Tuesday and Wednesday of last week were like any other day for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his best friends. They rode four-wheelers, played pool, fired paintballs and raced go-karts, all on his 300 rolling acres in Mooresville, N.C.

The only evidence that Earnhardt was shooting a commercial for his Hendrick Motorsports sponsor, Amp Energy Drink, was the presence of a few cameras and the shouts of an award-winning director. And a few more people were watching, including executives from PepsiCo, Amp's parent company.

"Basically, we were just out here raising hell and they were filming it," Earnhardt said from his property. "It was pretty fun. We kind of forgot that there were cameras around."

The idea behind the next Amp commercial, which breaks Feb. 15 on Fox for the Daytona 500, was to uncover the real Earnhardt, the boy in a man's body who has transformed his property 30 miles north of Charlotte into a grown man's Disney. There, he cut up with pals like Topher (short for Christopher), T.J. and Josh, most of whom he has known since childhood.

The idea to shoot NASCAR's most elite pitchman in his natural surroundings was Earnhardt's. He hatched the concept in a meeting with PepsiCo executives and Amp's ad agency, BBDO, New York, all of whom met the driver at his place before Christmas.

PepsiCo and BBDO wanted the commercial to have a documentary feel to it, so once the groundwork was set, they reached out to director Stacy Peralta. His credits include "Dogtown and Z-Boys," a skateboarding movie that won Sundance Film Festival awards in 2001, and "Riding Giants," a big-wave surfing film, as well as the Burger King "Whopper Virgins" campaign. Peralta's documentaries had the kind of lifestyle feel that Amp wanted for this commercial.

Lauren Hobart, vice president of marketing for PepsiCo's energy drink brands, said Earnhardt's input was critical to get the behind-the-scenes footage necessary and that she'd never seen an athlete so immersed in the creative process. Footage that doesn't make the commercial will run on Ampenergy.com as a means of driving traffic for a promotion and new product launches.

"I really think we're breaking new ground in terms of how much a part of the creative process Dale has been," Hobart said. "I can't think of an example in the marketplace where an athlete has had so much influence over what's being shot. ... He's all about being real and authentic, and he wanted to show fans how much Amp -- his words -- has become a part of his lifestyle."

Creating an authentic image has been integral to the development of the Dale Jr. brand. He worked with his apparel sponsor, Adidas, to develop a line of Dale Jr. clothing last year that incorporated his design ideas, and he made suggestions throughout the shooting of his first commercial with Amp in 2008, when he infamously carried a camel across the desert.

The first year of the Amp relationship provided solid 2008 business results. Amp's market share leaped from sixth in the category to fourth -- and even third in some NASCAR-centric regions, Hobart said. Sales grew by 70 percent, and Earnhardt helped the brand's awareness catapult by the mid-70s percent.

The motivation for the next Amp spot was to deepen the connection between the energy drink and the driver who moves more product than anyone else in NASCAR. Earnhardt acknowledged that the ties to his previous sponsor, Budweiser, forged from a nine-year relationship, are tough to break in the mind of the consumer.

"I worked with Bud for all those years, and when race fans think of me, they probably think of the past somewhat and those relationships, especially Bud. It was a great program," he said. "But I'm equally passionate about Amp and this relationship. I like the product, I drink the product, and we need to start building that same recognition, that same identity, with Amp. That's the challenge we face as we build this relationship with PepsiCo."

Earnhardt said working with an award-winning director was everything he thought it would be, except for one problem. Peralta kept calling Earnhardt's acres "the ranch," and Earnhardt kept correcting him.

"We don't raise any livestock out here," Earnhardt said with a laugh. "It's not a ranch." Mostly, the driver and his friends call the property "the property," though the sign at the gate reads "Dirty Mo' Acres." Dirty Mo' was what Earnhardt, 34, and his buddies called Mooresville growing up there.

The simple premise behind the shoot was to capture as much content as possible while Earnhardt, Topher, T.J. and the gang maxed out the fun from "the property." One of Earnhardt's friends broke the axle on a four-wheeler and slammed into a tree. Another flipped his four-wheeler. Earnhardt, of course, didn't wreck.

Peralta's crew filmed for two full days last week, shooting the four-wheelers and the paintball and the go-karts and the old western town that Earnhardt built, complete with a jail, saloon and wooden posts at which to tie up their four-wheelers.

"We wanted to show Dale in his real life," Hobart said. "We're just moving documentary-style all over his property. This is great content for his fans to see, and it's also going to show how he and his friends drink Amp through the day and night and do it in a very real way. It's very important to us that he's adopted this product."

Hobart said the commercial will have the feel of a movie trailer and it is intended to send traffic to the website. In addition to the footage of Earnhardt and his friends, the site will be the home for a new Amp promotion, "Get in Gear," which will give fans the chance to win merchandise that's exclusive to the campaign.

The site also will serve as the launching pad for several new Amp products, such as Amp Tradin' Paint, a fusion drink with orange, berry and lime flavors, as well as Amp lemonade, Amp black tea and Amp green tea, all of which will be unveiled over the course of the year.

"We want the fans to come onto the site, where they can get a lot more of the kind of content that's in the commercial," Hobart said. "The commercial will almost be like a teaser to drive people online."

Hobart said more Amp commercials will be coming later in the year as the energy drink looks for ways to leverage Earnhardt, although the concepts have not yet been plotted.

"We got off to a great start in '08, and when we were thinking about the '09 campaign, we really wanted to get inside Dale's head," Hobart said. "I think we've captured the real Dale."
by Michael Smith

Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal.