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Ten years later, wearing 3 gear a sign of respect

February 10, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Ten years later, wearing 3 gear a sign of respect for a driver who earned it

Dale Earnhardt hasn't been behind the wheel of his iconic No. 3 Chevrolet for nearly a decade now, but he still ranks among the annual leaders in merchandise purchased by NASCAR fans.

According to figures supplied by the NASCAR.COM Superstore, which were available from 2003 through 2010, Earnhardt never ranked lower than ninth among all drivers active and retired. He was in the top six in five of those eight years, and seventh in two of the other three.

Dale Earnhardt - 3 - A Look Back

There are or have been for sale Dale Earnhardt caps and leather jackets, Dale Earnhardt clocks and Hall of Fame T-shirts, even a Dale Earnhardt headset and scanner combo pack. There are die-cast cars by the dozens and a Dale Earnhardt 3-way recliner. They've even sold the Dale Earnhardt Bed in a Bag -- available in both twin and queen size.

The total gross sales on Earnhardt gear for the eight-year stretch? More than $7.4 million. And that's just what was sold through the NASCAR.COM Superstore, which is only one outlet for Earnhardt merchandise.

"Dale Earnhardt, No. 3. You wear gear that has that on it, and that says you know racing and you know what the sport is all about," said Joe Mattes, vice president of licensing for JR Motorsports.

Mattes said the rank and sales figures for Earnhardt within the Superstore are reflective of the NASCAR merchandising landscape as a whole. In other words, Earnhardt still sells.

"It's just a testimonial to the individual he was, and the appreciation his fans had for how he brought his pick and shovel to the sport," Mattes said. "He was what the true fan represented, and it still resonates with them. It's just a true testament to his legacy.

"You could say that 10 years later, being a Dale Earnhardt fan is still cool. When you think about it, you have other drivers who come and go -- and they're still respected -- but it's nothing like this. I mean, people still respect Darrell [Waltrip] and the Allisons and the Pearsons and all the way through. The heritage is there, but this is different."

This is different, in one very notable way, because Earnhardt died in a last-lap wreck during the 2001 Daytona 500. And yet in 2010, the seven-time Cup champion ranked seventh among all drivers -- including active ones -- in merchandise sales.

Michael Waltrip, who won that 2001 Daytona 500, said for one that he is not the least bit surprised.

"I'm not surprised at all that so much Dale merchandise still sells," Waltrip said. "The man was, and is, an American icon. There were and are still so many people that identify with him, and want to remember him in their own special ways. For some of them, that might be buying and wearing a hat or a jacket or getting one of his old die-cast cars and putting it on display at home. He has had a remarkable and lasting impact on our sport, and that's just living, tangible proof."

Mattes, who began working with Earnhardt to market the driver's merchandise in 1995, admitted that he is somewhat surprised that Earnhardt's gear continues to sell so strongly. But he added that there are obvious reasons for it.

"It's just a natural for our sport," Mattes said. "I mean, you go to other sports and you can talk about the Packers and the Steelers. You have that fan affiliation because you have fans who grew up there and that's their hometown. Our sport doesn't have those hometowns or those home games; our sport has the personalities, and that's how strong his personality was.

"It's not 'I came from Pittsburgh' or 'I came from Green Bay.' No, it's 'I came from being a Dale Earnhardt fan.' That means I'm a core fan and I'm authentic. There's nothing wrong with it if I like other drivers, but this is in respect to that man and his contributions to the sport. It's kind of cool."

Mattes said he studies merchandising in all the "stick-and-ball sports" and that the only other individuals he has seen who pack the same kind of punch in the business are Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Why Earnhardt has been able to have such a lasting impact in NASCAR is, in large part, because his reputation has remained intact and untarnished throughout the past decade -- and perhaps even grown in stature somehow with each passing year.

"The brand was true to the individual. His brand wasn't fake," Mattes said. "It was authentic. It was blue collar. It was red, white and blue. It was about good American values and guys who brought their lunch box to work. Because his brand was built like that, and because it was built on the right principles, and because he lived his brand in his actions and his words and in how he dealt with people on and off the track, it was so authentic that it didn't weather and it remains intact. He was a stud."

Mattes added that Earnhardt's induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year likely gave his brand an additional boost. Indeed, after having slipped to No. 9 on the list of merchandise sold in 2009, Earnhardt moved up two spots in 2010.

"I think the Hall of Fame is perfect for that -- for Dale and for others," Mattes said. "It's a place where you can go now and think back and say, 'Yeah, he was awesome.' It's a good time to reflect about it. And it will spur that passion and that will spur sales.

"Because you'll be walking out of the Hall and you'll be thinking about Dale and you'll think, 'Man, I remember when I had a 3 hat.' And you'll be walking out that door and you'll think, 'Hey, they've got a gift shop. Why not go and get another one? Not a bad idea.' So I think it does help a lot."

Mattes admitted that there will come a time when Earnhardt gear doesn't sell as well. But he isn't sure when that time will come.

By the Numbers

Dale Earnhardt merchandise sales figures
3 Times Earnhardt merchandise sales topped $1 million in a year: 2003, 2004 and 2006.
3Earnhardt's NASCAR Hall of Fame items among the top sellers: Hat (360 units sold) in 2009, and Flashcoat Silver die-cast (636) and twill jacket (341) in 2010.
3Items from the Earnhart and Elvis collection (die-cast, jacket and T-shirt) that made up three of the top five top-selling Earnhardt units in 2009.
5 Earnhardt items to surpass $100,000 in total sales, the highest grossing the Winston Cup Series Victory Lap Monte Carlo die-cast in 2003 ($221,895.46).
9 Earnhardt items that have sold 1,000 or more units, the best selling the Earnhardt's International Motorsports Hall of Fame T-shirt (4,965).
10Different types of Earnhardt die-casts that have been among the top sellers. They have accounted for more than &17,000 in total units sold.
13Different types of Earnhardt jackets that have been among the top sellers. They have accounted for nearly 2,500 units sold, including more than 1,000 in uniform style.
37Number of Earnhardt 3-way recliners sold in 2006, the fifth best seller of that year.
1,770Total units of Earnhardt's 10th anniversary Daytona 500 victory No. 3 die-cast in 2008. Die-casts accounted for the top three sellers that year, including the Man in Black collectible featuring Johnny Cash (1,075) and Dale and the Duke featuring Johny Wayne (789).
2,103Units sold of the Dale Earnhardt father and son Wrangler No. 3 gold set of two die-cast (1:64) in 2010, the best selling item since 2006. It's the fourth-best seller overall, ranking behind the Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 3 Earnhardt Tribute Concert Monte Carlo die-cast in 2003 (3,582).

"In due time, everything wanes," Mattes said. "But 10 years later, we're sitting here talking about this. And it's still cool to wear 3 gear? I mean, that's unbelievable. It's the ultimate authenticator to being a true NASCAR fan."