Earnhardt merchandise still a hot property

It has been five years since Dale Earnhardt died from injuries related to his crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500. But he's hardly gone. He's memorialized every race weekend by fans who still sport -- and buy -- anything bearing his legendary number 3.

"I think a lot of people looked up to him and I think a lot of people admired him and felt like they had something in common with him at the same time," said Jeff Gordon. "And it just built this amazing fan base and then we've seen other legends, whether it be in music or entertainment, that are as big or bigger when they are gone as when they were there."

Since his death, No. 3 collectibles and the image of the man they called "The Intimidator," have been in high demand. During the month that he died, he was the most searched keyword on online auction site eBay, which featured more than 60,000 Earnhardt-related items.

"It just sky rocketed and everybody just wanted everything we could build from all his legacy and history," said Fred Wagenhals, founder of Action Performance, a racing collectibles company. "We saw a surge in the market in 2001 and 2002 that was unlike anything I have ever seen."

In order to begin making Dale Earnhardt items, Wagenhals sold his house in 1992 to help raise the $300,000 needed to pay off the licensing fee. By December of 2005, the company had sold approximately $500 million worth of Earnhardt-related products.

"We didn't flood the market with product that backed up on us," Wagenhals said. "Everything we built, we sold through."

Earnhardt's appeal has waned. Wagenhals estimated that when he died, Earnhardt made up more than 30 percent of the licensed driver sales. Today, Wagenhals estimates that number is closer to 10 percent. But remarkably, according to an ESPN Sports Poll, Earnhardt was still the fourth most popular driver in 2005 behind his son Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

"Dale Earnhardt was as big in auto racing as Elvis was in rock 'n' roll," said Ray Evernham, the former driver and crew chief who now owns the cars of Kasey Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield. "People like that don't come along. You know, John Wayne, James Dean-like cool."

Earnhardt's widow Teresa continues to take an active role in approving what should and shouldn't get made.

"Me and Teresa sort of have similar wants and beliefs about my dad after his death," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "She really wants his name to mean something and she continues to try to do things to bring attention to what he did and what he means and what he is to a lot of people. I guess when I see the new souvenirs I kind of get a kick out it because people are still getting a kick out of him even five years after the fact. So you know, hopefully that is still the case many years down the road."

Many Earnhardt fans have adopted Dale Jr., who now leads all drivers in memorabilia sales. But Wagenhals believes No. 3 will be around for a while.

"Done properly, I think he can live on forever," he said. "Whether it is 10 percent, 8 percent, 6 percent, it is a percentage and I think there are people out there that are going to continually want his stuff."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.