- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a freshman in high school when he figured out image is everything.

For him to be considered cool, he had to have a pair of old-school Adidas Samba Classic sneakers.

With a clean look and simple colors, the Sambas were an extension of Earnhardt’s shy, quiet personality.

“When you are in high school in Mooresville [N.C.], your shoe is your hallmark,” Earnhardt said. “What kind of shoe you have on, that’s where you stand in the chain of command. It was really important, and I thought Adidas was the best brand.”

Eighteen years later, Earnhardt still chooses his brands carefully, and Adidas again made the cut as NASCAR’s most popular driver mainstreams his endorsement portfolio. His signing last week with Adidas America on a multiyear personal services contract came just two weeks after he announced a similar deal with Sony.

Both companies are international and significantly broaden Earnhardt’s marketing image. Although he’s a superstar in America, U.S.-based sponsors Budweiser, Chevrolet and Wrangler haven’t made Earnhardt an international icon.

His new deals could help, as Earnhardt becomes just the fourth athlete to receive his own clothing line with Adidas. Also in that group? International superstar David Beckham, as well as New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush and Houston Rockets star Tracy McGrady.

“It’s a little intimidating,” admitted Earnhardt, who played soccer in high school. “I look up to Beckham and the things he’s been able to accomplish and the persona he’s built up over the years.”

Now Earnhardt has the opportunity to do the same.

He announced in May he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. and decided a month later to sign with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. The Adidas and Sony deals came right after, and the timing is not lost on anyone.

Earnhardt has spent his entire career with his late father’s race team and often found himself locked into deals the late Dale Earnhardt picked for him. That didn’t ease after the elder Earnhardt’s death in 2001 as Junior had to take over many of his father’s contracts to help DEI retain the business.

“We had all them sponsors that DEI was bringing in, whoever they wanted to work with, and they didn’t always match perfectly with me,” Earnhardt said. “And when Dad died … I had to help out to keep the contracts good. They were selling pieces of me here and there just to keep things going.

“But when I decided to cut my ties with DEI, the phones started ringing, and it was like, ‘Hey, we want to work Dale Jr.’ ”

Earnhardt suddenly had his pick of endorsement deals, and Adidas was No. 1 on the list. He had tried five years earlier to land a sneaker deal with the company for his self-owned race team, but Germany-based Adidas wasn’t interested.

The conversations resumed shortly after Earnhardt hired Thayer Lavielle, a former vice president with L’Oreal USA, to run marketing and brand development at JR Motorsports last July.

Although interested, Adidas didn’t commit until after Earnhardt decided to leave DEI at the end of this season, said Mark Clinard, business director for motorsports at Adidas America.

“Obviously you sign him because he’s enormously popular, but this focus on wanting to get better and committing to doing everything he can to win a championship just really fits perfectly with us,” Clinard said. “When people get serious about winning and make some really tough decisions like he made, it’s really a natural.”

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