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Loss Is a Test of Strength for Teresa Earnhardt

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Instead of 50 candles, there is a single flame.

Instead of a birthday celebration for Dale Earnhardt today at the NAPA Auto Parts 500, there is a solitary woman in mourning 3,000 miles away.

Teresa Earnhardt rode shotgun with Dale for 22 years. She was his partner, in love and in business.

His equal. His flame.

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They were apart only during Dale’s occasional hunting or fishing excursions and those fleeting, fabulous, frightening hours he spent behind the wheel of his black No. 3 Chevrolet.

When Dale died Feb. 18 in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, Teresa watched in horror, along with her parents and 12-year-old daughter, Taylor.

NASCAR lost an icon, an unparalleled driver with seven Winston Cup championships, a money magnet worth an estimated $400 million.

His family lost a husband, a father, a grandfather, a son, a brother, an in-law. The void Dale left is enormous, yet Teresa tries mightily to fill it with light.

“Teresa has been the strength of everybody,” said her father, Hal Houston. “This has to be the most difficult time of her life, but she is doing well. She is helping everyone else with this.”

When Randy Owens of the country group Alabama choked up as he prepared to sing at Dale’s funeral, Teresa whispered to him to think of something funny Dale had done.

When fans held vigils outside Dale Earnhardt Inc. at Mooresville, N.C., and sent bushels of sympathy cards, e-mails and gifts, Teresa wrote a letter of gratitude published in a national newspaper six days after Dale’s death. The letter ended, “He was the happiest person I know, and that can comfort us all.”

When DEI driver Steve Park won the Dura Lube 400 a week after Dale’s death, Teresa called to congratulate him.

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“She sounded emotional, but it was an emotion of happiness,” Park said. “It meant a lot to me. Teresa has been incredibly strong.”

When news organizations pressured Teresa to authorize the release of Dale’s autopsy photos, she appeared at a March 4 news conference and delivered a sharply worded statement: “Honestly, I’m not very comfortable being here. It’s too soon. But this issue is of vital importance--not just to my family--but to anyone ever faced with being exploited after losing a loved one.”

She eventually reached a compromise with the Orlando Sentinel and other Tribune Co. papers, among them The Times, that allowed a medical expert to study the photos. As anyone who conducted business with DEI over the years can attest, Teresa is a pragmatic negotiator blessed with uncommon common sense.

“She was always the one who looked at the contracts--and nothing gets by her,” said Betty Houston, Teresa’s mother. “Souvenirs, merchandising, property, all the contracts had to be OKd by her.”

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Teresa, 42, was a high achiever early on. She graduated from Bunker Hill High near Rockingham, N.C., in three years, earned a real estate license and attended an interior design school before meeting Dale in 1978, when she was 20.

Racing was in the family. Hal, a furniture wholesaler by trade, owned race cars. His brother, Tommy Houston, was a top driver who ranks third on the Busch Series all-time victory list. Tommy’s sons are in the business: Andy is a Winston Cup driver, Marty competes in the Busch Series and Scott is a Winston Cup crew chief.

So no one objected when Teresa fell for Dale, a twice-divorced ninth-grade dropout struggling to drive his way from backwoods dirt tracks into the big time. They met at a race in Martinsville, Va., where Dale drove one of Hal’s cars. By the time the racing circuit reached Hickory, N.C., a romance had blossomed.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that he was devoted to her,” Hal said. “I hunted and fished with him a lot before they got married. He was going to take care of her and vice versa.”

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Dale passed muster with Tommy too.

“Dale and I talked about it when he and Teresa were dating,” Tommy said. “She was what he lived for. She was everything he wanted in a mate, in a wife. And she was the same way he was.”

Focused. Ambitious. Unwilling to let anything get in the way of victory.

For Dale it meant forging a reputation as a fearless--and feared--driver who would as soon bump a car as pass it cleanly.

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For Teresa it meant learning everything possible about finances, tax laws and merchandise-licensing rights. When a lawyer or businessman handed the Earnhardts a contract, she had every obscure word and unintelligible phrase written in plain English. Once the document was to her satisfaction, she used it as a template in future deals.

While Dale became “the Intimidator,” behind the wheel, Teresa became “the Enforcer” behind the desk. While Dale was chief executive officer at DEI, Teresa was chairman.

The result is a financial empire unsurpassed in auto racing and approaching the range of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. Dale earned $41 million racing and 10 times that off the track. His T-shirt sales alone are reported at $40 million a year. Forbes estimated his 1999 earnings at $26.5 million.

DEI owns a fleet of aircraft, including a Learjet; a farm with 32,000 chickens and 400 head of Black Angus cattle, a Chevrolet dealership, thousands of acres of property and seats on the New York and American stock exchanges. Dale’s sponsors included Coca-Cola, Oreo, Burger King, Bass Pro shops, Snap-On tools and Gargoyles sunglasses. A recent acquisition is a minor league baseball team in Dale’s North Carolina hometown named the Kannapolis Intimidators.

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And, of course, DEI is race-driven, owning the three-driver Winston Cup team of Park, Michael Waltrip and 26-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose mother, Brenda Jackson, was Dale’s second wife. Dale himself drove for a team owned by his friend Richard Childress, which maintains close ties with DEI.

The company’s crown jewel is a 200,000-square-foot concrete and glass headquarters in Mooresville dubbed the garage-Mahal. The portion open to the public has a 30-foot gold-painted ceiling, black marble floors and gave Teresa a chance to put that year of interior decorating school to use.

But her business prowess is the envy of any MBA. She secured control of Dale’s licensing and images 15 years ago and today one-third of NASCAR souvenirs are Earnhardt-related. She approved every trading card of her husband and copyrighted Dale’s signature, the “Intimidator” nickname and the No. 3 emblem.

And she nixed proposals that didn’t fit her marketing vision, such as Dale Earnhardt bikinis and halter tops.

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There was no question that Dale, the DEI deity, was in charge. But in a racing culture where the man is behind the wheel and his wife doesn’t dare tell him how to drive, Teresa often pointed the way.

“She can grasp things easier than most people and that’s something Dale found out as they went through the years,” Tommy Houston said. “He’d tell me, ‘Hey, let’s let her decide.’

“At the same time, Dale recognized talent and put the right people in the cars and in the garage.”

Dale and Teresa had a few close advisors, including Childress, DEI General Manager Ty Norris and Don Hawk, the company president from 1992-2000.

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“Teresa is going to run it and run it well,” said Hawk, who no longer is associated with DEI. “They were a great team together for the business and now she’s going to have to take on even more. But she can handle it, without a doubt.”

Norris, 36, is DEI’s visible leader in the garage and the pits. He is tireless and charismatic, but he reports to Teresa.

Dale Jr. and Dale’s two older children, Kerry, 31, and Kelley, 28, eventually might join the management team. The free-spirited Dale Jr., for one, is fine with his step-mom running the show.

“She is the cornerstone of the operation,” he said. “We’re going to continue the racing program and stick beside Teresa as best we can and help her any way she needs.”

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Business aside, she might need help more than she lets on. Managing the 240 or so DEI employees is easier than coming to terms with her husband’s death. Teresa commented during her fight to seal the autopsy photos that she hadn’t had time to unpack the clothes Dale wore when he died.

Perhaps part of her didn’t really want to find the time.

Teresa’s parents hope she doesn’t isolate herself behind the guarded gates of the company compound. Her loved ones rely on her fire, but she needn’t forget they provide warmth as well.

“She don’t answer the phone,” Hal Houston said. “I call her office and her secretary has her call me back. I haven’t talked to her in two weeks.”

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Teresa is declining interviews. A DEI spokeswoman said, “It’s just a bit early for that.”

Today is especially difficult. Dale would have been 50. The racing community continues to mourn his death. Dale considered NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. a father figure and was a close friend of President Mike Helton and other officials. Speculation that Teresa might hit NASCAR with a wrongful-death suit is probably off the mark.

She realizes her husband understood the perils of racing. And in her letter to fans, Teresa made clear her guiding principle: “I will ask myself in the coming days and weeks and for a long time after that, I’m sure, ‘What would Dale do?’ ”


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