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.
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
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.
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?
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
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