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Hawk hawks his hot commodity as "the Michael Jordan of his sport," and endorsement seekers want Earnhardt's name on everything from hunting knives to private jets. "We've got what we think is the hottest property in motor sports in the world," Hawk says. Agent hype or not, Hawk may be right, considering the death last May of Formula One's worldwide idol, Ayrton Senna.
Forbes magazine recently estimated Earnhardt's personal income at $5.5 million a year, but that seems low. Considering his salary, bonuses, 50% share of winnings (his career total winnings are $23 million, a world motor-sports record) and an average 25% of wholesale souvenir sales, Earnhardt's income might be more reasonably estimated at $14 million a year. That puts him in the league of the top Formula One drivers. And if you throw in endorsements, revenues from poultry farming and cattle ranching and income from a Chevrolet dealership, Earnhardt's annual take could be as high as $20 million.
For fans, the price of living vicariously through Earnhardt varies. You can buy a piece of his intimidating life for anywhere from $1 (a bumper sticker) to $5,500 (a custom leather jacket). In between, says Hawk, are "the different T-shirts, earrings, belts, belt buckles, suspenders, socks, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, plaques, pictures, postcards, toy cars, clocks, watches, key chains.... Man, we've got it all covered. And the fans want a little bit of everything."
The $5,500 jacket is only temporarily the high-end item, Hawk adds. Soon, certified race-worn Earnhardt helmets and driving uniforms will go on sale, and there's so little feel for what the market will bear that Earnhardt's contract with Scorecard, a major marketer of memorabilia, does not yet specify their price. The only gauge for projection is that Earnhardt uniforms have been sold at charity auctions for as much as $10,000.
Such memorabilia prices aren't out of line with those commanded by Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman, names that Hawk always drops into conversations about Earnhardt. But this is not the NFL or the NBA. This is NASCAR—not a small-time endeavor, but one relegated by the general public and the mainstream media to the boondocks of the big time. So, whence cometh this avalanche of spending on all sorts of black stuff?
Identification with Earnhardt may be based on something as simple as the anger on the nation's expressways. This is the opinion of Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, the savviest promoter in stock car racing, who built his success on his ability to read the psyches of NASCAR fans, both hard-core and fringe. "I think everybody in the country is angry about having to drive in urban areas," says Wheeler. "They hate the traffic with a passion. Earnhardt drives through traffic too. And he won't put up with anything. He's going to get through. And that's what they want to do—but they can't. So Earnhardt is playing out their fantasies."
Then there's the general surliness of our society, a public with an attitude that mirrors Earnhardt's attitude. Whereas Petty was always out among his fans, mingling, signing autographs, talking amiably with anyone who approached him, Earnhardt rarely shows his face at a racetrack for longer than it takes to walk hurriedly from his private motor coach to his race car. He displays a testy reluctance to do interviews or make unpaid promotional appearances. And even that, Wheeler believes, has made him popular, particularly in the South.
" Earnhardt is the resurrected Confederate soldier," says Wheeler. "Where Petty was always compliant, Earnhardt will stand his ground and say, 'I'm not going to do that.' And the people who love him are the people who are told, every day, what to do and what not to do, and they've got all those rules and regulations to go by. That just draws them closer to him."
Close might not be the right word. When Atlanta Motor Speedway general manager Ed Clark threw a relatively small cocktail party for Earnhardt in 1993, " Earnhardt sat on one side of the room and the fans sat on the other, and they just sort of looked at each other," Clark recalls. "Even the ones bold enough to go over and get their pictures taken with Earnhardt would pose with him quickly and then move on—as if they were all afraid he was going to punch them or something."
During his own reign, Petty says, "everybody felt at ease with me—the president of the United States, the drunkest cat at the racetrack and everybody in between.... With Earnhardt, there's a love-hate relationship." But, Petty adds, "destiny is a funny thing. The right people come along at the right times."