Earnhardt induction puts attention on DEI

Earnhardt induction puts attention on DEI

Credit: AP

Late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt's children Taylor Earnhardt, right, and Kerry Earnhardt, second from right, look at a mock up of a new Dale Earnhardt Wheaties cereal box with Richard Childress, second from left, and Clint Bowyer, left, during a news conference in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, May 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)


by JENNA FRYER / Associated Press

Associated Press

Posted on May 26, 2010 at 6:30 PM

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt's family was the center of attention during the lead-in to NASCAR's Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

They honored the seven-time champion with the unveiling of a Wheaties box, the announcement of two commemorative paint schemes and a heartfelt tribute from Earnhardt's widow and four children at Sunday's ceremony.

It was a celebratory time for everyone who loved Earnhardt, and brought back a flood of memories of "The Intimidator" and all of his accomplishments.

One of those memories was of Dale Earnhardt Inc., the race team he built from scratch that is no longer operating as he intended.

"That place was built on people and racing. I'd give anything to have that back," said Kerry Earnhardt, the eldest of Earnhardt's four children. "To have a Dale Earnhardt Inc. entry in NASCAR's circuit would be an awesome feat."

DEI has not had a car on the track since the 2008 season finale, when sponsorship woes and the economic crisis forced an offseason merger with Chip Ganassi. The present-day team, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, fields cars for Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray out of Ganassi's shop and under his leadership.

DEI, which let go of most of its employees, is still in the racing business. The company does consulting, builds parts, has an engine alliance with Richard Childress, and keeps Earnhardt's spirit alive through his foundation.

It's not the same as racing, though, and his children know that.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the team at the end of 2007 to drive for Hendrick Motorsports, citing his desire to compete for a championship that he believed DEI could not achieve. But his decision was equally based on an inability to do business with his stepmother, Teresa, who had run the company since Earnhardt's 2001 death in a last-lap accident of the season-opening Daytona 500.

The two made a rare public appearance together in April, when they announced Earnhardt Jr. would race a throwback No. 3 Wrangler paint scheme in this summer's Nationwide Series race at Daytona. Afterward, Earnhardt Jr.'s sister acknowledged things would have been different if their father were still alive.

"If he was here, I'm pretty sure we'd all still be together," Kelley Earnhardt said. "Dale Jr. would have never left DEI."

His departure expedited DEI's collapse the next season.

"We were the best out there," Kerry Earnhardt said. "Everybody wanted to be what DEI was. Hendrick has that now. Dale Earnhardt Inc. was the one that everybody followed. It could be (again). It is a lot of work now, but it could be if the opportunities come up and the right people got involved and want it to happen."

A potential DEI revival would almost certainly not include Kelley or Dale Jr., Earnhardt's middle two children.

Kelley Earnhardt currently runs JR Motorsports, the race team created by her brother that they now own jointly with Rick Hendrick and their cousin, Tony Eury Jr. Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr. is busy trying to jump-start a driving career that has sputtered since he left DEI.

But Kerry Earnhardt is still involved with DEI, and he's forged a close relationship with his 21-year-old half-sister, Taylor Nicole.

Just 12 when her father died, Taylor is most remembered by race fans as the little girl being carried down pit road in her daddy's arms. The only child from Earnhardt's marriage to Teresa, Taylor got the most attention from her father.

While Kerry was raised by his mother and stepfather, and Dale Jr. and Kelley spent considerable time either away at school or with nannies, Taylor was born when Earnhardt was an established racer and had more time to give to a child.

She's matter-of-fact in acknowledging the discrepancies.

"I think the fact that he was in different points in his life -- with Kerry, he was struggling to be in racing and do what he loved," she said. "Dale, he always took him to the track. And Kelley, business, and then trying to make her a racer.

"With me, he had more time to try other things. So I think it's just all timing, that we all got different experiences."

Now a confident, poised young woman, Taylor Earnhardt is perhaps the buffer between her mother and her half-siblings. Teresa Earnhardt is admittedly shy and uncomfortable with the spotlight, but her daughter presented herself all last week as a poised and confident young woman eager to continue the Earnhardt legacy.

She and Kerry Earnhardt represented the family at two announcements last week, and she was last of his children to speak during the Hall of Fame ceremony. At a news conference afterward, she sat between Kerry and her mother and politely answered questions about a fractured family that had reunited for a celebration.

How long these happy times last is anybody's guess. But in honoring Earnhardt, they put on a united front that, just maybe, could someday lead to the resurrection of DEI.

"Never say never," Kerry Earnhardt said. "You never know what life holds for the future. It would be great to see it."