October 2, 2008
By Doug Demmons
Will the last person to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. please turn out the lights?
OK, it’s not quite that bad at DEI. Not yet, at least.
But the team founded by Dale Earnhardt Sr. and his wife Teresa, which looked so solid just a year ago, is no longer one of NASCAR’s elite teams.
Tuesday’s announcement that Paul Menard was taking his father’s sponsorship with him over to Yates Racing to drive a Ford next year is just the latest blow. DEI is looking at having 1.5 sponsors next year for four cars. That can’t be sustained, at least not for long.
It was just a year ago that DEI, fresh off losing Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick Motorsports, expanded by buying out Bobby Ginn and added Mark Martin to its stable of drivers.
Things have unraveled to this point:
1. Martin Truex Jr. has the only full sponsorship in Bass Pro Shops. But he was looking for the exit this year and only reluctantly signed for 2009. Unless things change dramatically, next year will be his last at DEI.
Contraction seems a certainty for 2009, perhaps to two teams. A sale is possible, but it isn ’t exactly a seller’s market these days. Shutting down seems highly unlikely, but then again until last week nobody dreamed Wall Street giants like Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual could collapse either.
2. Aric Almirola is an up-and-coming talent, but the No. 8 has just lost the U.S. Army sponsorship. The Army is expected to announce at Lowe’s Motor Speedway next week that it will sponsor Ryan Newman at Stewart-Haas next year.
3. With Paul Menard gone, it’s hard to see how the No. 15 team isn’t mothballed.
4. Regan Smith has a partial sponsorship in Principal Financial Group for the No. 01, but Frontstretch.com is reporting that the team is being shopped around to investors and that Smith won’t be back in 2009.
Fans like to blame Teresa Earnhardt for whatever is wrong at DEI. She ran off Junior. She never goes to the track anymore. Etc. etc. Maybe some of that is true. It’s hard to tell because Teresa rarely talks to the media and doesn’t seem compelled to give her side of the story.
But she does have Max Siegel running the day-to-day show and he’s no slouch when it comes to business.
What DEI seems to lack is forceful leadership. The successful teams have that in abundance. Owners like Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress. Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs run the show. They are hands on; they know when to ride herd and when to reassure. They know how to command respect and project a public image of strength and competence.
It’s hard to gauge Teresa’s management style given her aloofness. I have encountered her just once and only briefly. She was very gracious and quite charming -- not at all like the woman who was the most hated person in NASCAR until Kyle Busch came along.
Unfortunately, grace and style do not win races.
The best hope for DEI to reclaim its lost luster would be to find that leadership fast. It’s going to take more than just a deep-pockets investor.
Doug Demmons is a writer and editor for the Birmingham News ~ he writes weekly auto racing columns ranging from NASCAR to open wheel to Formula One, local tracks and more... you can read Doug's columns online at Blog of Tommorow