In 1980, Dale Earnhardt, with his wife Teresa, formed a company named Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Initially, the company was put together to compete in some Nationwide Series races, with the eventual goal of going Cup racing. In 1996, that goal was realized when the organization fielded the No. 14 Racing for Kids Chevrolet, driven by Robby Gordon, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The car eventually became the No. 1, which was the cornerstone of the organization until Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved up to the Cup level full-time in 2000 with the No. 8. For the next eight years, the No. 8 car was the face of the company, the reason fans and sponsors flocked to the team. Now, that car has officially been shelved, leaving a large hole in the hearts of many loyal DEI fans.
The No. 8 had a very deep connection to Dale Earnhardt. Dale’s father Ralph ran the No. 8 on his car for years on dirt tracks throughout the Southeast, winning championships and becoming famous for always finishing races. When Earnhardt took to the track for his company in the Nationwide Series, he was driving a No. 8 Nova. He chose that number as a tribute to his father.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. was making the move to Cup, he could not bring his Nationwide number, three, because his father obviously was utilizing that number at the top level of the sport. There was no doubt that he would drive the No. 8, as a tribute to his grandfather and his father’s idol.
While Dale Jr. was at the wheel of the No. 8 car, he sold more merchandise than anyone in the series, even surpassing his own father, who mastered the art of merchandising to fans. Unfortunately, that all came to a screeching halt when Junior decided he did not like the direction of the organization and attempted to get a controlling interest in the company. Teresa, who had built the operation from the ground up, refused to relinquish control, and the ensuing ugly breakup tore at the very foundation of the enterprise.
When Junior left the company, he asked to take the number to his new home at Hendrick Motorsports, but Teresa refused. The end result was a new number for Junior, while the Earnhardt family’s number was taken over by Mark Martin and Aric Almirola. The famous No. 8 with Budweiser emblazoned on the hood went from one of the most recognizable cars in the series to just another car on the track.
Within one year, sponsorship dollars, which flowed in so freely while Junior was in the fold, began to dry up. DEI started to struggle to make ends meet and, in order to stay afloat in some fashion, decided to merge with Chip Ganassi Racing. What once was the model organization in Cup, with a facility knows as the “Garage Majal,” was now selling its soul to attempt to keep its doors open, moving its operations to the other team’s home.
Dale’s dream of being a championship organization at the Cup level now a very faint, distant memory. Rumors are that next year, the No. 1 team may lose its sponsor and could possibly be put on the shelf as well.
DEI’s facility sits on state road 3, which had its number changed in honor of North Carolina’s favorite son because his organization was located along side it, only a few hundred yards from where its founder is buried. And there is no doubt that Dale is rolling over in his grave seeing what has happened to his beloved company in just two short years.
Author’s note: This column is written with a heavy heart for two reasons. The sad disintegration of DEI is a terrible development that tears at the heart strings of most Dale Earnhardt fans.
Secondly, many readers know that I help with a friend’s late model team whenever I can. Yesterday, Mike Burnett, the father of Randy, my friend who drives the late model, passed away after a battle with cancer. Mike was a very giving man who afforded me the opportunity to go to the racetrack and chase the dream with his son. He was also a heck of a go-kart driver himself back in the day, and did some serious rubbing with an 8-year-old at the track in Martinsville a couple of years ago. I’m sure we’ll continue going to the track and trying our best to make him proud, but there will always be something missing.
Rest in peace Mike, and thank you for letting us have so much fun on Saturday nights.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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