By Jerry Bonkowski
It was about two years ago this week that Kevin Harvick caused quite a stir in the NASCAR world when he called Teresa Earnhardt a "deadbeat owner."
Harvick's assessment was based upon a number of things, particularly the fact that the widow of the late Dale Earnhardt rarely made appearances at races, never spoke to the media, was hardly ever around to congratulate the team's drivers in victory lane or for an otherwise job well done, and seemed to have little visible participation in day-to-day operations of Dale Earnhardt Inc.
And don't forget what was still to come in the months after Harvick's comments: the power struggle for control of DEI between Teresa Earnhardt and her stepson and the company's franchise star, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It was a battle that would play out in the media for several months before Junior begrudgingly threw in the towel, gave up hopes of wrestling away controlling interest and decided to move to Hendrick Motorsports to begin the next phase of his racing career.
While the loss of Junior was significant, the party line trotted out by Teresa and company executives was that DEI would rebuild without its star, the most popular driver in the sport now six years running, and grow to become stronger than ever.
A few months later, reporters gathered at DEI last January for a lunch soiree thrown by widow Earnhardt. She was as hospitable and sociable as she could be, smiling almost constantly.
But one thing was so stark in its conspicuous absence that many reporters didn't realize it at first until some of their fellow peers asked, "Where's Junior?"
That's right, just two months after he had competed in his last race for DEI, virtually every vestige of Junior's 12-year tenure with his father's company had been wiped away … albeit for a couple of souvenirs still for sale in the company gift shop.
Gone were photos, trophies, race cars and virtually any other reminder that Junior was ever there. When first informed, Junior was as shocked as anyone, even lamenting how DEI wouldn't even sell him a few prized helmets that he wanted to buy.
Max Siegel, DEI's highly-respected president of Global Operations and the highest-ranking African-American executive in NASCAR, claimed all things Junior were put in storage to accommodate the 200 or so reporters that had come to visit during the annual NASCAR preseason media tour.
It didn't take long for reporters to see through Siegel's explanation – and realize this was actually a well-orchestrated move, most likely by Teresa -- to put even more distance between DEI and Junior.
Now, let's move forward to 2009. For the third January in a row, and even though they weren't even part of the annual media tour for the first time in memory, Teresa Earnhardt and DEI were once again in the news.
Siegel announced two weeks ago that he was leaving DEI to head up NASCAR's Drive for Diversity initiative, as well as joining an Indianapolis law firm and also forming his own marketing and entertainment company.
That sounds like he'll be a pretty busy guy. Guess he didn't have much to do at DEI, which has become a shell of what it once was, and which probably played a significant role in Siegel's departure.
It was a move that surprised many, as Siegel – who joined the company in late 2006 and was No. 2 in overall power at DEI only to Mrs. Earnhardt – seemed destined to spend many years at the helm of DEI, running all day-to-day operations while Teresa was off with daughter Taylor at some equestrian event or sunbathing on the patio.
Given the trouble DEI has had in the last two years – including the Bobby Ginn debacle in 2007, and the virtual necessity to merge with Chip Ganassi or potentially go out of business at the end of last season (and dreadfully renaming the company Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) – Siegel's departure was yet another bad sign, perhaps the worst of all.
It's not surprising that some think he jumped from a sinking ship before going down with it.
And last week came a report from veteran reporter Mike Mulhern that Siegel's right-hand man, DEI vice president John Story, was also leaving the company after just two years to join forces with Siegel both with Drive for Diversity and the new marketing/entertainment firm.
Add all that up and you can't help wonder if perhaps we may be seeing Teresa Earnhardt's swan song from DEI and NASCAR in the not too distant future. The woman who became internationally ridiculed as a "deadbeat owner" may soon be a "former owner."
Think about it: what does Teresa really have left to control? Ganassi isn't going to sit idly by, watching what's left of his once semi-solid Sprint Cup program fall by the wayside if left to Earnhardt's control.
And frankly, perhaps Teresa has just had it with the world of NASCAR. We'd love to have her tell us, but she rarely speaks to the media, so we're pretty much left to our own devices to speculate and hypothesize.
One of the things I heard during last week's NASCAR Media Tour was that Teresa was possibly going to back out quietly and gracefully, let Ganassi run all EGR operations, and she would be happy running what has been her No. 1 sideline business, that of promoting the legend and legacy of her late husband.
Even though The Intimidator was taken from us nearly eight years ago – Feb. 18, 2001 – Teresa Earnhardt has done all she can to make sure her husband is never forgotten by NASCAR fans.
Of course, the fact his legacy also continues to be a huge cash cow for Mrs. Earnhardt is not lost.
And if it came down to deciding whether to keep running the race team or simply oversee keeping her late husband in our hearts and minds, the decision would seem like a no-brainer for Mrs. Earnhardt.
All things being equal, I'm betting Teresa would be more than content to keep cashing in on Dale's memory and image – don't be surprised, just like we've seen virtually every February since his death, if there's a brand new line of clothing and souvenirs promoting the man in black's legacy ready for sale in a few weeks at Daytona – than hanging around the so-called Garage Mahal day in and day out.
Actually, that may be the best thing for her and NASCAR – even though it would further diminish the value of what was once one of the most powerful organizations in the sport.
Who knows, given the current economic climate, Mrs. Earnhardt may want to sell pretty fast before the value of her shares drop even further.
But I can't help think of the irony. She refused to sell even a small part of the company to Junior, yet was more than willing to merge with both Ginn and Ganassi, not to mention form an engine-building partnership with Richard Childress.
Maybe if she would have just sold out to Junior in the first place, many of us wouldn't help but wonder what Dale Sr. would be thinking today, seeing what has become of the once-mighty empire he built.
Say, Junior, are you still interested in buying DEI? You might just be able to get a pretty darned good deal right now.
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