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Friday, August 17
DEI still in fast lane without Earnhardt
By Tom Farrey
Imagine Microsoft coping with the loss of Bill Gates, or more precisely, what might come of the Martha Stewart media empire if Martha Stewart had suddenly perished. Although smaller than either of those companies, Dale Earnhardt Inc. is no less defined by its popular founder, the late NASCAR driver.
As one of DEI's 20 sponsors, Kevin Bevan of Cincinnati Machines said one of the first thoughts that ran through his mind on the fatal afternoon of Feb. 18 was whether the company would be able to survive the loss of its namesake.
"Honestly, I wondered if it was the best investment for us to have our machines down there," said Bevan, general manager of the company that provides expensive machine tools at no charge in exchange for the right to use DEI drivers in its marketing.
Those doubts began to subside quickly, however. One week after Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500, DEI driver Steve Park won the Dura Lube 400 at North Carolina Speedway. Later, in poetic manner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in the circuit's first return to the track since February.
With Michael Waltrip's victory at the Daytona 500, DEI has had all three of its drivers win races since Earnhardt's death. Two of NASCAR's top 11 drivers this year are from the company, in Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7th) and Park (11th), going into this weekend's race at Michigan Speedway.
That's marquee value for a sponsor such as Cincinnati Machines, which likes using DEI drivers at its industry conventions to bring attention to its industrial products.
"The company's in terrific shape," said Ty Norris, DEI executive vice president of motorsports. "The sponsors have all stayed with us. In fact, our future is even more secure than when Dale was here."
Earnhardt did not race under the DEI banner -- he was with the Richard Childress team -- but his influence on the company he formed in 1982 was unmistakable. He was the driving force behind the expansion of the operation from a little unit created to handle Earnhardt's business interests, to a multi-faceted company with a 200,000 square feet of facilities in Mooresville, N.C.
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Besides the three Winston Cup teams, DEI owns restaurants, rental property, car dealerships and a 25-percent share of a nearby minor-league baseball team, the Kannapolis Intimidators. Some of DEI's 216 employees raise chickens and black Angus cows on its 350-acre site. Earnhardt Sr., an avid stock picker, held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange -- a seat now occupied by his wife, Teresa.
Teresa has taken over as president of DEI, but has not instituted any dramatic changes other than a necessary adjustment of the organizational chart in May. It's a different company only in how it runs, said Norris, who describes a leadership structure in which managers are more empowered than they were in the past.
"Dale had a way of walking into a room and changing things, mostly for the better," Norris said. "He liked changing things because he thought it was good to keep you on your toes."
Teresa has proven to be more of a delegator, he said. Recently, she even turned over the task of signing checks to top lieutenants.
"As much as she can be, she's been here when she's in town," Norris said. "Not 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but she's here and she's aware of what we're doing."
But Norris said the company is under no financial distress, and there appears to be little reason to doubt him. Bevan, of Cincinnati Machines, said he's seen nothing but a healthy, professionally run operation since February -- impressive for a company that had benefited so deeply from not just Earnhardt's vision, but his down home manner.
Bevan recalls a time when he took a group of employees to Mooresville to show them the DEI facility.
"We're standing in the cafeteria looking at the trophies Dale won or something, and all of a sudden, someone walks up behind us, puts his hands on their shoulders and says, 'You boys get enough to eat?'" Bevan said. "It's Dale Earnhardt."
DEI lost that personal touch at Daytona, for good. But his absence may prove to be even more valuable to an organization that's been galvanized by his memory -- and one that since February has fielded offers for more than 1,000 merchandise items designed to honor the NASCAR legend. DEI has held off on approving any of them, but a merchandise windfall is sure to come when company officials green-light their favored items and address the pent-up fan demand for all things Earnhardt.
"Dale's going to be missed immensely but they're going to succeed no matter what happens," Bevan said.
Tom Farrey is a Senior Writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Steve Park dedicated his win at Rockingham to Dale Earnhardt.|