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NASCAR fans scooping up merchandise commemorating Dale Earnhardt Jr #3
Combine one of NASCAR’s biggest names with one of its most recognizable paint schemes from the past and you’ve got licensing gold.

Merchandise commemorating Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retro No. 3 Wrangler car is flying off the virtual shelves. The Wrangler machine honoring Earnhardt’s late father won’t appear on the track until the July 2 Nationwide Series race at Daytona, but the die-cast cars, T-shirts, hats and trinkets have been selling since the April 29 announcement.

Gear from the No. 3 Wrangler car, which will run once this season as a special paint scheme, likely will wind up as one of the biggest sellers of the year. In the first five days on the market after the April announcement, Wrangler No. 3 goods were responsible for 52 percent of all licensed sales.

Some of the products offered, which include nearly 30 different items, feature the image of Earnhardt Sr. along with his son.

Since the announcement, Wrangler No. 3 merchandise has accounted for eight of the top 10 best-selling items at NASCAR’s most prominent online merchandise store and has led all other driver categories in sales. Within 36 hours of the announcement, the store sold out of its second-highest-priced item, a special die-cast car that came in a limited edition of 333, priced at $89.99.

Initial projections from the licensees forecast close to $5 million in retail sales in a very tight program centered on the NASCAR Hall of Fame inductions on Sunday and Father’s Day.

Royalties are shared by three teams: Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports, which initiated the idea and is building the car; Richard Childress Racing, which owns the rights to the No. 3 in NASCAR; and Dale Earnhardt Inc., the organization that manages Earnhardt Sr.’s image and likeness.

Merchandise is available trackside through Motorsports Authentics.

“There’s always some back-of-the-brain concerns about how a program will go, but clearly the fans have been very responsive,” said Mike Brown, RCR’s vice president of licensing.

Because of the rights issues, it took the combined efforts of those three organizations to recreate the yellow and blue car that Earnhardt Sr. made famous while driving it from 1981 to 1987. During that stint, Earnhardt Sr. was the lead in Wrangler’s “One Tough Customer” ad campaign, giving root to the relationship between the jeans maker and the Earnhardt family that’s in its 30th year.

Wrangler maintains a personal-services agreement with Earnhardt Jr. and uses him heavily in its advertising, but it has not previously appeared as a primary sponsor on a car from Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports.

“We went into the season with some unsponsored cars, and the message from Dale was to do something that’s meaningful with partners that have been good to us,” said Joe Mattes, vice president of licensing and marketing at JRM. “Dale said he’d do this if it was about his dad. If we were just going to paint the car, he didn’t want to do it. With Senior going into the Hall of Fame this year, it made sense to honor him.”

In order to assemble the rights necessary, JRM needed cooperation from RCR and DEI.

Mattes worked with Kelley Earnhardt, Dale Jr.’s sister and JRM’s general manager, to pitch the theme of “Family. Honor. Tradition,” which was presented to Wrangler and the other teams.

“With Dale’s induction this year, plus a chance to do something with a 30-year sponsor, that’s what made this special,” said Jeff Steiner, executive vice president at DEI. “It took all three teams coming together and working in a nontraditional way to make this happen.”

Earnhardt Jr. had not had anything to do with DEI, his former place of employment, since his messy and contentious departure in 2007, when he left the DEI shop to drive for Hendrick Motorsports.

The biggest challenge to the Wrangler deal was getting Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother, Teresa, to agree to work together. Teresa Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s widow, runs DEI, and her split with Earnhardt Jr. in 2007 was the start of DEI’s downfall as a race team. DEI later merged what was left of the race operations with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Teresa said it was about a tribute to Dale,” Steiner said. That they got together on a deal “probably surprised some people. I’m sure it raised a few eyebrows, but it was fully supported by her. Teresa has been very engaged.” JRM serves as the licenser of record, with royalties flowing through the team and then dispersed to DEI and RCR.

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