Earnhardt Adds Adidas to His Portfolio

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a freshman in high school when he figured out that image is everything and for him to be considered cool, he had to have a pair of old-school adidas Samba Classic sneakers. With a clean look and simple colors, the Sambas were an extension of Earnhardt’s shy, quiet personality.

“When you are in high school in Mooresville (N.C.), your shoe is your hallmark,” Earnhardt said. “What kind of shoe you have on, that’s where you stand in the chain of command. It was really important, and I thought adidas was the best brand.”

Eighteen years later, Earnhardt still chooses his brands carefully and adidas again made the cut as NASCAR’s most popular driver mainstreams his endorsement portfolio. His signing last week with adidas America on a multiyear personal services contract came just two weeks after he announced a similar deal with Sony.

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Both companies are international and significantly broaden Earnhardt’s marketing image. Although he’s a superstar in America, U.S.-based sponsors Budweiser, Chevrolet and Wrangler haven’t made Earnhardt an international icon.

His new deals could help, as Earnhardt becomes just the fourth athlete to receive his own personal clothing line with adidas. Also in that group? International superstar David Beckham, as well as New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush and Houston Rockets star Tracy McGrady.

“It’s a little intimidating,” admitted Earnhardt, who played soccer in high school. “I look up to Beckham and the things he’s been able to accomplish and the persona he’s built up over the years.”

Now Earnhardt has the opportunity to do the same.

He announced in May that he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc., and decided a month later to sign with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. The adidas and Sony deals came right after, and the timing is not lost on anyone.

Earnhardt has spent his entire career with his late father’s race team, and often found himself locked into deals that the late Dale Earnhardt picked for him. That didn’t ease after the elder Earnhardt’s death in 2001, as Junior had to take over many of his father’s contracts to help DEI retain the business.

“We had all them sponsors that DEI was bringing in, whoever they wanted to work with, and they didn’t always match perfectly with me,” Earnhardt said. “And when Dad died … I had to help out to keep the contracts good. They were selling pieces of me here and there just to keep things going.

“But when I decided to cut my ties with DEI, the phones started ringing and it was like ‘Hey, we want to work Dale Jr.'”

Earnhardt suddenly had his pick of endorsement deals, and adidas was No. 1 on the list. He’d tried five years earlier to land a sneaker deal with the company for his self-owned race team, but Germany-based adidas wasn’t interested.

The conversations resumed shortly after Earnhardt hired Thayer Lavielle, a former vice president with L’Oreal USA, to run marketing and brand development at JR Motorsports last July.

Although interested, adidas didn’t commit until after Earnhardt decided to leave DEI at the end of this season, said Mark Clinard, business director for motor sports at adidas America.

“Obviously you sign him because he’s enormously popular, but this focus on wanting to get better and committing to doing everything he can to win a championship just really fits perfectly with us,” Clinard said. “When people get serious about winning and make some really tough decisions like he made, it’s really a natural.”

The DEI decision may have pushed adidas over the edge, but Lavielle said Earnhardt’s expanding portfolio doesn’t correlate directly to changing teams. Instead, it’s a culmination of the work she has done with his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, in the year since Lavielle joined JR Motorsports.

Now that they’ve inked two significant deals, Lavielle said they will wait to see how sponsorship of his new Hendrick ride shakes out before making more moves. Budweiser has sponsored Earnhardt’s Cup car since 1999 and wants to stay with him, but Hendrick might not be interested in signing the company. Regardless, Earnhardt has a personal services contract with Bud through 2008.

Whatever company ends up sponsoring Earnhardt’s new ride will use an intense marketing campaign, and Lavielle said they don’t want the driver to become a rolling billboard. His late father was widely recognized as a pitchman for just a handful of companies, and Earnhardt wants the same image.

“We want a small stable of partners, to align him with brands that he’s comfortable with and projects that are fun for him,” Lavielle said. “This sport is, by it’s nature, riddled with sponsorships. But we are in a good position where we can say ‘Hey, I don’t know if that one fits for us,’ and make careful choices when it comes to his lifestyle management.”

One deal already in the pipeline, though, is a candy bar that Earnhardt has had a hand in developing. He won’t reveal many details, only that he and the JR Motorsports staff tasted endless combinations looking for the perfect match. Earnhardt has been involved with how the bar will be shaped, what it will look like and “if it’s going to break into pieces when you take a bite. You gotta have it how you want it if your name is on it,” he said.

He’s come a long way since his days as a short, skinny kid just trying to fit in at school, and Earnhardt has clear ideas on how he wants to be perceived. He believes carefully choosing his endorsement deals helps him convey his desired image.

“I would like to be the guy, your friend next door that you hope gets home early so you can start playing video games,” he said. “I want to be that guy.”

A service of the Associated Press(AP)