And when Earnhardt tragically lost his life in the final turn of the Daytona 500, Teresa also inherited another role: NASCAR team owner.
Dale Earnhardt had started his race team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., in the 1980s to field cars for himself in the then-Busch Series. The team eventually grew into the Cup Series, and in 2000 he began fielding a car for his son, Dale Jr.
Longtime NASCAR fans know how the story ends: With the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., leaving the team his father built after a bitter (and public) battle with his stepmother over ownership in the company, and the team folding just a few years later.
It’s a saga that’s left many in the sport unwilling to even discuss Teresa Earnhardt. And when the fans discuss her, they usually don’t have many nice things to say.
Teresa and her stepsons, Dale Jr. and his half-brother Kerry, have had a turbulent relationship to say the least. Aside from Dale Jr.’s battle with his stepmom over his dad’s race team, Teresa also filed a lawsuit against Kerry over his use of the Earnhardt name when Kerry announced plans to roll out a line of homes and furniture called “The Earnhardt Collection.”
Then there was the commercial that Budweiser released to honor Earnhardt Jr. before his last race in the Cup Series. Fans quickly noticed that the commercial didn’t feature Jr.’s #8 on the car, or any of the trademarks of Dale’s DEI car that are still owned by Teresa, leading many to speculate that Teresa refused to allow Budweiser to use the DEI trademarks in honoring Dale Jr.
So yeah, Teresa hasn’t exactly endeared herself to Earnhardt’s sons – or their fans.
But what exactly happened at DEI that caused the team built by one of the sport’s biggest legends to crumble after his death?
Well Dale Jr. and DEI’s former Executive Vice President of Motorsports Ty Norris sat down to discuss the downfall of the race team on a recent episode of his podcast, The Dale Jr. Download.
A Splintered Race Team
As Jr. and Norris discuss, under Dale Sr.’s leadership, everything seemed to be going in the right direction.
DEI was getting all of the best people in the sport (because everybody wanted to work for Dale Earnhardt) and had attracted some of the NASCAR’s biggest sponsors in names like Budweiser and NAPA. Dale Earnhardt, Inc. was quickly on its way to becoming a powerhouse in NASCAR.
But that all seemingly changed on February 18, 2001.
As Dale Jr. put it:
“This machine was going to be unstoppable. And then he died and all that changed immediately.”
So why did everything change so suddenly after Earnhardt’s death?
As Norris said, Earnhardt “was the valedictorian of the university of common sense” and made everyone around him think about solving problems.
And he was the undisputed leader of his team.
Norris described the credibility that he had when he was giving orders and executing Dale’s vision, with everybody knowing that he was, in essence, “repeating Dale’s words.”
But once Dale was gone, all that changed:
“It became totally splintered. It became ‘this guy thinks he should run it.’ It was Game of Thrones, man.”
With their leader gone, those left behind in the organization began fighting for power and trying to fill the void of leadership left behind in the wake of Dale’s death. This left the cliques forming within the organization, and as Norris says, “paranoia” in Teresa’s mind that others were trying to get Dale’s money.
As for Dale Jr.? He admits that he lost confidence in the team becoming what his dad had envisioned once Dale Sr. was gone.
“On paper, we had good success. But I just knew that without him here to help us keep that vision heading in that direction we just weren’t going to hit that target.
All of us wanted his common sense.”
The DEI Rocket Runs Out Of Fuel
Junior and Norris compare DEI to a rocket ship that was propelled initially by what Dale had built, but eventually ran out of fuel and fell back to earth.
The team had some initial success in the wake of Dale’s death, with Dale Jr. winning six races during the 2004 season and finishing 5th in the points standings.
But the whole time, Dale Jr. describes Teresa as being an owner who wasn’t clear about the direction that she wanted to go with the team.
“She was behind the curtain and quiet.”
And with Teresa being a behind-the-scenes leader, Norris felt like he wasn’t able to speak for the ownership of the team.
The situation came to a head in December 2003 when Dale Jr. and fellow DEI driver Michael Waltrip went to Norris’s office after not being paid since September.
Norris signed all the checks for DEI – except for the checks that paid the drivers, which were signed by Teresa.
Junior and Waltrip demanded to speak to Teresa immediately, with Junior threatening to “go out and find out what [he’s] really worth” if the situation wasn’t resolved.
So they called Teresa, who finally showed up after three hours of Waltrip and Dale Jr. stewing in Norris’s office.
Norris, realizing the gravity of the situation, cautioned Junior not to attack Teresa when she showed up. He even typed up bullet points for Earnhardt to “have a professional conversation” with Teresa to resolve the contractual issue.
Well Junior didn’t stick to the script.
According to Norris:
“She walks in and Junior is so mad, he starts yelling at her. ‘Been waiting down here for three damn hours.’ And he just starts jumping her case, and he’s like, ‘Y’all haven’t paid me, you breached my contract.’
And that’s how the conversation started. And I was like ‘Oh, shit.'”
After Junior said what he had to say, he didn’t stick around. But what he left behind was one pissed off team owner.
Teresa accused Norris of ambushing her, telling Norris that he cared more about Dale Jr. than he cared about her.
And then she said something that gives us a glimpse into how she saw viewed the value of her flagship driver:
“If Dale Jr. doesn’t want to stick around here we’ll make another Dale Jr.”
Excuse me, what?
Even if it wasn’t clear at the time, looking back on a statement like that you can see exactly why DEI failed: There was no other Dale Jr. out there.
The man was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 15 years in a row. He was carrying on the legacy of his father, one of the biggest legends of the sport, and Dale Sr.’s legions of fans had pinned their hopes on Dale’s son after his death.
There was nobody else out there who could fill those shoes. Not even close.
But in Teresa’s eyes, he was expendable.
The episode over the paychecks ultimately resulted in Teresa presenting Norris with an ultimatum (after not speaking with him for a month): He could either take a 67% pay cut, or he could resign.
Norris was out.
Junior Wants Ownership
In 2007, Dale Jr. was in the last year of his contract with DEI.
With his sister Kelley as his manager and chief negotiator, Dale Jr. made his terms clear: He wanted to be a majority owner of the team.
But the struggle for the future of his father’s team was a bitter one, and it was a battle that largely played out in the public eye.
Teresa publicly questioned Dale Jr.’s commitment to being a racecar driver in a December 2006 interview with the Wall Street Journal that sent shockwaves through the NASCAR garage and made clear just how deep the fractures in their relationship had become:
“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 also publicly acknowledged their differences, commenting that his relationship with Teresa “ain’t a bed of roses.”
And on May 10, 2007, Dale Jr. made it official: He was leaving DEI, the team that his father had built. In a press conference, Jr. made it clear that his goal was to win a Cup championship, and that without having ownership of the team, he wasn’t confident that he could achieve that goal with DEI.
A few months later, Junior would sign a deal to drive the #88 car for Hendrick Motorsports.
Why the #88 car and not the #8, which at that point was synonymous with Dale Jr.?
Because Teresa wouldn’t let him have the car number.
Life After Junior
With the loss of their top driver, several top sponsors eventually followed Junior away from DEI.
The organization managed to limp along, never having the success that Dale envisioned when he started the team. And in 2009, the decision was made for DEI to merge with Chip Ganassi Racing and becoming Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, with DEI moving into the Ganassi shop and closing down their own.
But even that was short lived: In 2014, Ganassi dropped the “Earnhardt” from their name, essentially closing the book on Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
“I wish I could explain it but I can’t explain it. I don’t have a good answer for you. We had a relationship and I don’t know what happened. We can’t get her on the phone; it’s hard to try to communicate with somebody. She obviously has some other things on her plate, I guess, and that’s her prerogative…
There’s no ill will, I just don’t have an answer, to tell you the truth. She just wasn’t there anymore.”
Could DEI Have Been Saved?
So what would it have taken for DEI to become the team that Dale Earnhardt had envisioned?
If you ask Ty Norris, it would have been for Dale Jr. to own it.
While Dale Jr. admits that he probably wasn’t in a position to manage the entire team, Norris says that he believes that Junior would have “brought people in to do their jobs,” which is what the team needed.
“I think that it needed another Earnhardt presence. And with Teresa still being there, if y’all could have worked it out, I think DEI would have still existed.”
But ultimately, Earnhardt Jr. and Teresa were never able to work it out – because according to Norris, while he saw Junior growing up, he’s not sure that Teresa ever did.
“I told Teresa one time, ‘Please stop looking at Junior like the guy who spilled grape juice on your white carpet as a kid. Please stop doing that. He’s a professional racecar driver.
In fact he’s probably one of the most sought-after racecar drivers in the business, and we have to treat him that way, and we have to treat his contract that way. We can’t treat him like he’s the kid, we gotta treat him like the man.”
For his part, Dale Jr. acknowledges that he also shares some of the blame:
“I think that I was raising a lot of hell, partying a lot. I was probably as hard to find sometimes as she was. And as long as we were racing good I thought I could do anything I wanted. The rest of the time was mine to do anything I wanted to do with it.
In ’04, 05, I was absolutely not in position to run the team or take over such a heavy responsibility.
But I believe by the time I was ready to leave if she would have called my bluff on the 51% ownership that I put out there in the media day at Daytona, I could have quickly grown into that person.”
"What do you think would've saved DEI?"@DaleJr and Ty Norris have an open and honest conversation about what could've been and why it didn't work out.
And Junior also acknowledges that Teresa was put into a position that she never wanted to be in – but she was also unwilling to let anybody else run the team either:
“This was never her wish, to be in this position as the owner of that team. But she also didn’t release control and power to someone who could run it. She didn’t trust anybody.”
All in all, the conversation between Dale Jr. and Ty Norris is a fascinating look at what’s often considered a taboo topic among those in NASCAR.
It gives us a closer look at not only what was going on behind the scenes at DEI, but also what was going on in the personal relationship of a son and a stepmom trying to navigate through a situation that neither of them expected to be in.
And for longtime NASCAR fans, especially fans of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr., the whole episode is a must-listen.