NASCAR & Auto Racing

Earnhardt Jr. to open nightclub

NASCAR's party-hearty Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going into the bar business.

Racing's biggest star plans to open Whisky River, a bar and live-music venue, in uptown's new EpiCentre development this December.

"It's going to be a cool hangout," said Chris Epstein, a nightclub veteran in Charlotte who is partnering with Earnhardt, the majority owner.

But don't expect Whisky River -- named for the bar at Earnhardt's house -- to look like a racing watering hole with NASCAR memorabilia strewn about. Rather, it will resemble a basement bar that anyone would enjoy hanging out in -- including Junior when he's in town, Epstein said. Think lots of wood and metal decorations, multiple TVs and a mechanical bull "with rides a bit rougher than those in a race car," according to a news release. As for food, think bar staples, such as chicken wings.

"He really wants it to be a cool place he can take his friends and not be a shrine to anyone," said Epstein, who owned the former Liquid Lounge in Charlotte. He and Earnhardt worked with Charlotte's Bar Management Group, which operates Dixie's Tavern uptown and bars in 21 other cities, to land the EpiCentre location.

Sports icons have a long history owning bars and restaurants. But they've not been wildly successful, said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a restaurant tracking firm in Chicago.

"The majority of athletes who attempt to open restaurants can enjoy some very good short-term success, but overall the success of the concept depends on the success of their careers," he said. When players' careers end or change, their restaurants' fortunes often fade.

Take basketball's Michael Jordan and baseball's Sammy Sosa. The former Chicago Bulls player opened a steakhouse in Chicago that closed within a few years. The former Chicago Cubs hitter opened and closed -- in short order -- a restaurant in that same spot, now occupied by a local Mexican chain eatery, Tristano said. He estimates that two-thirds of such ventures shut down within five years.

Sports figures with the most success in the food and entertainment arena tend to be coaches, Tristano said. Prime example: Don Shula, who coached the Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl wins, turned one Shula's steakhouse into a chain of two dozen restaurants. And Mike Ditka, who coached the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl win, has two long-running restaurants in the Chicago area.

Earnhardt's best chance for success: playing up NASCAR.

"NASCAR is extremely hot right now," Tristano said. "The opportunity to succeed based on NASCAR (rather) than Dale Earnhardt Jr. is much higher."

Earnhardt, who has been sponsored by Budweiser, looked at other markets across the country and closer to home, including Mooresville, before choosing Charlotte. Unavailable Thursday for comment, Earnhardt said in a news release: "Charlotte is where I'm at the most and it's home."

Whisky River will open in a 10,000-square-foot space facing East Trade Street across from the Bobcat Arena's main entrance. When asked how much Earnhardt was investing in the entertainment venture, spokesman John Rhodes left it at "a lot."

Earnhardt and Epstein expect Whisky River to be popular with Charlotte residents looking for uptown entertainment as well as visitors, especially those checking out the NASCAR Hall of Fame, slated to open in 2010 at Stonewall and Caldwell streets.

"The location couldn't get any better," Rhodes said.

Epstein said he and Earnhardt are excited to open Whisky River in Charlotte, where business has been revving up in recent years.

"Downtown is getting ready to go to the next level," Epstein said. "And we want to be a part of that."

Other EpiCentre Attractions

BlackFinn Restaurant and Saloon.

Coldstone Creamery.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

Fox Sports Grill.

The Fudgery. (Fudge makers sing opera.)

Jason's Deli.

P.J.'s Wine & Coffee Bar.

Smoothie King.

Wild Wing Cafe.

Movie theater and bowling alley.

EpiCentre also includes retail shops and a condo tower. -- amy baldwin

Playing the Restaurant Game

Michael Jordan: Chicago restaurant closed, but New York location remains at Grand Central Terminal.

Sammy Sosa: His restaurant moved in after Jordan's closed, but it too is now closed.

Don Shula: Two dozen restaurants across the country.

Mike Ditka: Two well-established Chicago-area restaurants.