Race Weekend Central

What’s in a name?

We live in a world of improbabilities.

Bumblebees lack the aerodynamic properties necessary for flight, yet they buzz around the flowers in my yard. Hummingbirds flit and hover, as if by magic, between the two hanging baskets on my front porch, doing the impossible as part of their daily routine for survival.

And the No. 78 Toyota Camry of Martin Truex, Jr. suffered such an improbable part failure at Kansas last Saturday night that veteran NASCAR crew chiefs could do little more than shake their heads and pencil another entry in their catalog of “one of those racing deals”.

Then there was Teresa Earnhardt.

It seems improbable to instigate a lawsuit against a stepchild to keep them from legally using their own last name, but there it is.

As Jeff Owens wrote for The Sporting News a couple of days ago: “Dale Earnhardt would roll over in his grave if he knew what was happening to his name, his family and his legacy.”

Despite his infamous legend as “The Intimidator”, Dale Earnhardt was really anything but one. Sure, Earnhardt would bump, push, and jostle his way into the lead, but, as Dr. Jerry Punch once said about it, Dale knew where and when it was appropriate to do so; Earnhardt would only lean on another car if he knew it wouldn’t jeopardize the safety of others. The fact that he died doing something as relatively simple as blocking cars from making a run at the lead on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 seemed almost ironic.

And that’s when the problems began….

It’s no surprise that Dale Earnhardt was considered a “brand”. The man himself knew that such an approach was essential for sustaining a successful business long after he’d hung up his helmet and goggles. And being a brand often means generating income even after the original “product” is long gone. Such an idea is nothing new. It’s pretty much common knowledge that Elvis Presley continues to be a money machine nearly four decades after his death. The pieces were in place to insure that “Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated” would enjoy the same legacy.

It would guarantee his ongoing presence for his family, his fans, and the very sport he dedicated his life to, both figuratively and literally.

Because Dale Earnhardt, from what I knew of the man, was all about presence.

The last time I was in Dale Earnhardt’s presence was in the Media Center at Michigan International Speedway. It was a Saturday in June of 2000, the day before the Kmart 400. I was with Andy Petree Racing as the photographer for Kenny Wallace’s website. Earnhardt was hosting a press conference where Steve Park was going to sign a new contract with DEI and Pennzoil. The PR representative for Pennzoil didn’t have her camera available, so she asked if I might photograph the event for her. I said I would, and took a seat at the front of the room.

Dale Earnhardt was very sociable. He spoke to many of the media people (especially those from the Carolinas, whom he knew) in an easy-going manner. He asked about their families, their children’s baseball games, and recent graduations from high school and college. No sunglasses, no snarl on his face, and no flippant comments about cars and competitors – this was Dale Earnhardt, the man, not Earnhardt, The Man.

And come the next February, he was gone.

During the summer of 2001, I stopped for a haircut while doing some work in North Carolina. The barbershop was a little place near the main drag in Statesville. As the barber chatted with me about my work, he mentioned he had two good friends who worked for DEI. These two friends spoke highly of Dale Earnhardt, who supposedly used to stop by the race shop late at night with a roll of hundreds in a pocket of his Wranglers. Dale would wander quietly from crewman to crewman and slip each employee one or two bills from his roll. The Intimidator would say, “I know you’re here late when you’d rather be home with your family, but I wanted to say thanks.”

Apparently, according to the barber, this would be followed by a hushed, “…. and don’t tell Teresa.”

And so, here we are, watching yet another Earnhardt family drama unfold before our eyes. This one, like the others, is rooted in history and legacy and memory. As William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

This current legal dispute between Teresa and Kerry Earnhardt is all about “what’s in a name”, but – unfortunately – it has a distinctly different smell….

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