Today marks the 15th anniversary of the passing of racing legend, Dale Earnhardt Sr. While most people will remember the aggressive driving that earned him the nickname “The Intimidator,” my memory took me in a different direction as it revisited some of Earnhardt’s history.
As a fan of sports car racing and sneakers, I’ve always kept a close eye on the footwear that people wear around the track. Although NASCAR has never been my thing, aside from major races like Daytona and Indy, or those seemingly rare occasions that they find their way to a road course, it’s a huge part of racing in America. And to be completely honest, the business of NASCAR is something that appeals to me. It’s the driving in circles that I can only find entertaining a few times a year. With that in mind, it seems like a lot Nike’s involvement in racing gets overlooked by the sneaker community and news outlets in general in the United States, even though they’ve been involved in racing that’s popular in the US like Nascar, and around the globe, like Formula 1.
In modern-day sports car racing, like the FIA World Endurance Challenge, a handful of teams are sponsored by adidas (see the rear wing on the Porsches above) and Under Armour. It’s not a major sponsorship but as the saying goes, every little bit counts. So I’m glad to see the logos of any footwear company supporting racing. On a bigger scale, PUMA and adidas have much broader partnerships with Formula 1 teams like Ferrari, Porsche, and BMW but signature footwear is noticeably missing.
That said, because of Nike’s lack of sponsorship in modern-day motorsports, it may come as a surprise to some that the Swoosh once sponsored the two most important people in racing back in the late ’90s. That’s right, both Dale Earnhardt and Michael Schumacher had their own Nike racing shoes in 1996. To put this into perspective, Dale Earnhardt won 76 Winston Cup races and seven NASCAR Winston Cup titles over his 20 year career (tied with Richard Petty for the most ever). Michael Schumacher won 91 races and seven titles in 18 years behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car. Essentially, Nike had the Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant of racing signed to deals at the same time to start their “Nike Racing” business. So what happened?
It’s not like people stopped going racing. In fact, NASCAR grew in popularity until around 2007 according to The Score. Formula 1 viewership peaked in 2008, before slowly declining regularly in the last few years. But Nike’s involvement in racing was reduced to almost nothing well over ten years ago. Unless of course, you consider Michael Jordan Motorsports and the motorcycle racing, but those riders didn’t wear Jordan footwear — for the most part it was Alpinestars from the very beginning back in 2003. Perhaps Nike just had the foresight to know they shouldn’t be involved in motorsports, or maybe it was a bad experience with the athletes?
Looking back at how it was approached, Michael Schumacher’s partnership with Nike was what you would expect from a signature athlete. It included a big press event in Germany in 1996 to launch his signature racing model the Nike Air Zoom Schu (pictured above). Over the next few years special editions from Nike Training emerged like the Zoom Turf Schumacher edition (below) featuring Schumacher’s signature stitched into the midfoot strap and the iconic Ferrari red color scheme.
The Nike Air Super Zoom (pictured below) was even done up in a Michael Schumacher edition, which pops up on Japanese auction sites from time to time. But beyond the appeal to race fans, these are both colorways that could easily sell as general releases at your local Foot Locker. However, Dale Earnhardt’s partnership was much different than Schumacher’s.
According to this SB Nation story, Dale Earnhardt gave away one of only two pairs made of his Nike racing shoes in 1996 to then Texas Motor Speedway President, Eddie Gossage. It obviously turned out to be a bad idea because the shoes and a race suit Earnhardt wore for his first test laps at the track were later stolen from Gossage’s closet. The Intimidator was slightly older than Schumacher but still at or near the top of Winston Cup racing. Despite his age, he was still winning. But by the year 2000, Earnhardt was no longer wearing Nike.
Interestingly enough, Nike had jumped into racing sponsorships in a big way around the same time by sponsoring NASCAR drivers Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, Busch Grand National Series’ Adam Petty, and two-time Indy 500 and CART series champion Al Unser Jr to start the 2000 racing season. As their initial press release read, “Nike Racing focuses on the humans in and around the machine, helping them perform at the peak of their ability by providing quality footwear designed for their unique athletic requirements.” That explains the lack of Swoosh on any of the NASCAR cars associated with Nike sponsored teams. In hindsight, this is probably the failing point of the partnership between Nike Racing and its sponsored teams.
By 2001, Nike had released the Zoom Pro Drive (seen above), which met the standards of racing sanctioning bodies with its flame retardant design. The shoe was worn mostly by pit crew members. The Zoom Pro Drive is actually one of the most impressive designs when it comes to driving shoes. Who else would incorporate the fire-retardant Nomex liner into the aesthetics of the design? This is why Nike is consistently winning and why we expect nothing less from the brand. What you wouldn’t expect is for Nike not to be successful in a genre of footwear, especially with their successful track record of jumping into new sports over the years like basketball, training, skateboarding, Crossfit, etc.
Well, when it comes to Formula 1 racing, there is an explanation for the Swoosh’s short lived foray into Nike Racing footwear. According to World of Speed, in 2002 FILA bought the rights to the Ferrari team’s apparel and footwear. Even so, Schumacher requested that FILA model their new footwear off of the Nike design, which was being handmade in Beaverton for Schumacher at the time. FILA obliged with the design seen below and not long after, by 2003, Nike was no longer involved in Formula 1.
As for NASCAR and Nike, the occasional pair of new old stock Nike Air Sub 18.0’s or a pair worn by one of the pit crews pops up on eBay, but the rest of the Nike Racing story remains swept under the rug. If the Nike Racing unit was done away with in 2003 that means the most popular years of racing in NASCAR and Formula 1, from 2003-2007, had no partnership with the most popular brand in the world at the time. That seems like a missed opportunity on both sides as far as business goes.
As a fan of both racing and sneakers, I can’t help but wonder what could have been. I’m also thankful I got to see both Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Michael Schumacher perform at their best, even if it was from the comfort of my couch in my Nikes.