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Life goes on for Teresa Earnhardt

July 16, 2006|by JASON STEIN / Wheelbase Communications

Sometimes, she says, when times are tough and she's feeling lonely, she still cries.

It might last 10 seconds. It might last longer.

But deep down, Teresa Earnhardt, auto racing's most famous widow and one of NASCAR's most influential team owners, knows that the pain will never go away.

"I hate it," Teresa Earnhardt once told NBC's Dateline news program. "I hate it so bad, feeling bad, that I just turn it off. I miss him and I always will. Just terribly. But I'm not going to feel bad about it. I'm going to feel glad about what I had."

What she had was, in a word, everything.

And at 5:16 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2001, it was all but gone. The car driven by her husband, Dale Earnhardt, struck a wall on the final lap of the Daytona (Florida) 500.

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The crash took the life of one of the greatest drivers to ever race in NASCAR. Many would argue that he was, in fact, the greatest.

The life of Teresa, the co-owner, wife and friend who was seated in the stands that day, would forever change. It could have ended there, but this is the story of a second chance, one Teresa Earnhardt created for herself.

"I knew that for him I had to move on," she once said.

The girl from Hickory, N.C., knew a thing or two about adjusting. She grew up in a racing family. Her father raced. Her uncle raced. But Teresa had plans to be an interior designer. She earned those credentials from Piedmont Community College in Roxboro, N.C., in 1978.

But then she adjusted.

An up-and-coming driver from nearby Kannapolis, a town of 40,000 in the Interstate 85 corridor near Charlotte, knew a thing or two about racing and had ideas about getting married. And soon Dale and Teresa Earnhardt were together.

One thing led to another with Dale, and he quickly built a reputation as a hard-nosed professional who could win no matter what obstacles were thrown in front of him.

Teresa turned out to be the same in the business boardroom.

Together, in February of 1980, they formed Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI). In 1983, Teresa became the first person on the payroll, assisting Dale in his racing ventures. The first "corporate headquarters" was a three-bay garage where Dale had an office.

As the need for additional space for race cars and equipment grew, Dale and Teresa moved the offices into a brick house located next door on Coddle Creek Highway. There were five offices for a handful of employees with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., fielding a part-time race team for its namesake.

Fan clubs were formed. Merchandise was sold. Dale would win on Sundays, and Teresa would cut new sponsorship deals on Mondays.

"Dad always said that before he met Teresa, he owed the bank money," Teresa's stepson, and current NASCAR driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. once told NBC. "By the time they got married, the bank owed him money."

Said Teresa: "You've got to know what you've got and what you're going to do with it."

It was a team built on success. In 2000, Forbes magazine estimated DEI's worth at $80 million and largely because of Teresa's ability to focus the team.

But bigger battles loomed.

The day her husband died, Teresa was already thinking ahead.

"Everybody was in a daze that night at the hospital, except for Teresa," said longtime Fox announcer Darrell Waltrip in an interview with newspaper USA Today. "Teresa was thinking ahead. 'What have I got to do? What should I do? We've got to take care of this and this is how I'm going to do it.' She was the one in control."

And just days after her husband's death, Teresa was forced to file court papers preventing her husband's autopsy photos from being released to the media. It was an enormous battle.

"Anyone looking at any of them is the most personal invasion of my privacy and my family's privacy that I can imagine," she told a Florida court.

She adjusted and she won again - twice - triumphantly taking the battle in court and in the Florida State Senate, which enacted a Family Protection Act that prohibits public access to autopsy photos without a court order.

Today, Teresa Earnhardt is driving harder than ever.

DEI now includes a chicken farm, a minor league baseball team and four racing teams.

The licensing department of DEI creates deals with companies that create hats, shirts, sunglasses, video games, toys, electronics and many other products bearing the name, number, and likeness of Dale Earnhardt.

She is a tough negotiator, even during negotiations with Dale Jr. over future contracts.

"There is always a job to be done," she said.

But some days it still comes back.

The crash. The wall.

Life. Death.

Regardless, life must go on.

"I think she could have very easily stepped aside and cashed in, and nobody would have blamed her if she did," NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi once told USA Today. "Instead, she's riding the bull. And not doing a bad job at it."

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase Communications

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