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Commercial regrouping

Dale Earnhardt's companies and sponsors search for the right way to move on without him.

By GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001


Fishing gear. Oreo cookies. Minor-league baseball. Coke machines.

Dale Earnhardt had a hand in all of them, and nearly two weeks after his death, shock waves continue to ripple, showing the NASCAR legend's death will impact far more than just stock-car racing.

Just ask Scott Williamson, a Coca-Cola spokesman who has discovered racing fans cope with death in many ways.

He has been told of grieving fans who left handwritten messages in Coke vending machines with Earnhardt's picture on the front. Some have taped photos to the machines. Some have placed flowers in front of them. Others have stolen the plastic fronts off the machines.

"You cannot overstate his importance or impact on NASCAR and our Coca-Cola Racing family," Williamson said. "You just don't replace a Dale Earnhardt. When you work over the years with someone like him, it transcends the business relationships. He was our friend."

Earnhardt was a friend to many in that corporate sense. Racing has lost not only its most popular driver, but the driving force in its commercial success, the heart of its booming industry. His death could have a financial impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"First of all, Earnhardt was NASCAR," said David Allen, president of Champion Sports Group, Earnhardt's marketing company. "As much as he's done for the sport, he continues to do that even more through the legacy he left behind."

That legacy is more than just 76 victories and seven Winston Cup championships. In addition to the car he drove, he owned a race team (which has won the season's first two races), launched businesses and endorsed dozens of companies that spend millions to sponsor cars.

"This guy is an icon," said Fred Wagenhals, chief executive officer for Action Performance, the nation's largest racing merchandise company. "When you look at how many people worked with him, at (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), at my company, at Richard Childress Racing, it's a lot of families, probably 700 employees, and he was the major part of all of those lives."

Wagenhals, who sold his home and scraped together $300,000 in 1993 to buy Earnhardt's exclusive licensing rights, has seen his company's annual sales increase from $12-million to $360-million, with Earnhardt responsible for about a quarter of that total.

He estimates the Intimidator accounted for $200-million annually in retail sales of NASCAR merchandise -- more than most pro sports franchises such as the Buccaneers or Devil Rays can boast. Earnhardt has set the pace in NASCAR's rapid rise, a phenomenon that fueled $558-million in advertising and promotions last year, according to IEG Sponsorship Report, an advertising publication.

But sponsors say his personality will be missed most -- Earnhardt's ability to bring products customers because he endorsed them. Companies such as Nabisco and Hershey Foods joined as sponsors this season, and Hershey launched a "Sweet Deal from Dale" promotion that invited fans to send in proofs of purchase in exchange for Earnhardt T-shirts, hats, jackets and full-size cardboard cutouts.

"We were in shock -- this is the first time we've dealt with a tragedy like this," said Hershey spokesman Mike Kinney, whose company previously had worked with drivers Mark Martin and Bill Elliott.

Hershey's promotion, like nearly all Earnhardt-related advertising, was put on hold after his death, and the company will consult with the Earnhardt family before deciding if and when to continue the offer for his fans.

"The Dale Earnhardt fans are watching very closely," Kinney said. "They're very loyal fans, and we have to stop and make sure everyone is comfortable before we went ahead with anything. We have no plans to launch any new initiatives."

Across the board, sponsors have honored Earnhardt online with prominent, heartfelt remembrances. Visit BassProShops.com and you find Earnhardt smiling with a large catch in hand. Hunting camouflage site Realtree.com shows a proud Earnhardt sitting behind a slain deer.

Be it auto parts or soft drinks, the lasting impression left by Earnhardt was well-known before his death. Before racing the past 13 seasons with GM Goodwrench as his primary sponsor, he drove a yellow-and-blue No. 3 car from 1981-87 for Wrangler Jeans, and that company pays tribute to its "Glory Days" on its site.

Earnhardt has been a fixture in his hometown of Kannapolis, N.C. In November, the local minor-league baseball team changed its name from the Piedmont Boll Weevils to the Kannapolis Intimidators as Earnhardt joined the team's ownership group.

The team's black "K" logo was a popular seller this winter, but Earnhardt's death has changed the mood at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium to a somber one, never more so than during a memorial service Sunday night that drew more than 5,000 fans.

"It's been difficult for us," general manager Todd Parnell said. "From the excitement of him being one of our owners to the tragedy of losing him. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better ownership-team match anywhere. He's the hometown hero, the guy who worked his rear end off to get from the minor leagues of his sport to being a superstar. His first race shop was a mile from our stadium."

Needless to say, no Intimidators player will wear No. 3, but Parnell said the team will stick with its new image, now more as a memorial to Earnhardt and the legacy he leaves in Kannapolis.

"We have to work very hard to honor and respect him with this team," Parnell said. "He would really want us to try to move on as much as we can, but it's a loss beyond words."

Earnhardt's death has brought unprecedented nationwide attention on NASCAR, and it remains to be seen how well the sport will hold its audience after losing its biggest personality. Many of the contracts that Action Performance signs with drivers are voided in the event that a driver is killed, but not Earnhardt's, which runs through 2011, long after the company's deals with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. expire in 2005. Wagenhals temporarily has halted production of Earnhardt merchandise and is not accepting orders from new retailers seeking to capitalize on the increased interest.

Just as Elton John's Candle in the Wind single that was released in tribute after the death of Princess Diana of Wales in 1997 became the biggest-selling single of all time, Wagenhals is aware of the unprecedented demand for Earnhardt items.

"His fans are clamoring for it. Everybody wants a piece of history," Wagenhals said. "We have a lot of products we still haven't made, all his nostalgia (die-cast model) cars. He probably drove 30 or 40 cars we've never built. We'll do it tastefully, and we'll do it right."

Wagenhals spoke with Earnhardt on his boat in the Atlantic Ocean on the Tuesday before he died, and their conversation ominously touched on what racing would be like without him -- after what would have been his retirement from racing after another season or two.

"Will he be missed? Damn right he will," Wagenhals said. "It's going to affect a lot of people for a long time. He's like Elvis Presley, like James Dean, somebody who will go on forever."

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