvy," he says. "It's good common sense. ... It's got all the elements of master's degree business textbooks, but it sort of comes up through the roots."
Earnhardt was involved in all of her husband's business dealings, bringing a practical perspective to balance his racing-first attitude.
She'd read every contract presented to him. When she saw a well-constructed clause or phrase she liked, she'd save it and have it added to future contracts. It has earned her a reputation as a shrewd, honest negotiator.
"I've been doing this for over 20 years, so you learn with experience," she says. "You make a mistake one time, and you learn from it and you try not to let it happen again."
One dynamic that has caused some tension in the garage area is the close relationship between NASCAR officials and DEI. Waltrip says NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. and Dale "had almost a father-son relationship. I think that in some ways, Mr. France would think it was his responsibility and his obligation to Dale because of their close relationship to watch out for" his team.
Privately and occasionally in public, members of rival teams wonder if DEI gets preferential treatment from NASCAR, from favorable decisions from officials to getting corporate sponsorships steered its way. Some think DEI is granted more leeway with rules governing technical specifications of cars than other teams, a charge laughed off by NASCAR officials.
Waltrip says although France was loyal to Earnhardt, he doesn't sit in a trackside suite saying, "Let that car win that race."
NASCAR President Mike Helton, one of Dale's closest friends, notes that penalties are issued to DEI just as with other teams. "What DEI has done, they've done on their own, just like others have. They've created their own successes."
Earnhardt says she and the team haven't been handed anything.
"We work for everything we have," she says. "We work hard for it. It's available to anyone. Go for it."
Doing what needs to be done
Known as the "Garage Mahal" because of its relative majesty, DEI headquarters in Mooresville, N.C., is full of old race cars, photos and trophies that serve as constant reminders of NASCAR's late seven-time champion.
Earnhardt finds the memorabilia comforting, not painful. "Oh, no, I love it," she says. "They're great memories and great times."
If NASCAR's "Intimidator" had a softer side that only she was able to see, she's keeping those memories to herself. She says Dale's public image, one of rough, blue-collar charm, was real. "I think everybody knew Dale. He was not a put-on; he was what you saw."
What does she miss the most about him?
"Oh, gosh, I couldn't even begin to answer that question," she says. "There'd be too many things."
She finds some comfort in the significant safety advances NASCAR has made since Dale's death but doesn't blame them that the safety measures came later, not sooner.
"I think they've always done the very best that they could," she says. "You know: Woulda-shoulda-coulda."
She is proud of the season Dale Jr. is putting together. "I think he's more focused," she says. "All things come with experience, and the more you get, the better you'll be. I think that has been a major factor in his performance. He's still very, very new at this."
The relationship between Dale Jr. and Teresa has seemed tense at times, particularly earlier this year, when they were negotiating a contract extension and he reportedly turned down a lifetime deal with the team. Earnhardt Jr. declined comment for this story.
Teresa acknowledges she and Dale Jr. don't talk often but says people shouldn't read anything into that. "That's one thing that I wish we could do more of is spend more time together, but that's nothing new," she says. "That's always been like that. But that's because of the scheduling."
Waltrip says he could see Teresa eventually allowing Dale Jr. to take over the team. But as long as it's a profitable business and she's still enjoying some aspects of running it, there's no reason to sell.
"I think if it ever got to the point to where she had to start putting money in it out of her own pocket, I think she probably wouldn't do that for very long," Waltrip says. "Me, Dale, anybody that's ever owned a race team, you'll put money in it until you're broke."
For now, though, Earnhardt isn't expending too much energy patting herself on the back.
"Yes, I'm proud of myself," she says. "But I do what I need to do — I don't make a big deal out of it."