Earnhardt Jr. on fast track in business world, too

Tremendous vision. Essence of a leader. Incredibly instinctual. Smarter than his years. Dale Jr. has been called a lot of things. A bad businessman isn't one of them, writes David Newton.

Updated: April 12, 2007, 9:29 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Smack!

The champagne bottle Marianne Kilkenny was using to christen the new JR Motorsports facility bounced off the beam near the front entrance without cracking.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Kevin Kane/WireImage.comDale Earnhardt Jr.'s other uniform: a suit and tie.

Smack!

The bottle remained intact.

Smack! Smack!

Two more whacks and all the wife of Navy admiral Joe Kilkenny had to show for her efforts was a chip in the beam's paint.

Smack!

The bottle shattered and champagne finally sprayed everywhere.

"As all of you can see, it's a well-built shop," said Mike Davis, the head of personal relations at JR Motorsports and master of ceremonies for Tuesday's grand opening.

A few feet away, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, smiled. It was their vision and insight that in less than eight years built this company from a small building behind Dale Earnhardt Inc. into a 66,000-square-foot showplace.

It is their vision they hope one day will take this from a Busch Series and late-model organization into a full-fledged Nextel Cup program just as their father and stepmother did with DEI.

"One of the things we have been able to maintain throughout the beginning of our company was this trust factor," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Obviously, working with my sister there is a huge trust factor. So you try to seek that out in all of your employees.

"You try to build that friendship so that the trust factor grows and you can lean on each other throughout the year. That's really probably the most important part of our company, what helps us stay successful, is being able to lean on each other like we do."

One can almost visualize the late Earnhardt and his wife, Teresa, more than 20 years ago when they began DEI.

Earnhardt had the name recognition and the vision. Teresa had the business savvy to help turn that into a multimillion-dollar reality.

"To be successful you have to be respected. To get respect you have to go out and get the job done."
-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It's no different with Earnhardt Jr., by far the most popular driver on the Nextel Cup series and one of the most popular athletes in all of sports, and Elledge.

"Dale Jr. is very smart," said Brenda Jackson, the mother of Earnhardt Jr. and Elledge. "He picks up on people well. He reads people well. He is very bright and almost like an old soul of some of the things he knows. … He's way smarter than his years.

"Kelley takes all of that and puts it on paper and makes it be operational, makes it successful."

Earnhardt Jr. doesn't get much credit for his business skills, but those who know him say he's wise beyond his 32 years.

Some of it comes from having watched his father build DEI. Some of it comes from simple common sense and the ability to relate to people of all kinds on different levels.

"He is incredibly instinctual," said Thayer Lavielle, the vice president for marketing and brand development at JR Motorsports. "He knows what he wants from the facts that are presented.

"He has an instinct for what needs to go on. And he's constantly right. I don't think there's ever been an issue we've had since I've been here that he's not been right on."

Lavielle was so impressed with Earnhardt's vision that she left her job with L'Oreal USA in New York City in June to move to Mooresville and work with him.

"What's most surprising to me is how it seems to come so effortless," said Lavielle, who worked with Earnhardt Jr. in 2002 on the relaunch of the fragrance Drakkar Noir. "He knows how to walk in a room of employees and say just the right thing.

"He knows how to speak to me in my language and a fabricator in the fab shop in his language. That's the essence of a leader."

Max Siegel, the president of global operations at DEI, has been equally impressed with Earnhardt Jr. as a business person.

"Dale Jr. has his finger on the pulse of NASCAR's core fan base," said Siegel, who is heavily involved in trying to re-sign Earnhardt Jr. to DEI. "He thinks strategically about how to leverage his brand and recognizes the importance of a strong team.

"He has a tremendous vision and has set specific goals for his career and future. JRM and its program is an example of his commitment to the sport and developing future champion drivers."

Earnhardt Jr.'s influence is everywhere at JR Motorsports, from the splashes of his favorite color, orange, painted on everything from the team logo to the walls, to the merchandise in the team store that looks more like something one would purchase at a trendy mall shop instead of a souvenir store.

The store has everything from T-shirts of Earnhardt Jr.'s dog "Killer" to nail files to candles to alarm clocks, although the alarm clocks don't seem to fit because the boss isn't known as an early riser.

"Dale Jr. has his finger on the pulse of NASCAR's core fan base. He thinks strategically about how to leverage his brand and recognizes the importance of a strong team."
-- DEI's Max Siegel

"It's a lifestyle," Elledge said with a smile.

Earnhardt Jr. nodded.

"We decided not to go the traditional route and see how much success we could have trying to sell more mainstream gear," he said. "Obviously, you've got to be a fan to want to wear that. Regardless of how you paint it up, it's got my name on it.

"But me and Kelley talked for years about how some of the merchandise from years past was kind of gaudy and a little over the top. Here, there's a demographic for everybody."

The store says more about where Elledge and Earnhardt Jr. are as they try to negotiate a new deal at DEI than the shop.

"We are not positioning JR Motorsports for Cup," Elledge said. "What we are positioning ourselves in from a JR Motorsports perspective is not the motorsports end, but the business end, hiring key licensing people, hiring branding executives.

"We've added staff in the office of probably eight to 10 people because we're ready to pull that control of the brand of Dale Jr. and take that to where we want it to go. That's really my focus."

Elledge wants her brother's focus to be on winning races and championships in the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet.

"As an Earnhardt, that needs to be on his résumé," she said.

Earnhardt Jr. admits he lets his sister handle most of the business affairs and that his focus at JR Motorsports is on the drivers and their cars.

"When it comes to doing business, I think I know everything but Kelley surprises me sometimes," Earnhardt Jr. said with a laugh. "She sort of paints me a new picture and makes a whole lot more sense of it."

But don't sell Earnhardt Jr. short as a businessman.

"Well, I hope I'm tenacious," he said. "To be effective in the business model that you have in motorsports today you have to be very tenacious. We have to have bridges and friendships and relationships throughout the motorsports family.

"To be successful you have to be respected. To get respect you have to go out and get the job done."

Former driver Shawna Robinson, who helped decorate the new JR Motorsports shop, said Earnhardt Jr. can be intimidating.

"He's definitely got that secretive, mysterious way about him that a lot of people aren't really sure how to approach like his daddy was," she said. "A lot of times he doesn't come up to us and say this is what I want. He just gives bits and pieces and he expects you to figure this out."

One of Earnhardt Jr.'s strengths is he allows people to do their jobs, as long as they're doing them to his liking.

He doesn't believe the time spent at JR Motorsports has hurt his performance on the track. If anything, he said it's made him a more complete driver.

"This has not taken away anything from me mentally," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's just added more substance to my life. It's actually improved my ability to work with my Cup team.

"Understanding how things are made and put together and how things are taken to the track and done from [this] side of the fence has really provided me with a tremendous amount more respect for the guys that work on the red car."

Earnhardt Jr. hopes he's on the verge of being the success his dad was as a driver and an owner. As a driver, he's rebounded from a rough start to rank 11th in points heading into Sunday's race at Texas.

As an owner, he feels good about the progress of his Navy-sponsored Busch Series team with driver Shane Huffman. He's also optimistic about young drivers such as Richard Boswell, Scott Young, Curtis Truex Jr. and seven-time Supercross champion Jeremy McGrath, who was recently signed.

He's so optimistic as an owner that he's talking about one day expanding to a Cup team, something that wasn't on his radar a few years ago.

"I never said that wasn't an option in the past," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It was just so far down the road it was ridiculous to think about it. But we're getting closer and closer to something like that being a reality."

And for the record, Earnhardt Jr. doesn't see himself leaving DEI to drive for his own team any more than his dad saw himself leaving Richard Childress Racing to drive for DEI.

"Kelley probably wouldn't let me if I wanted to," Earnhardt Jr. said.

Elledge nodded.

The two seemingly are in sync with everything.

"He and Kelley have taken great pains to create a company that is fair to its employees, is fair to sponsors and partners," Lavielle said. "It's a place where people want to work."

It's a place Earnhardt Jr. never imagined in 2002 when he and a group of friends built a street stock car to race at Concord Motorsports Park.

It's a place he now sees with no limits thanks to the power of his name and the great sponsorship support that comes with it.

"As a company, we haven't had to pull the reins too many times," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We've really let this thing kind of take off and do its own thing within reality financially and technically with the people and whatnot.

"But it's grown, and it's grown quickly."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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