Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fan demand makes Earnhardt's new adidas clothing the iPhone of NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -A half hour before the doors to the store open, the line stretches to nearly 100 people. Fans are working themselves into a frenzy, dancing awkwardly for the chance to win free T-shirts and chanting their favorite driver's name over and over.

You folks know Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't actually here, right?

"We've already seen him,'' Earnhardt fan Krystle Forsythe said, standing at the front of the line. "We've been stalking him all week.''

Welcome to Juniorpalooza, a celebration of NASCAR's most popular driver that's sure to put cash registers in high gear.

Friday morning marked the formal launch of Earnhardt's new signature line of clothing from sportswear manufacturer adidas, combining Junior's sense of style with adidas' familiar three-stripe pattern.

Earnhardt is only the fourth athlete to receive his own personal line with adidas, joining David Beckham, the NFL's Reggie Bush and the NBA's Tracy McGrady.

Judging by the scene outside the Sports Authority store across the street from Daytona International Speedway on Friday, the new clothing line could become the racing equivalent to Apple's iPhone or Nintendo's Wii.

"Well, it's more important to me, because I don't have either of those,'' said 23-year-old Forsythe.

She and her mother, Diana Brock, flew all the way down from Collingwood, Ontario, to attend Sunday's Daytona 500.

And if that wasn't enough of a show of loyalty to their favorite driver - who's "just funny and he can drive really good,'' according to Forsythe - they also lined up early to get first crack at Earnhardt's new souvenir line.

How early?

Try 10:30 Thursday night.

"We're from Canada, so we won't be able to get this stuff for a while,'' Forsythe said.

Among the huddled masses yearning for the chance to buy a new Dale Jr. hat, T-shirt or track jacket were Junior fans of all ages, sizes and shapes, ready to pounce on their first chance to buy clothing that their favorite driver not only endorses, but helped design himself.

The result is a line of clothing that breaks away from the loud colors and gaudy sponsor logos that have become standard practice in NASCAR clothing.

"He knows what these guys want,'' says Mark Clinard, head of U.S. sports and motorsports for adidas. "It's going to look different, and it's going to feel different. And that's a reflection of Dale Jr.''

What are their sales expectations?

"We are new to this,'' Clinard said. "So how big is big? We don't know. But the interesting part is, our retailers are fighting for the product. We are making it as fast as we can.''

Among the items still to come are replicas of the driving shoes Earnhardt wears. The company even is considering selling the same fireproof suit Earnhardt will wear in his car - an item that could cost more than $2,000 and has no discernible practical use to someone who doesn't drive race cars for a living.

But that's down the road. For now, fans are gobbling up the new gear.

Once inside, fans gobbled up rack after rack of merchandise that filled nearly the entire front half of the store.

Earnhardt fan John Starks came out with a big bag of gear and didn't even bother to look at his receipt.

A 49-year-old history teacher from Seattle, Starks got into NASCAR because he loves cars and speed.

And Junior.

"It started with Dale Earnhardt Sr., and the apple didn't fall far from the tree,'' he said.

Starks, who is black, would like to see more minority fans come to the racetrack.

"I've always been involved in this sport since I was knee-high to a tumbleweed, because I loved cars and speed,'' Starks said. "Kids nowadays, they want to be like Jordan and all those other big name stars in those sports. If you ask me, I'd like to be like Dale Earnhardt Jr. I'd like to drive one of those cars. And I think I'd drive the wheels off of it, just as good as he can.''

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