It is far more difficult than people assume for most athletes to launch their own businesses once they retire from sports.
Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. is doing it just fine a year after retiring: He co-owns the JR Motorsports racing team; he does broadcast commentary on NBC; and he opened a restaurant called Dale Jr.’s Whisky River in Charlotte, N.C.
Nevertheless, Earnhardt knows the daunting task athletes face when trying to launch their second career.
“It’s like trying to figure out if you can create the Foreman Grill,” Earnhardt says. “George Foreman has the Foreman Grill, and that’s what every athlete or entrepreneur wants to do, is find their Foreman Grill. So we’ve started up a lot of stuff, and a lot of it is still going, and some of it didn’t work. Now that I’m not driving, I can focus a lot more time into those businesses.”
‘I’m a little nervous’
It may be hard to believe that anything could make Dale Earnhardt Jr. “nervous,” but that’s how the Nascar legend, who retired from racing last year, felt about inadvertently becoming “the spokesman for concussions in our sport.”
Earnhardt’s new book, “Racing to the Finish,” focuses on the many head injuries he sustained during his racing career, and includes private notes he wrote to himself on his iPhone when he was suffering symptoms after concussions.
“I’m a little nervous about how my peers feel about it,” he told Yahoo Finance in a candid interview at AOL Build Studio last week. “There’s this worry that once you’ve had a head injury … you’re labeled as damaged goods. You don’t want it to be who you are, it’s just something that happened to you.”
Luckily, Earnhardt’s advocacy for concussion awareness in auto-racing is having a positive impact: He says his specialist, Dr. Micky Collins at the University of Pittsburgh, has told him that a number of patients who have come to see Collins lately are telling him Earnhardt is the reason they’ve come in.
‘My saving grace, my big break’
Earnhardt is unlikely to face any backlash from his comments on head injuries. He is one of the most recognizable professional athletes in America. The “partners” section of Earnhardt’s website is a sampling of the best-known consumer brands in America: Chevrolet; Goodyear; Nationwide; Pepsico and more.
In fact, Earnhardt tells Yahoo Finance that a partnership with Budweiser early in his career was pivotal to his success. “My saving grace, my big break, was being partnered with Budweiser,” he says. “That changed my whole life—the trajectory, the awareness of my profile and brand, exploded when I got the chance to do Rolling Stone, MTV Cribs.”
At this point, Earnhardt is clearly among the select group of athletes who can continue to command big endorsement money to appear in advertising long after they retire from their sport: Peyton Manning; Shaquille O’Neal; Charles Barkley; Michael Strahan; and Danica Patrick are examples.
Earnhardt’s advice to younger Nascar drivers, and to any young athletes, is to seize as many relevant opportunities as possible — and partner only with brands they actually buy.
“When I would say, ‘I like Nationwide Insurance, you should buy it,’ well, I’ve been a customer since I was 16. Wrangler jeans has been in my drawer or in my closet since I was a little boy. My dad had a Wrangler partnership and we weren’t allowed to wear nothing but Wrangler jeans when I was a kid… Being authentic is important.”
Listen below to the full interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.