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ATTITUDE FOR SALE
Ed Hinton
February 06, 1995
DALE EARNHARDT, NASCAR'S NEW KING, HAS PARLAYED HIS BAD-BOY IMAGE ON THE TRAGK INTO A GOLD MINE OFF IT
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February 06, 1995

Attitude For Sale

DALE EARNHARDT, NASCAR'S NEW KING, HAS PARLAYED HIS BAD-BOY IMAGE ON THE TRAGK INTO A GOLD MINE OFF IT

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Dale Earnhardt 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."

The 43-year-old 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 his manner.

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. Period.

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.

Earnhardt's 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.

Earnhardt built 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.

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