Teresa Earnhardt plans to be more visible leader in 2003Posted: Thursday February 06, 2003 1:00 PM
Updated: Friday February 14, 2003 10:39 AM
By Denise N. Maloof, CNNSI.com
There's still an Earnhardt at the helm of Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Her name's just not Dale.
Acknowledged by some in the Winston Cup garage as DEI's bedrock, Teresa Earnhardt is said to be as responsible for the organization's success as her late husband.
And now, you might see more of her.
Usually publicly retiring, Mrs. Earnhardt may be a bit more visible this season. The 2003 Daytona 500 on Feb. 16 will mark the second anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's fatal, last-lap crash, and during this SpeedWeeks his widow is expected to announce more plans for a newly-created Dale Earnhardt Legacy program.
She's also settled into the principle leadership role at DEI, and apparently she knows what's she doing.
"She's a good lady," said Richard "Slugger" Labbe, Michael Waltrip's crew chief. "She's very serious about what she does here, and she's got a lot of Dale in her, you know? She's been around here for a long time."
The Earnhardts founded DEI together. The organization's first Winston Cup season was 1998, with original driver Steve Park. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Cup team was added in 2000, and Waltrip's team came on board in 2001. This year, Park's No. 1, Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 and Waltrip's No. 15 teams will be joined by a Busch Series team -- a joint ownership venture between Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother.
That pairing is called Chance 2 Motorsports. Mrs. Earnhardt helped Earnhardt Jr. unveil the logo during a January shop visit during the annual Winston Cup media tour. She also welcomed the group, though she didn't stick around for questions.
"Teresa is really cool with what's going on," said Steve Hmiel, DEI's director of motorsports. "Always has been. She's real quiet. I think people misread her a lot."
Last season, rumors lurked that Mrs. Earnhardt might sell DEI. None of the company's three Cup drivers had a stellar year, and other rumors intimated a leadership void -- that no one person could fill the late Earnhardt's role within the company. Earnhardt Jr., even occasionally talked of someday perhaps taking a more active part.
But Park and Waltrip signed new contracts last season. Waltrip's primary sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, also recommitted, and Earnhardt Jr. signed a new five-year deal with the family business two weeks ago. His primary sponsor, Budweiser, was said to be only waiting for the ink to dry to reaffirm its relationship with DEI.
And later last year, Mrs. Earnhardt was at the forefront of an organizational recommitment in December.
"The whole company got together and she just said, 'Guys, we got to get after it,'" said Labbe, citing the new Busch Series team and a desire to live up to expectations and media hype.
"She knows there's problems," Hmiel said. "She's raced her whole life like the rest of us. Just because she's a lady doesn't mean she doesn't know about racing. She knows a lot about racing.'"
Some say it's taken two years to cope with the loss of Earnhardt strictly from a business perspective. A strong presence off the track as well as on it, his influence couldn't be duplicated day-to-day, and DEI's management team has had to reconsider, reshape and realign, a process that began last season and continued through the winter.
"We made a lot of changes over the winter that made me confident that everybody is on the same page," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I felt like maybe I didn't know whether everybody was as dedicated as I felt they needed to be. I didn't know if Teresa was really sure about what she was getting herself into because there's a lot of responsibilities being a car owner with the sponsors and everything. And she didn't really have the type of relationships that she needed to have with some of the sponsors. I think she's working on that."
Hmiel said Mrs. Earnhardt is racing-savvy. Members of her family have been in the business over the years, and her own management style isn't heavy-handed. She encourages solutions, not complaints.
"She gives you a plan, puts your mind at ease and empowers you to fix the problem," Hmiel said. "And that to me is what an owner should do."
"She didn't say, 'I'll be disappointed if you don't finish 10th,' or nothing like that," Labbe said of that December meeting. "But she wants us to do good, and we want to make her proud that she owns all this stuff for us."