Dale Earnhardt was a ninth-grade dropout, but when it came to marketing himself, he was every bit the equal of the Stanford-educated Tiger Woods. Earnhardt was the first driver to regularly run with different paint schemes—which in turn allowed him to sell a different die-cast model car for each one. He once sold $900,000 worth of tchotchkes in less than two hours on QVC, and by some estimates he generated one quarter of the circuit's $1 billion in merchandise sold last year. Within four days of Earnhardt's death at Daytona on Feb. 18, the number of Intimidator-related items for sale on eBay—from hats to tube socks to the rights to the domain earnhardtsenior.com—jumped from 3,000 to more than 100,000.
" Earnhardt outsold other drivers three or four to one," said Joe Hearne, a souvenir vendor who was at Rockingham for last week-end's Dura Lube 400. "Some guys out here will tell you he accounted for half their sales." Hearne expects Earnhardt's death to cut into revenue, but not too severely, because with Dale Sr. or without him, people will still come to the races. "If you're a race fan, you're a race fan," Hearne said. "Everyone's going to miss him, but they're still going to show up at the track."
What they'll do with the quarter of a billion dollars they spent annually on Earnhardt gear is another question, one unique to auto racing. More than fans in any other sport, a race fan is passionately loyal to one competitor, a bond based on a sense of a personal link—so where does that loyalty turn when the hero dies? The answer could have a significant impact on the GDP of the nation-within-a-nation that is NASCAR.
Many fans who root for Ricky Rudd do so because he drives the black Texaco number 28 car that Davey Allison drove before he died in a helicopter crash in 1993. The driver who has inherited Earnhardt's ride with Richard Childress Racing is up-and-comer Kevin Harvick, but don't expect him to inherit many of his predecessor's fans. Instead of the familiar black number 3 car, Harvick will drive a white one bearing the number 29.
More likely, the Earnhardt faithful will stick with a name they know, that of second-year Winston Cup driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., 26. Keith Pierce of Tiffin, Ohio, a fan of the Intimidator ever since he met him at a race at Sandusky Speedway in 1986, spoke for many Earnhardt fans at Rockingham when asked about his allegiances. "I'll probably follow Dale Jr.," he said, "but it's kind of hard to say right now."
Whomever Pierce follows, he doesn't see himself laying out the kind of bucks on souvenirs for his new driver that he did on his Intimidator collection, which includes a slew of T-shirts and hats and some 300 Earnhardt collectible cars. A dozen or so of those were attached to a white construction helmet on his head.