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Published: Friday, 6/1/2007

Earnhardt Jr.'s fans undeterred by DEI departure

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had five trailers stocked with merchandise at last week's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had five trailers stocked with merchandise at last week's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.
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CONCORD, N.C. - On the day he announced he was leaving his late father's company, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fretted over fan reaction.

He worried the "Red Army" wouldn't understand his decision, and the loyalists would resent him - maybe even boo him - for walking away from Dale Earnhardt Inc. But based on souvenir sales in the three weeks since he made his decision, NASCAR's most popular driver had nothing to be concerned about.

Sales of Earnhardt merchandise at race tracks is up 17 percent since his May 10 announcement, industry analysts said. At NASCAR.com, where his figures spiked 107 percent the first week, sales have now leveled off but are still slightly above last season's pace.

"I knew people were going to collect. I knew they were going to want a piece of his legacy," said Chris Williams, director of trackside sales for Motorsports Authentic, the company that manages 60 of the souvenir trailers that are stationed at every race track.

"His daddy wanted Dale Jr. to win a championship at DEI, and people want a memento from that part of his career. Now, if he should start winning races and get into championship contention this season, his sales are going to be like nothing we've ever seen before."

Hats, shirts, beer holders, pins, and the diecast cars - a collector's staple - are flying off the shelves at a frantic pace. It's a stark contrast to say, Greg Biffle, who is in flux right now at Roush Fenway Racing.

Because Biffle's sponsor wants to leave at the end of the season, and he's in the middle of contract negotiations that could end with him leaving Roush, his souvenir sales have dipped.

Earnhardt is for certain leaving his team at the end of the season, and nobody has any idea if he'll be with sponsor Budweiser in 2008. But it doesn't stop the fans from shopping at a dizzying pace.

"I think it all has sentimental value now," said Lee Madison, of Asheville. "He's part of history. The red Budweiser 8, get it while you can."

Earnhardt had a series-high five trailers surrounding Lowe's Motor Speedway last weekend, and a sixth truck sold merchandise for both Junior and the elder Earnhardt.

Rob and Suzanne Carpenter crowded around one of them early Saturday with their three sons looking for new gear. They had plenty already - Suzanne wore her Budweiser bikini, with a gold "3" charm on her bellybutton as a nod to Earnhardt Sr. - but needed to pick up the latest fashions.

"We spend about $500 a year, usually on hats, a [beer] cozy or two, maybe a T-shirt. Anything I need to replace," Rob Carpenter said.

Because he makes up 30 percent of the market, Earnhardt has the most trailers and gets the best locations every week. Laying out the sales is a surprising science, and Motorsports Authentic has to carefully plan the grid each week.

Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart rank second and third in sales, owning about 15 percent of the market each, and Williams said he can never put an Earnhardt trailer across from one of them because the shoppers would clog the lane. Although he spaces Junior's trailers around the facility, there's no mistaking that each one is in an upfront location.

"As consumers, we shop at the same stores and usually the ones closest to your house," Williams said. "The fans who go to races are the same way. They park in the same locations, walk into the track through the same entrances, follow the same routine. Since the market shows a high percentage want to buy Junior's merchandise, you hit all the high-profile areas with his trailers.

"The places that draw the most volume, interest, and sales is where you put two or three of his trailers. Whatever it will bear, which right now is quite a lot."

Tony and Cindy Smith of Roanoke, Va., snapped up a pair of new T-shirts, fully aware Earnhardt's merchandise will look different next season.

"That just means I'll have to buy a whole new wardrobe," Tony Smith said. "I'm hoping it will be a 3 for Richard Childress, but it doesn't matter. We'll follow him anywhere."

Kelley Earnhardt Elledge wants to sign a new deal for her brother by the end of June, a deadline partially set by Motorsports Authentic.

Because souvenir sales make up such a huge part of his annual income - he's estimated to earn $20.1 million a year, and about $10 million of that is believed to come from merchandise - Earnhardt must have licensing approvals in hand by late summer to ensure he'll have stocked trailers at next year's season-opening Daytona 500.

There's a fan push for him to sign at RCR, where the elder Earnhardt won six of his seven championships in the famed No. 3. Bill Miles from Montana said he'll abandon Junior if he moves to Hendrick Motorsports, and the Carpenters don't want to see him in a Ford.

Williams is convinced Earnhardt's numbers won't suffer either way.

"Everyone is waiting for him to win that championship, and if he goes to RCR to do it, everyone will be extremely happy," Williams said.



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