Things were going badly last year for Teresa Earnhardt, the tough-as-nails widow of NASCAR racing legend Dale Earnhardt, and she was looking for a hand in managing the automotive business her late husband left behind.
There was a North Carolina Chevrolet dealership, an ongoing heritage of NASCAR winners, machine shops, high-tech engine research programs and merchandising and licensing agreements for Earnhardt's name. And there were more than 200 employees to consider.
But instead of seeking help from the Charlotte, N.C., community where NASCAR lives and breeds, she turned to Detroit. Specifically, she reached out to one of the biggest names in the U.S. auto industry: John Middlebrook, the recently retired General Motors global sales and marketing chief who spent decades intertwining NASCAR with the brand names of Chevrolet and Pontiac.
"Teresa is my friend," Middlebrook said from his home in Michigan. "And of course, Dale was, too. But I couldn't take that job."
Instead, Middlebrook recommended a Detroit executive who had made a name for himself in the seemingly unrelated world of auto parts suppliers: Jeff Steiner. Steiner had come up through the marketing ranks of seating giant Johnson Controls Inc. He later stepped in to pick up the pieces at American Sunroof Corp. after the death of owner Heinz Prechter.
Middlebrook was so confident Steiner was the right man to help that he traveled with him to Dale Earnhardt Inc. offices in Mooresville, N.C., to bring Steiner and Earnhardt together.
Now, a year and a half later, Steiner is living up to Middlebrook's promise. As executive vice president and general manager under CEO Teresa Earnhardt, Steiner is helping to remake the racing company into a new phenomenon in the industry -- a name-brand NASCAR supplier.
"Being at Johnson Controls all those good years, I can tell everyone it's not so bad being a supplier," said Steiner, 45. "But we're less visible to the fans on ESPN or ABC on Sundays. And people ask, 'Are you guys still open?'
"We absolutely are," he said. "Dale Earnhardt is in racing today, but in a different way than we were in the past. We've shifted more to being a supplier to the industry."
Two new joint ventures now handle the actual competitive racing operations. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing handles drivers Juan Pablo Montoya in his #42 Target-sponsored car and Jamie McMurray in his #1 Bass Pro car. And Earnhardt-Childress Racing Technologies LLC has become the source of engines and technologies for the sport.