Located in a 66,000-square-foot facility in Mooresville, North Carolina, also known as “Race City USA,” is the home of JR Motorsports. For 18 years, this professional racing company has been responsible for the business, marketing and racing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. – one of NASCAR’s most popular racers.
At the heart of the business is Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports. Under her leadership, the company has won 44 series victories and had three rookie drivers win five championships in the past five years. She recently spoke with us about how NASCAR started with local families and evolved into a sport dominated by family businesses and shared her views on succession, legacy and the role of women in racing.
JR Motorsports is a family business. Tell us what it’s like to run a family business.
Our family-owned business is a little different than others because Dale Jr. and I were thrust together at an early age due to our parents’ divorce and my dad’s career. We spent so much time together as siblings, with me being the mother hen. When we lost our dad in 2001, I came to work for Dale Jr. to help him with his career and start JR Motorsports. He let me lead the business from behind the scenes, while he was the NASCAR athlete and the face of the brand.
It was the natural progression of all the caretaking that I did for both of us during our childhood. It’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid, so it doesn’t feel like I’m running a family business.
What factors associated with the family ownership model promote growth?
The family environment promotes growth because people want to carry on the legacy of those that came before them. That’s one of the reasons Dale Jr. and I wanted to have team ownership because there is the legacy of our family that we carry forth.
What are some of the challenges associated with the family ownership model?
Trying to balance the dynamic of being family-oriented versus business-focused can be challenging. Sometimes family members think that they should be treated differently or special. Having conversations, especially business conversations, that everybody may not be able to handle is another challenge.
To what do you attribute the significant percentage of family businesses in NASCAR?
Our sport is relatively young. It started in the late 1940s with the moonshine runners and evolved from there. A lot of those racers had local roots in North Carolina, and their families started the sport – the Allisons, the Pettys, the Earnhardts.
The teams are still family-oriented, but there are kids in NASCAR families that have not stayed in the business. For the sport to evolve and grow, things need to change because team owners are aging out. We’re one of the younger generations in the ownership model in our series, but there are a lot of barriers to entry to get on the Cup side that prevent us from taking that leap.
Have you thought about succession?
We have thought about succession. Our business has been changing in the past five years, but prior to that, our business was built around Dale Jr. In the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of thought into how we can keep this going if Dale Jr. is not here because he is a necessary piece of it, being the athlete.
However, our business model has been changing as the race team has taken on a life of its own. It is important that JR Motorsports stands alone without having to rely so heavily on Dale Jr., and we need to start thinking that way.
It has been reported that you were a great driver. What led you to follow a different path?
My father founded a merchandising company in 1995, when I was finishing my last year of school. I would work at the company, go to class, get off on Fridays at 2 p.m. and race. Sometimes, I would even race on Saturdays. Eventually, I had to make a choice – was I going to race or work? It was different for my brothers, Dale Jr. and Kerry, because they worked in the shops, so they were able to work on their cars and take their cars racing, while I had a regular day job.
I often heard, “Kelley, the shop isn’t a place for girls.” Even while I was racing, I was one of two girls who raced against all the men. They didn’t treat you differently because you were a girl. They didn’t give you breaks or anything like that, not that it was necessary. It was just hard. You felt that you weren’t strong enough, fast enough or good enough because you were a girl.
I wish I would have been able to drop everything for my racing career, but it wasn’t set up to be that way. Looking back, knowing that we lost our dad and that I’ve done all these things with Dale Jr. and run a business, I guess this is what it was set up for.
Have you seen more women join the racing world throughout your career?
The sport has changed, and it’s more open to women. Throughout my career, many women have worked in racing, especially in public relations and marketing roles, but not on the competition side of the business. Unfortunately, our sport is viewed from a competition angle, so you don’t see all the women who are a part of it.
There are female engineers, tire specialists and pit crew members who all travel with the road crew on the weekends. Still, those are small numbers when you think of the number of men working in our sport. If you look at the competitors, upper management or ownership, the number of women is minute. Overall, the split is about 70-30 male-to-female.