In a small converted study on the first floor of his home, underneath a “Dale Earnhardt Boulevard” sign, Brent Schadel cradles a model car in his hands. “This was my first piece,” he says of the Monte Carlo replica. “This started it all.”
The room has the feel of a shrine. Since buying that first die-cast car about five years ago, Schadel, 38, and his wife, Jolena, 36, have packed the study and garage of their home in Independence, Ky., with a cache of NASCAR memorabilia that surely ranks among the largest and most impressive private collections in America.
The Schadels’ miniature museum includes more than 200 die-cast cars featuring every driver on the Winston Cup circuit, plus bobble-head dolls, posters, caps, sponsor signs, and several tires used in NASCAR races. One of their most unusual pieces is the trunk from the car driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. during his rookie year, which dangles from a chain in the garage, where the Schadels park their twin Dale Earnhardt Sr. limited edition Monte Carlos.
Most of the items celebrate the accomplishments of the elder Earnhardt, the hard-charging, aggressive driver nicknamed “The Intimidator,” who captured a record-tying seven Winston Cup championships and became one of the most revered sports figures of his time before a crash at Daytona International Speedway killed him last year.
A life-size cardboard cutout of The Intimidator guards the door to the study, a rug bearing No. 3—Earnhardt’s number—lies beneath, a replica of his Chevrolet engine dominates a nearby shelf, and the computer resting on a desk at the opposite end of the room features an Earnhardt memorial screen saver. Loyalty extends even to their dog Chumbley. He sports an Intimidator collar.
“I actually started out as a Jeff Gordon fan,” says Schadel, wearing a long-sleeve red Earnhardt Goodwrench shirt, one of about two dozen he owns. “But it was my wife who got me interested in Earnhardt. The more I learned about him, the more I liked him. I really started identifying with him as a person. Nothing was given to him. He worked hard for everything, and he raced to win every time he got on the track. When you think about it, he’s the American dream.”
Stock car racing, which traces its roots to primitive dirt tracks in the years before World War II, lingered in the shadows of American sport for decades, confined mostly to the rural South.
But in recent years, thanks largely to television, the top-level NASCAR Winston Cup circuit has exploded in popularity, becoming the nation’s fastest-growing sport while attracting a geographically diverse, increasingly upscale audience.
“In so many ways, Brent is typical of the new-age NASCAR fan,” says his friend, Bob Schmitt, who hosts a racing show on Cincinnati radio station WLW-AM. “He’s the weekend warrior who will take vacation time to go to the races at Daytona. He’ll spend part of his paycheck on some new collectible.
“He’ll bypass a big baseball or football game on TV to watch a Winston Cup race,” Schmitt says. “He just goes to more of an extreme in collecting than your average NASCAR fan. He wasn’t satisfied buying a few pieces. He had to have his own museum.”
‘A real bond’
Schadel, a salesman in nearby Cincinnati, followed NASCAR as a boy growing up in Norwood, Ohio, but mostly from a distance. By the time he and Jolena met and started dating, he was a serious fan who watched all the races on television.
NASCAR became a shared passion. “It’s been a real bond for us,” says Jolena. “It keeps us close.”
Two years after they married and settled in Independence, Jolena bought him Charlotte race tickets for Christmas. From that first experience, they both were hooked. In recent years, the Schadels have used vacation time to travel back to Charlotte as well as to races in Indianapolis, Ind.; Daytona, Fla.; Bristol, Tenn.; and Homestead, Fla.
Indeed, it was on a trip to Charlotte that they first saw one of those limited edition Monte Carlos. “We just had to have one,” Jolena says. “And then we just had to have a second one.”
Schadel, like many of NASCAR’s devotees, gravitated to stock car racing because its athletes—the drivers—are people with whom he could identify. “NASCAR isn’t a place for prima donnas,” Schadel says. “The average person can relate to NASCAR drivers, who don’t seem so spoiled. And they have to earn it every week.”
Stock car racing also tantalizes the American public because most drive and plenty like to go fast. But Schadel insists he doesn’t like to put the pedal to the metal—at least not in real life. “To tell you the truth, I drive like an old lady,” he says. “She’s the lead foot,” he adds, pointing to his wife, sitting across the kitchen table.
Still, Schadel, as with many NASCAR fans, couldn’t help but wonder what it’s like to zoom toward the finish line at Talladega pushing 200 mph. That’s a big part of the sport’s attraction.
So two years ago, thanks to another Christmas present from his wife, he took the wheel of a Winston Cup-style car for 10 laps around a new speedway in Kentucky, reaching more than 120 mph as he followed a pace car. He came away from the experience with even greater appreciation for his heroes.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like having 43 guys out there all doing 180-190 mph for 400 or 500 miles,” he says. “You can’t tell me that doesn’t take great athletic skill, to keep up that level of concentration. I couldn’t do it. No way.”
With all the Winston Cup races televised nationally and a growing number of television and radio shows, magazines, and Internet sites devoted to NASCAR, it’s easy for the Schadels to feed their hunger for racing. But nothing matches actually being there, hearing the whine of the engines and feeling the crowd’s energy, Schadel says.
“You can’t truly understand and appreciate NASCAR until you’ve seen a race at the track,” says Schadel, who now pulls for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. “It’s such an event. I love everything about it: the smell, the sound.”
“And, of course, the shopping,” Jolena interjects with a laugh.
Schadel smiles. “She gives me a hard time because I like to get there at the crack of dawn to make the rounds of the [souvenir] trailers, so I can see what they have new.”
Most of it already is in their home. “It’s getting tough for him to find something he doesn’t already have,” says daughter Katy, 13, who occasionally makes NASCAR pilgrimages with her parents. “Oh, I have a list,” Schadel replies. “I always have a list.”
Schadel never really intended to become a NASCAR collector. He bought his first die-cast car because it was sponsored by one of his company’s clients. That led to another, and then another. “I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the start of my addiction,” he says with a smile.
“He’s definitely obsessed,” neighbor Bill Wright says. “Last time we went to a race together, he spent $300 on stuff before we even got in the front gate.”
Sometimes, Schadel doesn’t even have to leave home to get his collectibles. The couple occasionally spends Friday nights watching a weekly home-shopping program devoted to NASCAR collectibles. If Schadel is out of town on business, and Jolena sees something she knows her husband would like, she orders it.
As indulgent as Jolena is, she has her limits. When they moved into their tastefully decorated two-story home about four years ago, Jolena told her husband he could collect as much as he wanted—as long as he crammed everything into the study and garage.
“Every now and then, he’ll come up with something new and say, ‘Wouldn’t this be great over by the TV? Or in the bedroom?’” Jolena says. “But I won’t even say a word. I’ll just point to the study, and he knows.”