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Holding a Pretty Wheel: DEI’s Impossible Dream

Sometimes there are no easy answers to impossible situations. Sometimes there is no clear cut truth. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan.

Such appears to be the case within the walls of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the racing world on Wednesday that he wants majority interest in DEI, it brought to a head a contract, and life, dispute that has likely been brewing far longer than most of us know. Six years after the death of Dale Earnhardt, the empire is as big as it ever was – three Nextel Cup entries in the stable, the most popular driver in Dale Jr., the race results improving every week of last season. But has DEI traveled the road that Earnhardt had envisioned?

In some ways, clearly it has. Earnhardt Jr. contended for a championship in 2004 and 2006 before settling for top-five points finishes. As Junior matures, he only gets better. He’s likeable and marketable. In every way, it appears, Earnhardt Jr. is more than worthy of the legacy that has been thrust upon him. Not only can he drive and have a good time doing it, but he has an eye for young talent. Martin Truex Jr.‘s two Busch Series championships and a solid if unspectacular rookie season have more than repaid Earnhardt Jr.’s faith in his ability to get the job done. Paul Menard has improved by leaps and bounds over the last two seasons and earned his spot. For all intents and purposes, DEI is on the brink.

Behind the scenes, though, it appears as if the winds of change have been fierce and indiscriminate. Earnhardt’s vision has been clouded by decisions that were not, perhaps, decisions he would have made. The departures of drivers Steve Park and Kenny Wallace likely never would have occurred, at least not in the manner they finally did. DEI’s dominance on the restrictor-plate tracks has waned, and the organization dropped from three cars that contended for victory week in and week out (all three DEI cars saw victory lane in 2001; it has not happened again since) to two that were struggling to catch up with the curve. 2006 saw signs of an upswing on the track, but off it now looks to be a completely different story.

Contract negotiations between DEI (owned in it’s entirety by Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa) and Earnhardt Jr. have been, at times tumultuous. Teresa Earnhardt fired the proverbial shot across the bow when she openly questioned Earnhardt Jr.’s commitment, telling the press that he needed to “decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality.”

Earnhardt Jr., whose contract to drive for his father’s team ends after the 2007 season, has repeatedly said that he wants to have a stake in the family business beyond that of employee. He upped the ante this week when he told the racing world that he wanted majority ownership in the company. The main factor is the ownership part,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “It has nothing to do with money and nothing else really. I would really like my team, I like how things are going. The motors are improving, everything is on an upswing. My father has been gone for almost six years now, I want majority ownership.”

Hence the impossible situation. This is about more than money or a title. It’s about one of the richest legacies in racing and what it should and will become in the future. The company was left to Teresa Earnhardt, but it was meant for all four of Earnhardt’s children to have a part of, should they choose to do so. Perhaps the thing to do is offer Junior 25%, with the understanding that his brother and sisters will also have matching interest in the future. Perhaps Junior should have what he is asking for. After all, he kept the organization afloat with his popularity and marketability when they had only two marginally competitive cars. He bears his father’s name, but also his desire for DEI to contend for championships, with or without Junior behind the wheel. Teresa helped build the empire and is responsible for much of its financial prosperity. Either way, someone loses, and Dale Earnhardt’s vision fades a little more.

The impossible truth is that DEI has followed a different path than what was perhaps envisioned years ago. Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t want to own any other team – only the one his father built for him. Ironically, should he choose to step away, he could very likely step into the very car his father drove, the car that made Earnhard a legend and DEI possible. If Teresa Earnhardt shares control of the company with her stepson, the company could lose her valuable business insight, the insight that built DEI from name only into the biggest name in NASCAR. On the other hand, in a way, it is also Earnhardt Jr.’s name on the marquee. He was the heir apparent on and off the track.

Sometimes there are no easy answers to impossible situations. Sometimes it is best to hope that somewhere along the line, the right dreams and visions come to fruition.

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