NASCAR

Teresa Earnhardt remains mysterious figure

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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Were he alive today, Dale Earnhardt likely wouldn't recognize the NASCAR team that bears his name. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is gone, driving for a rival organization. What used to be known as Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) is now called Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, the result of an economics-driven merger. At the helm, as she has been since the NASCAR legend's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, is his widow, Teresa Earnhardt. She now shares control of the team with Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, but she remains the face of the franchise. Hers, however, is a face seldom seen. Unique among NASCAR team owners, Earnhardt, 50, only infrequently visits the racetrack. She almost never speaks in public or grants interviews. Attempts to reach her through her legal counsel, Chad Warpula, were unsuccessful. Even at the team shop in Mooresville, N.C., the rank and file rarely see her except for annual appearances at the Christmas party. Her reclusive nature, coupled with the team's lack of success and turnover in front-office personnel and sponsors, have made Earnhardt a popular target for critics. Ganassi, her new partner, thinks they're off base. "Teresa Earnhardt takes a lot of (criticism), but I'm going to tell you what — she's put a lot of money into the sport of racing that she didn't have to," said Ganassi, who also owns successful open-wheel and sports-car racing teams. "It's obvious to me that at the death of her husband she could have walked away and nobody would have said a word. Instead, she hung in there. She stayed in the business and built her business. "All I know for sure is that she's put a lot of her own money into the sport of racing and doesn't get any credit for it. That's a complete travesty for her to take the kind of heat that she does for being such a great supporter of NASCAR and the NASCAR community." Sabates, Ganassi's longtime business partner, also defends Earnhardt. "We've had a lot of meetings, correspondence and phone calls with Teresa," Sabates said. "She's not a person that likes publicity, likes to be seen — she stays in the background. But she has a lot of input in all of this." Following the organization's success Sunday at Daytona, where Martin Truex Jr. won the pole and teammate Juan Pablo Montoya narrowly missed grabbing the second front row spot for the Great American Race, Sabates predicts Earnhardt will be seen more at the track this season. "Teresa is a racer herself, and when they were struggling, sometimes it makes it hard to show up at the racetrack," he said. "The fact that we beat all the Hendrick cars, that's pretty big. I think if she sees she has a chance to win races, she'll show up." When Dale Earnhardt was alive, Teresa, his third wife (they married in 1982) was seen as the brains behind the vast merchandising of the sport's most popular driver. After his death, NASCAR-watchers expected her to hire experienced managers to run the racing side of the business while she concentrated on merchandising. What proved to be a challenge, however, was keeping managers. Max Siegel, who has left the Earnhardt organization to head up NASCAR's diversity program, is the third manager to leave the team. He was preceded out the door in years past by Don Hawk (now a VP at Speedway Motorsports Inc.) and Ty Norris (now VP and GM at Michael Waltrip Racing). Siegel, who came to the team from Sony Entertainment, tried to improve his boss' image, but without much success. Example: Last year before the Daytona 500, Earnhardt made a rare public appearance at Daytona International Speedway to unveil a die-cast replica of her husband's famed No. 3 Chevrolet. But the "replica" took the form of NASCAR's current car, the so-called Car of Tomorrow with a distinctive wing in the rear, and bore little resemblance to the Chevys that Dale drove to seven championships. The reviews of her, NASCAR and the die-cast model were not kind. DEI was struggling on the track as well. The organization had some high-profile successes in the first few years after Dale Earnhardt's death — Michael Waltrip won two Daytona 500s -- but overall, DEI was not considered among NASCAR's elite. In the last four years, the organization has three victories — a pittance compared to powerhouses like Hendrick Motorsports (45), Joe Gibbs Racing (26), Richard Childress Racing (13) and Roush Fenway Racing (39) in that same span. In August 2008, Dale Earnhardt's longtime car owner and friend Richard Childress sent one of his own managers, Bobby Hutchens, to oversee DEI's racing operation. The team's performance picked up, but the move did not come soon enough to prevent the exit of sponsors U.S. Army and Menards, which joined Budweiser and NAPA in becoming ex-DEI sponsors. In November the merger with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates was announced. The merger looked promising, giving Earnhardt Ganassi Racing the NASCAR maximum of four teams, plus support from Chevrolet. But in January Siegel and Vice President John Story resigned. In charge of the day-to-day operations at EGR is Ganassi President Steve Lauletta. He says he'll have plenty of help. "Chip's very hands-on," Lauletta said. "He's there a lot and is involved in a lot of the day-to-day decisions, and Teresa and him will both be involved in all the really big ones, so there's enough support for all the things that we've got to get done."
The merged team starts 2009 with four teams at Daytona Speedweeks, following the recent announcement that John Andretti will drive the No. 34 Chevrolet through a technical alliance with Front Row Motorsports. But it remains unclear whether EGR will move forward with four full-time organizations or just three with Montoya, Truex and Aric Almirola. "My version is we're running three cars with Juan, Martin and Aric for the season, and then we are going to run a fourth car for Daytona only," Lauletta said last month. "We're working on a couple things to keep that going, but as of right now, it'll be Daytona only for the fourth car." Almirola, 24, is the least-experienced of the four drivers. He is scheduled to pilot the No. 8, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s former number, but he got the ride only after former Cup champion Bobby Labonte turned it down in favor of an offer from Hall of Fame Racing. According to several sources, Almirola learned he might be losing the ride from crewmen who were installing Labonte's seats in the car. Now, however, Almirola's job appears safe as his team picked up primary sponsorship from Guitar Hero for multiple races — with additional backing in the works. "It's just a matter of what we have locked in versus what do we have that we're working on that we're confident is going to happen," Lauletta said in January. "The biggest piece of the puzzle that we haven't been able to see yet is how we're going to perform on the track. "If all three cars are running really well, that's going to help us get some of the sponsorship arrangements done faster. As I said to everybody when we had our team meeting, let's put all of the 'stuff' of the sport behind us. We know what we're going to do. We know what our plan is. So now let's just focus all our efforts and resources and everything we can on the performance side of things, which is up to (technical director Steve) Hmiel and the rest of the gang." In the No. 1 car, driven by Truex, sponsor Bass Pro Shops has cut its support to 20 races (in a 36-race season) with additional support also coming from Guitar Hero. No further changes are expected, but Truex, who signed a one-year contract extension with DEI in August, sounds less than confident in EGR's ability to compete with the sport's dominant teams. "What's disruptive to our team — we still have less teammates, we have less information to go around," Truex said. "Roush has five cars and Hendrick has got four and Gibbs has four or three or whatever. We're down to (three); it makes it more difficult for us for sure. There's no two ways about it." Even so, Truex was the class of the field in qualifying for the 500 and Montoya had the fourth-fastest car — leading to a renewed sense of optimism in the first week of the 2009 season. "I think it feels good. It shows how hard the guys have worked. They never wavered in their commitment and at the same time, it's just one step along the way," Truex said Sunday at Daytona. "It's just qualifying and we still have Wednesday practice to get ready for the Duels; we have to get our car prepared and handling good. As we saw (Saturday in the Budweiser Shootout), it's going to be wild and the cars are going to be a handful and they're going to need to handle good to race well. "This is just the first step. But we've never had a car this fast down here. That gives me a lot of confidence that if we can get it handling good that we can run up front and I'm more excited about this week than I have been coming down here in a long time." Montoya will drive the No. 42, but sponsor Wrigley's gum, which mounted a high-profile ad campaign around the former Formula One racer, has decided to serve only as an associate sponsor, leaving Target to carry the bulk of the Ganassi sponsorship load. Against this background, Teresa Earnhardt's role remains unclear. Is she overseeing race operations? Supervising the care and feeding of sponsors? Pounding the pavement in search of new funding? The season is about to start, and the only thing clear about Earnhardt and EGR is this: The results will tell the real story.
Tagged: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, Bobby Labonte, John Andretti, Martin Truex Jr., Michael Waltrip

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