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Earnhardt wants driver's seat

NASCAR star seeks majority stake in company his father left to his stepmother in feud's latest twist.

February 09, 2007|Ed Hinton | Special to The Times

DAYTONA BEACH — Dale Earnhardt Jr. made clear Thursday what he wants from his stepmother in their contractual war. "I want majority ownership," he said of Dale Earnhardt Inc., the racing company his late father founded -- but which Teresa Earnhardt, the NASCAR icon's third wife, inherited after "the Intimidator" was killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt Jr., at 32 NASCAR's most popular driver, also said he didn't regret trying his case in public via the media since he spoke out about Teresa -- with whom he's had a strained relationship since he was 6 -- here Jan. 8 during a test session.

Continuing to side with him in this latest skirmish were four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, senior driver for Richard Childress Racing. RCR is the team for which the elder Earnhardt won six of his record-tying seven NASCAR championships, and to which the younger Earnhardt could jump with little more than a phone call.

"He deserves the respect of being a grown man and not being treated like he's 15 and somebody's stepson," said Harvick, who last month called Teresa Earnhardt "a deadbeat owner."

Earnhardt commented further about how badly his stepmother had hurt him when she told the Wall Street Journal in a Dec. 14 story, "The ball is in his court to decide whether he wants to be a NASCAR driver or whether he wants to be a public personality."

"Low blow," the young Earnhardt called his stepmother's remark.

"She portrayed it as [if] I was out there waving a flag: 'Hey, look at me, I can dance, I can sing, check me out.' "

Earnhardt added that the first times he was asked to be on late-night TV shows with Jay Leno and David Letterman, "I was scared to death. Hands down the scariest thing I've ever done.

"Look, I've driven race cars at 200 mph. I've been in flips and crashes." Not to mention a car fire that nearly claimed his life in 2004. "I've seen a lot of bad things.

"But the scariest thing I've ever done was announcing a band on stage at the 'MTV Music Awards.' I don't ever want to do that again.... I didn't enjoy one second of it. I was petrified."

Neither Teresa Earnhardt nor her newly hired executive, Max Siegel, returned phone requests. A spokesman for Teresa, Stephen Brown, wrote via e-mail, "We won't be releasing any statements/comments."

Earnhardt Jr. did express confidence in Siegel to run the company -- but with Earnhardt Jr., not Teresa, in command.

Earnhardt's contract expires at the end of this season, and in recent negotiations, "the main factor is the ownership part," he said. "It has nothing to do with money or anything else, really.

"I really like my team. I like how things are going. Max is going to be great for the company.... Everything's on the upswing.

"But my father's been gone for six years now. So I want majority ownership."

Major current and former figures at DEI, have long complained about the widow's absentee ownership.

Earnhardt Jr. has been frustrated that "a lot of the problems in the past were that [his part in his father's company] was just clunky in how it went along. You just really could never get the gears meshed."

Tony Eury Sr., architect of Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 team, has said, "Richie [Gilmore, the team's general manager] and I have told Teresa that if she's going to spend four or five weeks straight on that boat of hers [a 150-foot yacht] she's going to have to let us run the company."

Earnhardt Jr. has been emboldened lately, he said, by media coverage, public response and public support expressed by his peer drivers, of his recent candor about the stepson-stepmother relationship.

"He's really in the power position," Gordon said last month, "and if Teresa isn't recognizing that, then shame on her."

Gordon said Thursday, "He thanked me for supporting him. But I told him, 'I wasn't supporting you, I was stating the facts.' That's just what it is."

Harvick said, "We're all here to support him and do what he needs to make his situation the best.

"The situation is, he is our sport's most popular driver. And he needs to have a good, stable condition ... because he is the figurehead of what we do."

The long-running feud between stepson and stepmother erupted again here Jan. 8, when Earnhardt said that his relationship with his stepmother "ain't a bed of roses," and that it "has always been very black-and-white, very strict and in-your-face."

The driver said that after the Wall Street Journal comment by Teresa, "I tried to stay professional in my comments. I tried to [convey] my feelings to y'all but tried to keep the bitterness out of it.

"Because at times you get bitter about it."

Since he spoke out, he said, "Everything I've read, whether it's been y'all's opinions or another driver's or an owner's comments, I've not had any problems or issues with.

"I've actually taken a lot of that stuff and helped form my position and opinion. You don't like public opinion or media opinion to sway your decisions, but in this case, I have a real bad habit of being way too modest about my position in this sport. And a lot of people, including the media, sort of helped me understand what I'm actually worth. What the situation really is."

Ed Hinton covers auto racing for Tribune newspapers.

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