Max Siegel grins as he reflects on “my first 20 years at DEI.”
Siegel actually only began work as president of global operations for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in early 2007. But as he tried to see the company through the departure of its most marketable driver and a key longtime sponsor, his first year on the job had a lot packed into it.
“As a company we certainly took a tremendous hit in the public and with our commercial partners,” Siegel said, speaking of the departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Budweiser, who had sponsored Earnhardt Jr.’s No 8 Chevrolets since that team’s inception.
“We took our lumps, that’s a fact” Siegel said. “Every part of this company was torn apart from the public and the media analyzing and criticizing it. It forced us to look at every single area of the company. How are we doing, performance wise? How are we doing as a commercial partner? How are we perceived.
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"...Every aspect of it, and we had to be candid about it.”
One thing that soon became apparent was that having Earnhardt Jr. to build the marketing programs around was a luxury DEI would no longer have.
“It’s not fair to compare anybody to Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Siegel said. “He moves product. He is like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. You can slap him on anything and it will work.
“I said ‘We have to forget him. What we had to do as an organization was be able to sit with our commercial partners and say, ‘If you’re going to spend millions of dollars with us, this is what you’re getting.' "
What made the scrutiny - from outside and from within - even tougher to deal with, Siegel said, was that DEI’s teams still had to go racing each weekend.
"One of the biggest parts of the challenge for me the whole year was to keep the morale up, have people believe in themselves,” he said. “If you’re reading the paper or looking online every day and you hear that your ship is sinking, you can believe it and feel sorry for yourself. Or you can rally.”
Siegel said DEI still had two important things going for it.
First, there was the legacy of the company’s founder, the late Dale Earnhardt.
“If you look over the course of history at the people who’ve had an impact on culture, their qualities are timeless,” Siegel said “Everything Dale stood for – the championships he won, his tenacity, his focus, his drive, everything – it doesn’t matter if that was in 1900. It is still relevant today. That was the foundation that we wanted to build the company on.”
That second key asset, Siegel said, was the people at DEI who remained committed to sustaining the Earnhardt legacy.
“The only way any company can achieve success is if everybody is pointing toward a common goal,” Siegel said.
“Forget personalities. I’ve worked with people who can’t stand each other, but if the goal is to have the company be a success and the company comes first, then you can be a success.
“My philosophy is if you’re going to collect a paycheck then you can’t complain unless you try to fix it. Either you buy into being part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. We had to look and say, ‘Forget Max Siegel or anybody else. Do you really care about Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Teresa and everybody else?
"If you do, then suck it up and let’s identify the problems and let’s figure out how to solve them.”
A few weeks after Earnhardt Jr. said he was leaving, Martin Truex Jr. got his first career Cup victory at Dover in DEI’s No. 1 Chevrolets. Truex went on to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup, and his success provided a boost.
“The success of the 1 team and the timing of that had was absolutely critical,” Siegel said. “...When their momentum started they felt good because they knew how much hard work they’d put into it. It was a sigh of relief, because now I had something other than me being self-serving trying to sell to the company. I could say, ‘Look at how we’re running every week.’ ”
When it absorbed the Ginn Racing operations, DEI added what has since become the No. 8 team, picking up Martin along with Almirola when it absorbed. Points from the Ginn deal helped Paul Menard’s No. 15 team secure a top-35 spot. Regan Smith, who will drive the No. 01 entry as a rookie in 2008, was also part of the merger, as was needed shop space and several pieces of high-tech equipment that DEI had not had.
“Unfortunately, because of the timing, it looked like all of that was a reaction to Dale Jr. leaving,” Siegel said. “But from the first day I walked in here, there was always a desire to improve. We just had to get things organized and focused, and that accelerated the process.”
Siegel knows a lot of people will keep score in 2008, comparing how well DEI does without Earnhardt Jr. and how well Earnhardt Jr. does without DEI.
“I think we can be competitive,” Siegel said. “We have high expectations, but we’re also realistic. We have to stay consistent and patient and focused. To have the critics and the public respect us again, I think, is going to take us a couple of years. We need to go into the year understanding that.
“There will be a whole lot about whether Dale Jr. is going to win and whether DEI made the right decisions. We just need to stay focused.”