Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Time For Teresa To Step Up

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said yesterday that his strained relationship with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt could be a stumbling block in his effort to sign a new contract with Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Earnhardt Jr.'s contract expires at the end of this season, and comments last month to the Wall Street Journal by Teresa Earnhardt indicated a lack of confidence in her stepson’s commitment to winning a NASCAR Nextel Cup championship. In her words, "Right now, the ball's in his court to decide on whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality."

Junior responded to that criticism for the first time yesterday, saying, “Teresa might have been having a bad day or something when she said that. I really don't know where that was coming from. I tried and tried not to comment on it. I was trying not to get involved, but I really didn't appreciate it, whether she was taken out of context or not.

“Everybody has always wondered exactly what my dedication level was, and how passionate about driving I was. This last season I feel like (my determination) was equal to anybody in the sport. I finally got to that level where it matters to me as much as anybody else."

Earnhardt defended his high-profile public image, as well, saying, “I think it’s important to be well liked and marketable. It's any owner's dream to have a driver that has succeeded.”

He also focused the “lack of commitment” crosshairs back on his stepmother, questioning her attention to the racing side of DEI. "When you go into her office, there are stacks of paper, and most of it is dealing with my father and whatever they're doing with his name and whatnot,” he said. “We don't have a lot of sit-downs about racing and the team and ownership and stuff, because that's not at the top of her list."

While making it clear that he hopes to hammer out a new contract with DEI, Earnhardt said one of the key negotiating points will be his future ownership of the team. "I want to be very involved in the company,” he said. “Aside from [DEI], I have no interest in ownership."

In order for him to own a portion of Dale Earnhardt, Inc., Teresa Earnhardt will have to relinquish partial control, something she has been extremely reluctant to do in the past.

“There are things involving the company that I want (in) the future, and it's very difficult for everybody to see eye to eye there,“ said Earnhardt, Jr. “I want to be very involved in the company, (and) I've got to do what I've got to do. The JR Motorsports program is hopefully going to be very successful in the Busch Series, (but) I don't know whether the Cup Series is something I want to involve that company in. That's quite a responsibility, and I personally don't want to put up with it. That's not in my makeup. It’s not in my chemistry to run a three-car team in the Cup Series. The only way I see myself being a Cup (owner) is at DEI.

Me and my sister…learned over the last couple of years that we have to do a better job on our end to make a contract as favorable as possible,” he said. “That had nothing to do with money. It had a lot to do with the future. I don't want to come here if I can't compete well, and run well. I want the best. I want the best cars, and I want the best people. We see other companies… doing what it takes and making the right moves, and I want to be in the same situation. I know I'm a good enough racecar driver, and I deserve it.

“We're just trying to get it all settled, and make it right.”

An important part of that negotiation will be improving the relationship between driver and owner. Clearly, there is much work to be done.

“My relationship with the car owner is definitely going to be a factor in my decision,“ said Earnhardt yesterday. “I haven't talked to Teresa about what she said (in the Wall Street Journal). I figured if anything needed to be said, she'd call me up and say it. But you know, (our) relationship will definitely factor into my decision."

Earnhardt called the relationship between he and his stepmother merely “cordial” adding, “I don't want to get too personal, but Teresa is my stepmother, and I have a mother at home that I have a very good relationship with. Mine and Teresa's relationship has always been very black and white, very strict and in your face. It is what it is. It ain't a bed of roses.

“The relationship that we have today is the same relationship we had when I was six years old (and) moved into that house with Dad and her. It's always been the same. It hasn't gotten worse over the last couple years. The way I felt about her then is the way I feel about her now.”

Teresa Earnhardt has not commented publicly since her Wall Street Journal interview. DEI Director of Motorsports Richie Gilmore said this week that he believes her remarks were taken out of context, saying, “Our main focus, every time we talk to Teresa, (is that) she wants Junior back. That's what's best for the company, that's what's best for Junior and that's what's best for DEI."

Junior clearly is not convinced.

“I don't know if what Richie said is exactly the case,” he said yesterday. “Teresa didn't come to the last meeting several months ago, and…a couple of months ago, Teresa decided that it was best …that these other two guys (DEI legal counsel Chad Walper and third-party representative Peter Smith) do the negotiating.”

Not exactly an ideal way to warm-up an icy relationship.

Earnhardt, Jr., says his list of demands is fairly simple. “I want to drive races and win championships, and hang it up one day and not have to worry about whether I have enough money in my retirement fund,” he said. “Just don't make everything a hassle, don't make everything a pain, and you'll have my dedication and everything else you need as far as a driver goes.”

Teresa Earnhardt may have fired the first salvo, but the ball is now unquestionably in her court. If she’s indeed the astute businesswomen she is widely acknowledged to be, she’ll sit down face-to-face with her stepson and prized employee, setting the record straight and giving him the ownership share in DEI that her late husband intended. She’ll give him the attention and support he needs to win races and championships in the years to come, and she’ll accept the fact that as a star driver on NASCAR’s top circuit (not to mention the son of its greatest fallen champion), he does not have the option of becoming the semi-recluse she has apparently chosen to be.

Words like “dedication” and “commitment” carry a lot of weight in this sport. They also cut both ways.