Nestled in a garage at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a makeshift set provides the backdrop for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s latest commercial shoot for the Nationwide Insurance “Join the Nation” campaign.
Despite the bright lights and production crew buzzing around behind the scenes, Junior nails his lines on the third take.
“He’s a natural,” a producer says from behind the camera.
While the camera loves the naturally introverted, yet affable, driver, Junior wasn’t always so comfortable in the limelight. He doesn’t remember his first commercial shoot, only that he was initially “really, really nervous.”
“After a couple of years,” Earnhardt said, “I realized that the same companies used the same directors and same production company and group, so every time we shoot a Nationwide commercial, it’s the same group, and I get this rapport with those people and get real comfortable around them.
“They do a good job of making you feel like you’re doing a good job and making you feel comfortable. If it weren’t the same people every year, then I’d be nervous — I’m shy anyways, and I’m real nervous around people I don’t know. But every time we do a Nationwide shoot, it’s the same group, and every time we do a Wrangler shoot, it’s the same group. It’s the same people every year. So it’s kind of fun to see everybody.”
Earnhardt heard that NFL personality John Madden had his own company to produce commercials for the products he endorsed, “to gain a little bit of creative control, continuity and consistency in how things looked.”
With his portfolio continuing to grow, the driver felt it would be beneficial for him to do the same.
“I just thought it was a great idea,” Earnhardt said. “We did enough commercials, just on my own, that we could justify creating a production company, as long as we had a certain volume of commercials we shot every year . . . We felt like we could keep that going (and) if we were fortunate or lucky enough, we’d start getting other work. And we’ve been able to do that.”
So, in 2004 he started his own production company, Hammerhead Entertainment, on his farm 40 miles north of Charlotte to retain creative control over his projects, starting with “Back in the Day” for the SPEED network and “Unrestricted with Dale Jr.” for XM Radio.
“We did that for three years and produced over 120 shows,” said J.R. Rhodes, director of entertainment for JR Motorsports. “As we began to expand our business plan, we realized we had to relocate to provide our services to other clients other than Dale Jr.-related.
“We moved into a 10,000-square-foot studio in Mooresville (the original site of JRM) and added three HD editing suites,” as well as equipment for film production, photography and audio recording.
Rhodes has worked with the Earnhardt family since 1994. He handled public relations for Dale Earnhardt Sr. during the GM Goodwrench days, then moved into a similar role with Junior at Dale Earnhardt Inc. before taking over duties for Hammerhead and the driver’s Whisky River nightclubs in Charlotte and Jacksonville, Fla.
Hammerhead worked closely with the Columbus, Ohio-based Engauge marketing agency and fellow production company No Smoke on the recent series of Nationwide commercials. But Hammerhead’s portfolio has stretched to include Fortune 500 companies, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, fellow competitors and their sponsors, as well other sports.
“We did some work with the Pro Bull Riders Association,” Earnhardt said. “The IRL used us once for one of their commercials; Kasey Kahne’s group. We shoot all kinds of drivers over there now. Denny (Hamlin) and all of them guys are over there shooting their stuff for the start of the year, so it’s working out.”
Although the Earnhardt name is certainly a drawing card for Hammerhead, Junior believes the company has built its own reputation by the body of work it creates.
“That’s what kind of carries it now,” Earnhardt said. “If it wasn’t a good space, as far as our building, and wasn’t a good space to use and wasn’t a fun space to be in, and we didn’t do good work, and our finished product wasn’t good, we wouldn’t be able to stick around this long.
“J.R. (Rhodes) and those guys (at JR Motorsports) have a good group together, and they’re learning the ropes on their own. There’s some tough competition out there with NASCAR . . . they do a lot of stuff that we’d love to be doing, so we compete for different jobs, and it’s kind of fun.”
Hammerhead recently bested NASCAR to produce videos for displays at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a coup that Earnhardt described as “great.”
“Our bid got picked up, and we’ve been having a great relationship with them. So it’s kind of fun. There’s a little competition there, and I’m enjoying that part. I’m enjoying trying to become more successful as far as our production company goes.”
Other Hammerhead projects include producing an interview with pop singer Katy Perry in conjunction with Charlotte radio station KISS 95.1’s renowned Gravediggers Ball; sit-down interviews with WWE wrestlers such as Nikita Koloff, Magnum T.A, and Sgt. Slaughter; a video piece with Dee Snider of the rock band Twisted Sister; and behind-the-scenes footage for Shaquille O’Neal’s reality-TV show “Shaq Vs.”
Earnhardt’s understanding of the production process has increased his confidence considerably. His stage fright now is nonexistent, which is a bonus for clients, as well.
“It is unbelievably easy to work with Dale,” said Nationwide Insurance’s chief marketing officer, Matt Jauchius, who appears in a commercial with Earnhardt. “When he shows up, he’s relaxed, he’s authentic.
“It’s just him. What you see is what you get. That authenticity is the critical part of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s brand. That’s part of the Nationwide Insurance brand, and that’s why it works so well for us both.”
Earnhardt’s “authenticity,” which makes him so endearing to his sponsor, is the same quality that has led fans to vote him NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver nine of the 16 years he’s been on the circuit. After the 2001 death of his father, a seven-time Cup champion, Junior’s popularity escalated dramatically as he inherited many of Senior’s fans.
And that fan base has remained loyal to Earnhardt because of his believability. The Budweiser “True” campaign was custom-made for Junior. No one would ever doubt that Bud poured freely from the taps at Club E in the basement of his house.
Nor do fans or potential clients question the Earnhardt-Nationwide relationship, which spans more than three decades. Jauchius said focus groups use the words “genuine, real, authentic and approachable” to describe the driver. And, Jauchius added, focus-group participants often say, “You know, Dale feels like a friend I could just talk to.”
Not surprisingly, that familiarity has paid off in new business for the insurance giant. Nationwide saw a 40-percent increase in trackable sales in 2011 as a result of its NASCAR promotions and estimates its association with the stock-car circuit generated $3 million in media value in the first quarter of 2012.
When Earnhardt describes his initial lesson in Insurance 101, after flipping his Red S-10 pickup truck — the first vehicle he purchased and insured on his own — on his way to "Meemaw's house" for a Christmas Day family reunion, one can visualize the anxious call he made to his father.
"I had to call my dad at the reunion and tell him where I was," Earnhardt said. "He came and pulled the truck out of the ditch on a flatbed truck and took it back to the shop. He wasn’t too upset, because he had had the same accident when he was about that same age, so he kind of laughed a little bit.
"I learned a lot about insurance and was thankful to have it at the time, because I was able to get back on the highway and have the vehicle back in a couple of days."
Nearly two decades later, the last thing Earnhardt expected to be doing is selling insurance. But his life experiences as a racer, car owner and aspiring entertainment mogul have served him well.
“The Nationwide brand is easy to sell, because we’ve been involved with them for so long,” said Earnhardt, who has memories of his family’s dealings with the insurance company going back 30 years.
“We have a similar relationship with Wrangler, in the fact that it’s been around me my whole life. So it’s real easy for me to get up there and want people to become customers, because I have such a relationship with the company myself, such an appreciation for it, anyways.
“I feel like, when I’m talking, I’m saying what I believe. It’s not like I have to get out of my comfort zone at all. When I’m up there talking about Nationwide and Wrangler and other partners like that, it comes real natural. It comes real easy.”
Yep, he’s a natural, all right.