Kelley Earnhardt-Miller the driving force behind brother’s success
There are very few wasted moments in Kelley Earnhardt-Miller’s life.
Whether she’s in the boardroom negotiating million-dollar sponsorships or perched in a deer stand at daybreak, the oldest daughter of racing legend Dale Earnhardt knows only one speed.
“Life is all about that dash in between – from time you’re born until you die,” she said.
She is a lot of things to a lot of people: a co-owner of JR Motorsports, a trusted sister to Dale Earnhardt Jr., a wife, a mother of two – with another one due by Friday, a racer and shrewd businesswoman.
But more than anything else, she’s an Earnhardt.
Unlike her father and younger brother, Earnhardt-Miller generally avoids the public’s eye. She rarely goes to the race track, but she’s a regular at school functions, as well as Madison Avenue. But like her father and younger brother, she refuses to be defined solely by financial windfalls and race wins.
“That’s not what my dad wanted,” she said. “It’s not about winning; it’s about not compromising who you are. That’s something we don’t do. We are who we are and we don’t compromise that.
“Our dad would be proud.”
Earnhardt Jr. has been voted as the most popular driver in the Sprint Cup Series for nine consecutive years. He sells more souvenirs than any other driver, and the demands of his time are overwhelming. The only person who keeps him on track is his sister.
She negotiates most of his deals. Whether it’s for their No. 7 and No. 88 Nationwide Series Chevrolets or picking a buffalo wing recipe for their Whiskey River restaurants, Earnhardt-Miller has complete authority to promote her brother’s brand.
“I was always the caretaker for anything he needed,” Earnhardt-Miller said. “I was always the mother hen.
“He leans on me to do all the front-end work. We’ve been like that since we were kids. We formed that kind of trust when we were kids. Sometimes that makes it tough because sometimes he doesn’t want to lend as much opinion as I might need.”
With so many people pulling from so many directions, Earnhardt Jr. has learned to trust very few people. Everything he has, from his current driving contract with Hendrick Motorsports, to his businesses and souvenir sales, first goes through Earnhardt-Miller. If she thinks it’s a good deal, he generally agrees without going through the details.
It’s a trust that started long before he ran his first race.
They were the children of Dale Earnhardt’s second of three wives. They lived with their mother in Virginia before returning to North Carolina to be closer to their father, but they were sent to military school. He remained at Oak Ridge Military Academy after she went away to college.
“We learned to grow up fast,” she said. “We became what I call a survivor.”
And she’s still taking care of her little brother.
“I really don't get involved in my negotiations too much because I'm too nice," Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer last year. “I had to send my sister in there because she is a shark about it. I just want everybody to be happy and everybody to go on down the road and get back to work and move in the right direction and all that good stuff.
“If I had to jump in there, I really don’t know if I could put up the fight. I’m just not that kind of guy and would likely come out with the short end of the stick, so I’m probably glad I’ve got her around.”
The business world has a different view of her. They are impressed with her direct approach and her honest business savvy.
“She is the most impressive businesswoman we’ve ever worked with,” said Daniel Eubanks, the assistant director of growth for Rhodes Financial Services and TaxSlayer.com. “She has an incredible ability to look at both sides of a deal. She’s extremely honest and she won’t do something unless it works for both sides.
“Everyone out there is ready to take you money. That’s not what they’re about.”
While she has a degree in business administration, most of her decisions involve “your gut feelings.” It’s not a perfect plan – their Alabama Motorsports Park and Infield Parking social network didn’t pan out – but it’s one that continues to make them one of the most-successful business people in all of sports.
They will have Danica Patrick in one of their cars this year running for the Nationwide Series championship – a move that certainly will elevate the company brand to new levels.
“She’s got some strong blood in her, for sure,” Patrick said.
According to Forbes, Earnhardt Jr. made $28.5 million in salary and endorsements last year. That’s not bad for someone who hasn’t won a Sprint Cup Series races since 2008 – a winless streak of 129 races.
“There’s a lot of talk about him not winning,” Earnhardt-Miller said. “In all honesty, that’s not what my dad wanted. He wanted us to be happy; he wanted us to be true to ourselves.”
Her most cherished memories of her father usually don’t include race wins or championships. What she remembers most is the man he was and how he made other people feel.
“I hope we do the same,” she said.
She found a quote recently and she posted it on her Facebook page. She believes it says it best:
“Work for a cause, not for applause. Live life to express, not to impress. Don’t strive to make your presence noticed, just make your absence felt.”
While not wasting any time in the dash called life.