From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, February 6, 1995
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 youth would wreck other dirt-trackers for grocery money. But the words he is singing hit home, for Earnhardt 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. 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'...."
Such has been the deluge upon these offices since 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 title. Their current tie is no tie, really. NASCAR has a new kind of king.
And the public is buying the image. Earnhardt is raking in the bucks at a rate Petty never imagined. The $1.77 million in bonuses that 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.
Meanwhile 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.
Petty understands. During his own reign, he 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."