If Dale Earnhardt Jr. ever wonders whether there would be life for him after DEI, all he has to do is look to Ty Norris.
Norris served as Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s vice president/director of motorsports for nearly eight years. But 16 months after leaving the post, Norris is thriving in a less pressure-packed environment as one of the principals behind the new Official NASCAR Members Club – though he still keeps tabs on his former employer.
Launched in February at Daytona, the fan-based club has quickly grown to more than 10,000 members with little publicity or advertising. And Norris hopes the membership will continue to expand.
"We're now going to start to turn on the faucet for acquisition in June and start to bring a lot more people in," said Norris, who is one of four senior vice presidents of the NMC. "Our desire is to be the largest-based affinity program ever created, and with 75 million fans to pull from, you'd think we could reach it."
The NMC is a club for fans of the sport, with a frequent flyer-style program that awards members with discounts and other special offers that, according to Norris, include deals and access traditionally reserved for those within the garage. Memberships run $40 per year, but the return on investment is immediate: in the initiation kit, members receive roughly $700 in discount coupons and offers.
"When you're sitting in the grandstands and say 'how do those people get to the driver introduction stage area,' well, this is now a channel where if you're a fan and a member, you can get the opportunity to maybe get [there] or get to go on a garage tour," Norris said. "Things that have maybe been designed for executives, now fans can do them, too.
"It's designed to get the fans closer, more informed, see things they haven't seen before and get to experience things they haven't experienced before."
While Norris realizes the NMC is a radical departure from his role at DEI – and from his subsequent 10-month stint as a vice president of Speedway Motorsports Inc. – he's at peace with himself and having a blast.
"I felt like I really had a lot of energy to give, wanted to give it to a new project, and this seemed like a good opportunity to pour some energy into because I thought my background and experience could help them," Norris said.
Had someone suggested to Norris when he left DEI that a little over a year later he'd be running what some might call a fan club, he'd have thought it unlikely. But things have worked out better than he could have expected.
For Norris, the perks of the job can't be beat. He's able to spend more time with his family and doesn't have to constantly be on the road. At the same time, Norris is still involved knee-deep in the world of NASCAR, but on his terms.
"I made a promise to myself that I was going to get involved with something that kept me home more," Norris said. "My son, in the summer he was between the second and third grades, told me the only thing I did around the house was pack. So I made a commitment that whatever I was going to do, I was going to try and reintroduce myself to my family.
"I had some opportunities with other teams right away, but again, they involved being gone 40 weekends a year. I felt that I'd paid 15 years of dues."
Those dues include helping the late Dale Earnhardt and his wife Teresa build DEI virtually from the ground up. But Norris shocked the NASCAR world when he abruptly resigned from the company on Feb. 1, 2004. That came exactly two weeks before Dale Earnhardt Jr., for whom Norris had also served as a spotter, won the Daytona 500.
During his time at DEI, the team grew into one of Cup racing's most successful organizations, with 65 event wins – including 14 in Cup competition – as well as two Busch and two Craftsman Truck championships
While he won't give specifics about why he left DEI, Norris can't help but still feel some emotional attachment to the team – particularly with the organization's current struggles, most notably with Earnhardt Jr.'s under-performing No. 8 team.
"It's really heartbreaking, to be honest with you," Norris said. "I left eight years of 24 hours a day laying on the concrete at the shop when I left. It's hard for me not to have an opinion about it. I'm disappointed they're not doing better. I still have a lot of passion for the place."
Like many observers, Norris is baffled by some of the changes that have occurred since he left, including some of the same changes bandied about while he was still there.
"Some of the things that are happening were discussed when I was there, and I didn't agree with them," Norris said. "But they felt like they had to make some changes, and I think 14 races into the season, they're discovering they now have to make changes to change their changes.
"If they slip a little more, it'll be really hard to catch up."
Norris even wishes he could help, if from a distance.
"I still lay in bed thinking about it and it's been nearly 18 months," he said. "It still consumes my every spare thought. I wish I could pick the phone up, call and say, 'How about this?' or 'Why don't you think about this?' kind of like leave an anonymous message and then hang up.
"But, obviously, they feel like they've got the right things going. I just wish I could help 'em, because it's tearing me up to watch 'em."