In the Driver’s Seat: Kelley Earnhardt Miller, Co-Owner of JR Motorsports, Talks NASCAR and Legacy

August 06, 2019
In our feature article, we sit down with Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports, to discuss how NASCAR started with local families and evolved into a sport dominated by family businesses. She spoke to us about her views on succession, legacy and the role of women in racing.

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.

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. 

Are you surprised that there aren’t more female racers?

It shocks me that there aren’t more women in the driver’s seat. Danica Patrick was here for a bit. She wanted to race NASCAR. We lobbied hard for her to come to JR Motorsports and race for us. There are other female racers out there that can competitively get it done.

With our sport being based on sponsorships, you would think that there would be more female racers. It’s surprising to me that the relationship between sponsors and female drivers has not blossomed more. There are a lot of women racing in the lower series – Saturday Night Racing. But it takes sponsorships and money, obviously, to get into one of these cars. Women make the majority of household buying decisions. I don’t know why the companies haven’t put that together and gone after it with their sponsorship dollars. They’re missing an opportunity to drive female participation and reach a target audience.

In 2002, JR Motorsports competed locally. Now, the team has won three championships and 44 series victories. Tell us about this journey of going from a one-person driver and shop to where you are today.

When we got involved in racing, we were asked: What is the vision? What do you want to do? We wanted to race model series. While we were doing that, Dale Jr. said, “Why don’t we try to put a Busch car together?” When we did that in 2006, it was much easier. I can’t imagine having that idea now and doing it, because the cars are more sophisticated, and the resources and people you need to put it together are more complex. But we did it then, so I guess it could be duplicated now.

It seemed that every year an opportunity that made good business sense presented itself. We’re running numbers all day long, and they tell the true story about what we can and can’t do. Being a four-car team is the best for us financially – we can spread out our overhead. Once we made an investment to be a four-car team, we had the cars, equipment, parts and pieces that we needed to compete. As long as we have the sponsorships to run four cars, it makes sense to keep doing it.

It’s all about winning, so we have put everything in place and focus on winning races and championships. We have a good group of people, and that’s how we get it all done, but there’s no road map.

Dale Jr. always wanted to give drivers a chance to show their talent and move to the next level. That is the premise of why we do this and what we build on with the younger kids that are in here driving. We have veterans too because you need them both to make it all work. We want to see people succeed. That’s what continues to drive us.

It's all about winning, so we have put everything in place and focus on winning races and championships. We have a good group of people, and that's how we get it all done, but there's no road map. 

How important is it that your personal values are aligned with your business’s values?

I can’t imagine running my business different from how I run my life. Whether in business or my personal life, I can only operate by making good, strong moral and ethical decisions. I know there are people out there that treat the two differently, and it baffles me that they can make decisions that way. I can’t come to work and stand in front of our employees and ask them to do a job for me that I can’t come in here and do myself.

I think that it’s very important that personal values and business values align. I would think that for most people they do. It is just the matter of whether they’re positive or negative.

You probably go about your business the same way you go about raising your family and living your life and being who you are, in a positive way. I think that there are people out there who negatively do that as well. I think the way you make decisions reflects who you are at the core. I can’t imagine running our business any differently.

Now that your brother, Dale Jr., is off the racing track, will he be more involved in the business?

I’ve learned that the pressure of racing was so intense for Dale Jr., it was all he could focus on. In the last year, he’s been more involved in conversations about the business because now he has the mental capacity to think about it. He loves it. He’s involved in the studio, and that’s something that he would have never been able to participate in while racing. It’s nice to have him involved in decisions from the beginning and to create something with his thoughts and vision along the way. It is energizing for me because I have been responsible for 99.99% of things that have gone on in our business for a long time.

What is your vision for the future of JR Motorsports?

I hope that we can continue to do what we’re doing and to race. It’s more difficult every year from the standpoint of sponsorships and financially making it all go around.

What Dale Jr. and I enjoy about being in the XFINITY Series is seeing these guys achieve things that get them to the next level. It’s not just our drivers; it’s our crew chiefs and our engineers. We have a lot of turnover, in a good way, where people go on to strengthen and grow their careers.

As long as we get enjoyment out of it and maintain this family environment, we’ll be here for as long as it financially makes sense. That’s what we get out of it – we get that sense of family and the reward of providing opportunities for others to succeed.

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