sits on a sofa in his office, softly singing a line from a country rock song:
"I'm in a hurry, and I don't know why." At a nearby airport, a Learjet
awaits his daily dash to somewhere, while across from Earnhardt in the
fax-and-FedEx-cluttered office, his agent is making what sounds like a deal a
minute on the horn, and in an outer office secretaries are answering the phone
with, "Good afternoon. Dale Earnhardt Incorporated."
man on the sofa bears only a vague resemblance to the ninth-grade dropout from
the textile mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., who in his hard youth would wreck
other dirt-trackers for grocery money. But the words he is singing hit home,
for Earnhardt—not just the driver but the man—has always seemed to be in a
hurry without knowing why. Now, though, his status has at last caught up with
He is surrounded
by stacks of picture postcards and cases of trading cards—today's shipment to
fulfill mailed-in requests. No, yesterday's. "I'm this many behind," he
says. His right hand is a blur, autographing at perhaps three times the rate of
Richard Petty, the gentler man whom Earnhardt has replaced as the supreme
figure of the NASCAR cult.
He sings some
more: "I don't know where I'm goin'...."
Sitting there on
the desk of the agent with the perfect name, Don Hawk, are 308 new requests for
personal appearances, and only the ones for 1996 and beyond have a prayer.
Filed in the outer office are thousands of charity requests—fulfilled, yet to
be fulfilled, unfulfillable, even bizarre. Take the widow "who wanted me to
drive the hearse for her husband's funeral," Earnhardt says. Did he do it?
A prolonged expletive serves as a no. Earnhardt doesn't go to funerals.
Such has been the
deluge upon these offices since last October, when Earnhardt clinched his
seventh NASCAR Winston Cup season championship, tying Petty's lifetime record.
Only a few years ago that mark was widely considered unapproachable. Now
Earnhardt is expected—even by Petty, who retired in 1992—to break and then
obliterate the record with an eighth, a ninth, maybe a 10th championship. Their
current tie is no tie, really. NASCAR has a new kind of king.
bad-boy mystique has thrown a shadow as dark as his racing colors over the old
folk heroism of the patient, easygoing King Richard. Gone from the teeming
infields of the racetracks are the red-and-blue flags bearing the sport's
formerly most popular number, Petty's 43. Now there are seas of black flags
emblazoned with Earnhardt's fiercely forward-thrust 3.
his reputation as a predator during the mid-and late '80s, when he left other
drivers wrecked and outraged in his wake. And though he has since mellowed on
the track, he still rides the image: the Intimidator, he is widely called, or
the Man in Black.
The public is
buying the image. Earnhardt is raking in the bucks at a rate Petty never
imagined. The $ 1.77 million in bonuses Earnhardt received for winning the '94
Winston Cup is almost paltry next to the income of his grassroots empire, Dale
Earnhardt Inc., and its partner companies, which in 1993 grossed an estimated
$42 million in souvenir sales alone. Earnhardt's numbers for '94 aren't all in,
and anyway, he and Hawk—a nondenominational minister who, as vice president and
general manager of Dale Earnhardt Inc., negotiates Earnhardt's contracts—aren't
telling. But it's reasonable to guess that in the driver's record-tying season,
his souvenir sales surpassed $50 million.
More than 10,000
General Motors dealerships nationwide sell Earnhardt items in their "pro
shops." Over the course of a year, various all-Earnhardt catalogs list 749
different items. In a recent QVC appearance, Earnhardt sold $900,000 worth of
merchandise in less than two hours. That almost matched his base salary of a
bit more than $1 million from his team, Richard Childress Racing, whose primary
sponsor is GM Goodwrench.