Kelley Earnhardt Miller has blazed her own path to racing success
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The beer and booze are just beginning to flow at Whisky River, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s popular nightspot in downtown Charlotte. The celebrity bar owner has cordoned off a corner of the club for a private party -- a celebration of his race team's 2018 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
As employees, friends and family of JR Motorsports trickle in from the official awards banquet down the street at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and shake off the December sleet and rain, Junior already has integrated himself seamlessly into the party. He sits faced away from the front door, tux jacket draped over the back of his stool. Hunched over a beer bottle, he leans in to talk with his wife, Amy, beneath the raucous hip-hop and bro-country blasting overhead.
Meanwhile, across the table, his sister and team co-owner, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, has hardly touched her glass of white wine. She's constantly scanning the room, looking over her brother to the entrance, where invitees check in. When one man, a reporter, can't seem to find his invitation and the doorwoman doesn't see his RSVP, Kelley glides over in her floor-length, homespun orange gown to personally escort him in.
She checks in with the bar manager to make sure there's enough champagne poured and ready to pass out for the toast she has prepared. Her phone never leaves her hand as she swipes between text threads to see who has arrived and who is still on their way, while keeping an eye on the radar as a snowstorm descends upon the city and the foothills to the north, where she and many of her crew and their families live.
JR Motorsports is a family endeavor, both in name and practice. The siblings with the hallowed racing surname run a relatively small shop of 135 employees. Unlike many operations that compete in multiple divisions, JRM competes mainly in just one series, Xfinity, the feeder to the Monster Energy Cup, NASCAR's premiere league. This concentration has enabled JRM to turn a tight budget into outsized success, including 44 series victories and three championships in the past five years, all of which were won with rookie drivers.
The limited focus also has meant that JRM has essentially become a farm team for drivers, crew chiefs, engineers and even support staff to wreck their cars, learn their lessons and then graduate to the big leagues, leaving JRM to almost selflessly help a new young driver navigate the NASCAR learning curve.
"Dale and I were born to Dale Earnhardt," says Kelley. "I never had to get my foot in the door; the door was stood wide open for us. Everybody else doesn't get that opportunity. We just like to help people get that opportunity."
But for Kelley, there seems to be more to owning a race team than merely as a means to pay back good karma. She has an almost preternatural desire to take care of the people around her. She acknowledges it as a "Mother Hen" complex, and it's the same impulse that drew her so close to her younger brother when they were kids, the same compulsion that got her into the business of racing years later, and the defining characteristic that makes her one of the most respected and successful owners in NASCAR.
It's the same instinct that, at 8:25 p.m., spurs her to check the weather one last time, assure that most of the guests are warm inside Whisky River, and call for the toast to begin an hour early to ensure that everyone leaving town can beat the oncoming storm.
"You got the song?" she asks the deejay. "Then let's go!"
DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win," the team's adopted theme song for the season, comes over the PA system as Kelley takes center stage alongside winning driver Tyler Reddick, crew chief Dave Elenz and Junior. She bounces with the beat and sings along into the microphone.
"And every time I step up in the building
Everybody hands go up ..."
Kelley raises her right hand and holds it up, signaling the crowd to do the same.
"And they stay there
And they stay there...
'Cause all I do is win, win, win!"
Growing up Earnhardt
The Earnhardt Empire was built on winning. It started with the patriarch, Dale Sr., and his 76 Cup victories, seven championships, and most importantly the hearts, minds and imaginations of legions of fans during the height of NASCAR's national popularity in the 1990s. Junior followed suit by racing for his father's team and then Hendrick Motorsports with 26 Cup wins, two Daytona 500 titles and 15 consecutive years being voted the sport's most popular driver.
But while Junior is the face and name that turns heads of fans and media at these awards banquet red carpets, people who know racing will attest that Kelley has more than blazed her own path in racing. She started by making a name for herself as a talented, hard-charging driver in late models during a time when the sport was not as welcoming to women as it is now. She's worked apart from her family on the business, events and merchandising side of the industry as well. She stepped in to manage her brother's financial and promotional affairs when he was a driver.
And now she is the not-so-secret force behind one of most successful racing teams in any series. Junior, himself, is blunt and upfront. "Her official title is co-owner/vice president/business manager," he writes in his biography, "Racing to the Finish." "In other words, she's the boss."
While the father's accomplishments unquestionably jump-started opportunities for his children later in their lives, Dale Sr.'s career also took its toll on them early on. Dale Sr. and Kelley's mother divorced when Kelley was 2 years old, just after Dale Jr. was born. The siblings lived together with their single mother until their home burned down when Kelley was 8. Their mother had no means of financial support after the disaster, so Dale. Sr. took custody of the kids. But with racing keeping their father away, Kelley stepped up to look after herself and her little brother. She made sure he did his chores, even doing them for him so he wouldn't get into trouble -- a state he frequently found himself in anyway.
"I was very much the rule follower," says Kelley. "I didn't want to face any bad consequences. Dale seemed to not mind the bad consequences because then he at least got attention. We were always looking for attention because our parents were always gone."
Dale Jr.'s delinquency finally attracted the wrong kind of attention when he got kicked out of Christian school at 12. His father sent him to Oak Ridge Military Academy, a boarding school outside of Greensboro. Three weeks later, worried that no one would be there to look out for her little brother, Kelley dropped out of her school in the middle of the year and enrolled at Oak Ridge.
"She gave up all her friends," says Dale Jr. "You hear about how difficult that is for a kid and she did it voluntarily right in the middle of her high school. But she came to the military school and made friends right away." Later she got a cashier job at a local store for extra cash -- for her and her brother. "I spent all my money on candy," he says. "She'd cover my ass on my lunch."
Growing up around the garages, in pits and at the track, cutting ruts around the farm in the family car, all three of Dale Sr.'s older children, including eldest son Kerry (his third wife would later give birth to a fourth child, daughter Taylor, in 1988), naturally wanted to slide into the driver's seat of a race car. But Dale Sr. had different plans for his eldest daughter. He had dropped out of school in eighth grade to chase racing, just like his father, Ralph Earnhardt. Dale Sr. wanted her to be the first Earnhardt to go to college. She relented, and enrolled in a school in Wilmington, hours east of Charlotte on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, where she chose to pursue a business degree. The distance was good for Dale Jr., who was forced to become a little more independent. But Dale Sr. missed his little girl. He implored her to come home -- even offering to help her start racing. She accepted. She transferred to UNC Charlotte, and immediately jumped behind the wheel of a late-model stock car.
As a driver, Kelley was an Earnhardt through and through. She was instinctively aggressive, hardheaded and hellfire fast. Her only raw flaw was that she tended to overdrive the car, pushing it beyond its limits, a trait that many overly cautious young drivers would beg for. She competed alongside Dale Jr., their older half-brother, Kerry Earnhardt, and cousin, Tony Eury Jr. She beat them all. "She was very good at what she did," Eury told ESPN.com in 2010. "We thought she probably had as much or more talent than any of [the Earnhardt kids.]"
Unfortunately, racing then was even more of a man's world than it is today. And while Kelley would never back down from a challenge or slight from anyone, the constant discrimination added to the grind of weekly racing. "She got pushed around," says Dale. Jr. "And not just on the racetrack." Besides, after a few years, she had graduated from college and gotten a full-time job with Action Performance, which was one of the top sellers of NASCAR souvenirs. Leaving the office at 2 p.m. every Friday to head to a night at the track was getting to be too much. In 1996, when her sponsor ran out, Kelley decided to focus on her business career.
Kelley quickly rose at her company to become vice president of sales and procurement. Even with the burgeoning business side of stock car racing being every bit the boys club as the action at the track, Kelley's rise seemed inevitable -- until tragedy struck.
On Feb. 18, 2001, Dale Jr. finished second for his father's Cup team in just his second career start at the Daytona 500. But one place behind him on that final lap, Dale Sr.'s own car, the famous No. 3, slammed head-on into the wall at Turn 4. The elder Earnhardt was killed instantly.
Suddenly, Kelley didn't feel much like selling merchandise. But beyond her own grief, she now saw that Dale Jr., still only 26, was alone at their father's team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. "I didn't feel like his best interests were going to be looked after," says Kelley. She offered to come aboard and watch after his finances, his business affairs, and help him in his nascent NASCAR career.
Grieving for her own father and a little bit lost, Kelley stepped into the role in which she was always most comfortable -- that of the guardian.
Running the business
In August 2001, six months after the death of Dale Sr., Kelley was general manager of JR Motorsports. At the time, the team raced only local street stock cars -- the company was mainly the business arm of Dale Jr.'s racing career, which was only beginning to get up to top speed. Kelley helped her brother capitalize on his immense popularity, broaching deals with sponsors and expanding his portfolio. Five years later, Kelley and Dale Jr. reached a deal with the U.S. Navy to be the primary sponsor of a car in the Xfinity Series.
The jump meant a significant increase in budget, personnel and profile, and Dale Jr. was still racing full time for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Kelley attacked the new job with typical vigor. "Growing up in racing has given her a great understanding of what's coming around the corner," says Dale. Jr. "We have a great amount of confidence in her."
Early on in her business career, Kelley admits, she applied the same head-first approach she had employed on the track, the same take-it-all attitude she had inherited from "The Intimidator" himself. "I grew up under such an authoritarian, that if I wasn't getting what I needed from someone, I was just done," she says.
But after taking charge at JRM, she remembered the other side of Dale Earnhardt Sr., the businessman who had to keep everything together off the track. "He was one of those people who walked around and knew all the people who worked for him, knew their names, knew their faces, knew what was going on in their families, if a kid was sick or they were looking for a new car," she says. "He always stood out at DEI and greeted people and talked to them."
In 2008, Kelley gained another mentor -- and a business partner -- when Rick Hendrick, legendary owner of Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Jr.'s new boss in Cup, came aboard to offer JRM engineering, chassis and engine support. "He's been a teacher as far as people are concerned," she says. "Your greatest asset is the people you have. Their happiness keeps them more engaged and productive in your business."
"She knows that if the company doesn't care about the people, the people won't care about the company," says Hendrick. "You can see that in the way she focuses on growing talent and helping open doors for others to have more opportunities. At the same time, she keeps the program at a championship level every year."
She knows that if the company doesn't care about the people, the people won't care about the company.Rick Hendrick, on Kelley Earnhardt Miller
But an Xfinity team, by its very nature, is a place where talented people want to come work -- and eventually leave. It's a feeder series, a training ground where the goal for many of these young professionals is to become so skilled and renowned for that skill that retaining them becomes impossible. An Xfinity team owner invests money and time and care into a person's development only to watch them graduate and excel somewhere else.
In other words, it's exactly like being a parent.
The transient nature of the series became immediately apparent for JRM with Brad Keselowski, who took over driving the No. 88 Navy car midway through 2007, JRM's first full season in Xfinity. Over the next 2½ years, Keselowski won six races, had 38 top-5 finishes and had back-to-back podium finishes in the series points standings. He then signed with Penske for the 2010 Cup season, and he's been a fixture and superstar at that level ever since, including winning the championship in 2012. And as with most parents, any loss the Earnhardts might have felt was overwhelmed by the sense of pride they found in watching their former driver succeed.
"Keselowski going to Penske was way more rewarding than winning races," says Dale. Jr. "Wins are fleeting moments. The stories I love to tell are the stories of people who started at the bottoms and worked their way up."
Those stories have been piling up at JRM. Next was Chase Elliott, son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, who hopped in JRM's No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet in 2014, became the first rookie and youngest driver to ever win the Xfinity championship, and graduated to one of Hendrick's Cup teams full time two years later. In 2017, it was William Byron, who was in the No. 9 only long enough to win an Xfinity title before jumping to Cup and Hendrick. And it's not just drivers moving up.
"We lost six engineers in two years who became Cup engineers and crew chiefs," says Dave Elenz, crew chief of the past two Xfinity champions and, at five years, is now one of JRM's longer-tenured employees. "Most places would not be happy when someone is moving on and they have to backfill the positions. From Kelley's standpoint, they are happier to see someone get an opportunity to better their own career than keeping them here. It makes her happier to give back to the racing community. Almost seems like that's more the purpose."
While JRM certainly didn't set out to be a farm team for Cup, it's a purpose that has developed over time -- and out of necessity. Hendrick is a JRM co-owner and Hendrick Motorsports has been a destination for much of JRM's graduating talent; JRM is an independent entity. Hendrick puts together the engines and chassis, but JRM has no hand in their design. They're essentially just Hendrick customers -- a mom-and-pop shop stretching their modest budget for top-dollar gear to compete with giants who do have in-house Xfinity departments, like those at Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Ultimately, the financial decisions that will make or break the season, if not the entire company, fall to Kelley. "We're not hurting for money, but we're definitely running a tight ship," says Elenz. "When we need this set of tires, all we have to do is go up and talk to her. She'll either explain to us why we can't get it or help us figure out why. It's never a problem to go talk to her about it. You might not like the answer, but you'll know why."
Kelley's transparency and bluntness in the day-to-day business decisions give every employee a feeling of investment in the team's success. It creates a very "us versus the world" dynamic in the small shop. Everyone knows who's the boss -- but they know that the boss is looking out for their interests.
"It feels like a family," says Tyler Reddick, the driver who overcame a rough start last year to come back and win the 2018 Xfinity title for JRM before moving to Richard Childress Racing, where he'll compete in both Cup and Xfinity this year.
"She's the mom speaking to her kids at the dinner table. As soon as you do something wrong, the mom side of Kelley goes right back to being the boss. When I made mistakes over the course of the year, I went to her and was upfront. She wasn't happy, but she was understanding -- she gets it. And she motivated me to go back out there and do better."
"Everything's going to be OK," says Dale Jr. "She's proven time and time again that she has the common sense that we need, the ability to problem-solve, and she's never allowed herself to get pushed around in the boardroom in negotiations with sponsors or decisions for the company. She's smart and stern, but also fair and thoughtful. If she wasn't there, it would not have that family feel. She brings a motherly vibe."
Setting the stage
Back onstage at Whisky River, the hip-hop fades as Kelley glances down at her phone and launches into her speech.
"All right, I've got my phone because I need a few notes," she says. "There are a lot words to describe this organization, but 'dedication' is one that comes to mind because there is one helluva snowstorm coming and look at all these people here."
The crowd whoops and hollers, ready to party, until the Mother Hen cuts them off.
"I'm super proud of y'all for coming down," she says. "But I do want you to be safe and get home. So just remember to be safe and be responsible."
She then thanks her way down a list of employees and crew members, looking up after each name to scan the audience and make sure that person is there to personally receive her appreciation and a quick cheer from the crowd. She then passes the microphone to her left, to the champion Reddick, the driver who'll be racing for RCR this season. Then crew chief Elenz says a few words. And then, her brother, the bookend co-owner.
Dale Jr. has more time to focus on JRM since retiring from driving in 2017 due to concern over head injuries suffered during his long racing career. The decision was a controversial one because he was still healthy, still at the height of his popularity. When he was contemplating the move, he of course turned to the one voice he knew he could always trust. And as usual, Kelley was business first. "If you stop now, you will be leaving this much money on the table ... your retirement portfolio would look like this ... your relationship with this sponsor would look like this," Dale Jr. wrote in biography. They argued. Wasn't she worried about his health? Of course she was. But being the business manager helped avoid dealing with her concern over her little brother's well-being. Plus, the daughter of The Intimidator doesn't back down from a fight. "But know this," Dale Jr. wrote. "Even when we argued, I never questioned Kelley's intentions. I never have."
He also doesn't question Kelley's commitment to keeping their team in Xfinity, regardless of the big league temptations of the Cup series. "Owning a race team is not a profitable business," Dale Jr. says. "One year you might make a couple $100,000, the next you might lose $100,000, the next you might break even. I think Kelley would say the purpose is to give these people an opportunity to make a living. When we talk about the difficult decisions, she always brings up the families."
Kelley has come to better understand the demands of family life as her own family has grown in the business. Both of her daughters have followed the family lineage into racing. Her eldest, 18-year-old Karsyn Elledge, made her debut at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals earlier this year, winning her heat. Elledge hopes to stick in USAC for the 2019 season, a time commitment that her mother will balance with the demands of her extended family at JRM.
"That's really what gets me up and doing this every day," says Kelley. "The business part is really hard. But I've got 135 families here that count on us and that will line up beside me on the battlefield. And I know that about each and every one of them."
Tonight, they are all lined up here at Whisky River to celebrate another successful year. Now it's time to raise the champagne flutes.
"So in the spirit of seven NASCAR Xfinity Series wins and the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, our champion driver, Tyler Reddick, and our champion crew chief, Dave Elenz, and the No. 9 team -- here's to 2018!" She leads the gathering in a sip. And as the hoots and hollers start to pop off throughout the room, she motions to Reddick, who is racing against them in Xfinity in 2019.
"And to kicking this boy's ass next year!"
Reddick laughs along with everyone else as the party resumes. Kelley and her husband, L.W. Miller, make the rounds to ensure that everyone has enough food and drink and, more importantly, hotel rooms or safe rides home.
Then the couple quietly slips out the back door to their truck to try to beat the snowstorm home.