Did Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision to leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. and go to Hendrick Motorsports ultimately come down to do a matter of timing?
Nothing about the biggest NASCAR story in 2007 was that simple. But two people who worked directly at keeping the sport’s most popular driver at DEI said things might have turned out differently if they’d had more time.
“As we started talking and developed a relationship ... I think there was a glimmer of hope that we could work together,” said Max Siegel, who soon after joining DEI as president of global operations in early 2007 took the lead for the company in the talks with Earnhardt Jr.
Siegel’s counterpart was Kelley Earnhardt Elledge, Earnhardt Jr.’s sister who handles virtually all of the driver’s business and financial affairs.
“For Dale and I, at the point of when Max came we were all about action,” Elledge said. “We had done a lot of talking. ...If Max had come along earlier I think it could have been different.”
There’s irony in that, since one of the first flash points in the negotiations came in a story that appeared Dec. 14, 2006, in the Wall Street Journal.
That story was primarily about Teresa Earnhardt’s decision to hire Siegel away from the music industry, but it also included an attention-grabbing quote from her about how Earnhardt Jr. needed to decide whether he wanted to be a rock star or a race car driver.
In January Earnhardt Jr. admitted his relationship with Teresa Earnhardt “ain’t no bed of roses.” Then, as Speedweeks opened, Earnhardt Jr. said that if he was going to return to DEI he wanted at least 51 percent ownership in the company so he’d have final say in what went on there.
Siegel had been on the job at DEI for just days.
"When I got here, I tried to talk to as many people as I could and read the correspondence,” Siegel said. “My opinion was that it was going to be an uphill battle. ...I felt like they had their minds made up. But in their hearts or hearts, they wished they could make something work.
Siegel’s first conversation with Earnhardt Jr. took Siegel away from playing video games with his kids.
“Dale Jr. and I hit it off almost immediately,” Siegel said. “I called him at home and from that initial conversation he was a little relieved because he didn’t know what to expect from me.”
Even through what turned out to be unsuccessful efforts to make a deal, Siegel, Elledge or Earnhardt Jr. developed a bond of respect.
“Max is a unique individual,” Elledge said. “As soon as you meet him, you like him. He makes you feel welcome.
"...He’s intelligent. He has a lot of wisdom and perspective to make you look at things differently. He’s had obstacles in his life that we talked about that kind of parallel in a sense SOME of the adversity we’ve faced. He has a lot of life lessons, he’s fascinating.”
Earnhardt Jr. has said he won’t talk publicly about what happened in the discussions with DEI, but he has said that the last time he had spoken to Teresa Earnhardt was at a meeting he and Kelley had with her and Siegel. After that, Teresa Earnhardt pulled back and left the face-to-face negotiations to Siegel.
“I believe in my heart they wanted to know what kind of person I was,” Siegel said. “Was I the real deal? Was I going to tell the truth? Was I a person of my word and could I make a difference? As we started through some things, I think they saw I was making some difference, but they were also worrying about when that might stop. Was that going to last?”
The “glimmer of hope” Siegel saw was there, Elledge said.
“There was a big comfort level with Max,” she said. “We were talking to him he was able to talk to Teresa and have her more engaged, even if it wasn’t with us directly. That was a good thing.”
Time, however, was working against them.
“We really had only about three or four months, really, from the time I walked into the door, to try to put a deal together,” Siegel said. “You just can’t wait in this business.”
With every reporter carrying a NASCAR credential working to uncover each shred of news on the story, Earnhardt Jr. and Elledge knew that they’d have to announce a decision to part with DEI before beginning talks with other teams.
“We might have been able to build trust and respect with Max ... but at the point we were, without actions, we had to make a move,” Elledge said.
On May 10. Earnhardt Jr. announced he was leaving DEI at season’s end.
“I told them good luck and to call me if there was anything they need,” Siegel said. “Dale Jr. said, ‘Do you really mean that?' "