The Colgate Scene
May 2007

Fast lane
Thayer Lavielle '93 guides the marketing of one of the biggest names in NASCAR

[Photo by Todd Sumlin]

For some, the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. is synonymous with NASCAR.

For Thayer Lavielle '93, his name is synonymous with "boss."

Since June 2006, Lavielle has been the vice president of marketing and brand development for JR Motorsports and all that the company controls: each of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. motor sports teams; all his marketing and branding efforts and licensing; and Hammerhead Entertainment, Earnhardt's production company that owns television shows, radio shows, commercials, DVDs, and a nightclub.

"No one day is the same, that's for sure," Lavielle said.

But Lavielle is used to change. After graduating from Colgate, the French major moved to Paris. "I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up," she said. "I decided I would live there for a while and see what life held."

While there, she met her husband, and began working with ABC, which eventually led her to take a job with the network in New York City. "I worked at ABC for about 5 years, where I was a producer at Good Morning America," Lavielle said. After leaving ABC, she went into public relations, working at a New York agency for a couple of years. Her next stop? Makeup colossus L'Oreal. She started in public relations but was moved to marketing by her boss, something she was surprised by.

"If you looked at the people in marketing at L'Oreal they all had these big notebooks of numbers and spoke in language that I didn't understand like `cost of goods' and `net versus retail,'" she said. "And I was your PR girl; I was all about celebrities and image. But my boss said `I really want you to consider this,' so I said OK."

It turned out to be her niche, and it was in marketing at L'Oreal where Lavielle first became acquainted with Earnhardt. The company wanted to link one of their fragrances, Drakkar Noir, with a NASCAR spokesperson. Lavielle, who at the time knew nothing about the sport of racing, did her research and landed on Dale Earnhardt Jr. "He was in his rookie season, and was racing in what was then the Winston Cup series," Lavielle said. "I went down and saw a race, and once you see a race, you're kind of bitten by the bug. You begin to understand why people enjoy it and are completely rabid about it."

The pairing between Earnhardt and Drakkar Noir was a hit, and Lavielle later was promoted within L'Oreal to the Lancome brand, to run its promotional marketing department, which constitutes about 40 percent of Lancome's business. She kept in touch with Earnhardt and his sister, Kelley, who is the general manager for JR Motorsports, and meanwhile, Lavielle and her husband also had two sons. For them, having children in the city soon "became very old, very fast."

Not too much later, the call from the Earnhardts came. "They had a need for some marketing and branding help as they were expanding, and I had a need for some grass and trees," she said.

Lavielle jumped at the chance to join JR Motorsports, even though NASCAR might not seem like the next obvious career step after L'Oreal. "I'm not a car person by nature, so I spent time learning their world," she said, which included meeting with the racing teams and attending races. As a lifelong sports fan, it was an opportunity that she was excited by.

"If you're going to go into a sport, you want to work with the best," she added.

The move was more than just a jump from makeup to motors, though -- it also meant Lavielle and her family would pull up stakes in New York City to move to North Carolina. When she first began in the position, she worked from Earnhardt's rural 144-acre property. "I all of a sudden just walked out of my house to get in my car to drive thirty minutes to my pretty rural job," she said.

The Earnhardt company headquarters has since relocated, and the business has increased from 15 to 60 people. "We've experienced enormous growth," Lavielle said. "I'm here to help foster that growth in the divisions I oversee and steer the team to grow each of their goals and objectives to their fullest potential."

If that means an occasional trip to the race track, so be it. Her new life in North Carolina more than ever allows her to consider achieving more work-life balance, and her personal goal this year is to get more involved in charitable causes and philanthropy. When she was working at Lancome, Lavielle said she didn't have the passion for makeup that you should have for a product you're promoting.

"I am a firm believer that if you do what you want every day, it's not work," she said. "I always have played sports and loved watching sports. I have come to know the Earnhardt mentality and the concept of celebrity that surrounds this sport."

Not that Earnhardt is a stereotypical celebrity. Lavielle describes him as a "very normal, likeable, smart, funny guy. And he's very unassuming about his celebrity. What always strikes me about him and a lot of other drivers in NASCAR is their down-to-earth mentality. He doesn't understand what the big fuss is about him, and yet understands enough to not go outside all the time."

Lavielle's older son, though, understands the fuss. "For my three-year-old boy, there's nothing better than race cars," she said. "And I think he's already understood that Mr. Dale, as he calls him, is famous. My son is just in awe of this guy who's a real racecar driver."

Lavielle herself has also learned a healthy respect for race cars. "When I didn't know anything about it, even I was like, `ok, NASCAR, please, you just step on the gas and turn left,'" she said. "But an enormous amount of strategy, technology, and teamwork is involved in achieving a win. I don't think people who aren't NASCAR fans really understand the complexity that goes into the sport. What I would suggest to everyone is go to a race. There's something indescribable about having forty-three cars going by you at one hundred eighty miles per hour in a pack. It's just pretty unbelievable."

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