NASCAR: Brought To You By...........
In this new era of NASCAR, sponsorship is more important to the sport and the teams than it ever has been.
In the early years of NASCAR, not a lot was made of sponsorship in the sport. There certainly was some to get the sport going. But there certainly wasn't the impact that there is today. The drivers of the present are part driver, part billboard for companies. The commercial impact is certainly different. It's like night and day.
The real impact of sponsorship was first felt in 1972, when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company started sponsoring NASCAR's top circuit. It started a more than three decade relationship between the company and the sport. The Winston Cup Series was the title of the sport's premier circuit through 2003. R.J. Reynolds poured millions of dollars into NASCAR. It was a partnership like none other in sports. It wouldn't be long before the role of sponsors would expand.
Through the 1950's and 1960's, there weren't a lot of major companies putting their name on race cars. That started to change in the 1970's. The two biggest names at the time got sponsorship from two major companies. Richard Petty with his famous partnership with STP and David Pearson with Purolator. By late in the decade, more major companies got into the sport. By the 1980's, it really took off. The names of the companies only got bigger. Mountain Dew, Budweiser, Coors, Wrangler Jeans all grabbed their piece of the pie. Another major company got into the sport late in the decade and made a popular relationship among the fans. GM Goodwrench joined forces with Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt. They were a common site in victory lane. The sponsors' role, as well as the name of the companies, only got bigger in the 1990's. Interstate Batteries, DuPont, Kellogg's all joined in. As the calendar turned to the 21st Century, home improvement giants Lowe's and Home Depot got in as well as shipping giants UPS and FedEx. In some way, a NASCAR event has turned into a Fortune 500 convention.
As a result, the drivers aren't simply drivers anymore. They are company pitchmen. Besides racing for wins and championships, they are selling a product to the public. When you watch a race on TV, you see all the commercials. The ads are numerous. It has added a kind of Madison Avenue effect to NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has appeared in many ads for Budweiser. Seeing Tony Stewart selling The Home Depot is all too common. UPS struck gold with the series of ads featuring Dale Jarrett in the "We want to race the truck" ad campaign. Michael Waltrip has done many ads for Aaron's, which sponsored his Busch Series car for several years. Some drivers have even helped sell products that are either not a main sponsor of their team, or even don't sponsor at all. It's all in these clever marketing campaigns.
Sponsorship has had downsides as well. Some critics have said that these companies mettle too much. Some say they have more impact on who drives for what team more than the actual team owners do. One example was in 2005. FedEx entered NASCAR as a sponsor to the third car for Joe Gibbs Racing. Jason Leffler started the season, but struggled. He never was a factor in any race. He was let go during the season, replaced late in the year by Denny Hamlin, who currently drives the car. Hamlin has had major success in the early part of his career and, not surprising, has been a major pitchman for the company. There were some quiet rumblings that FedEx may have had a part in that move. It was never proven. The general thought now is that the move was a team decision with little or no input from FedEx.
Another recent controversy involving sponsors has been the addition of hard liquor companies in NASCAR. For many years, beer companies have been a major sponsor of drivers and racing series'. Busch has been the sponsor of the racing series just below the Winston/Nextel Cup Series (They will be leaving after the 2007 season). For the 2005 season, NASCAR lifted a long standing ban on sponsorship from hard liquor companies. It caused a major uproar from some fans and groups opposing the move. Nevertheless, they were welcomed in. Part of the deal is that these companies would have to also do campaigns about responsibility to be able to sponsor. Three hard liquor companies sponsor Nextel Cup teams: Jack Daniels sponsors the Clint Bowyer car, Jim Beam sponsors Robby Gordon, and Jamie McMurray's car carries the colors for Crown Royal. The IROC Series now is also sponsored by Crown Royal.
Two other forms of controversy have come during the 2007 season. Kevin Harvick, in his first season with sponsorship from Shell, won the Daytona 500. After the race, NASCAR's official fuel sponsor Sunoco raised a fuss over the size of the Shell logos on Harvick's driving suit. What seemed stupid to most of the fans became a big deal in the sport. The other has involved Harvick's teammate, Jeff Burton. Cingular Wireless had been the sponsor of the #31 Richard Childress owned car currently driven by Burton. Recently, there was a major telecommunications merger. Cingular was one of the companies that became part of the newly expanded AT&T. As a result, the sponsor on the car was changed to AT&T. NASCAR has tried to disallow the sponsorship because they claim a conflict with current series sponsor Nextel. It is now being fought in court. The most recent ruling has sided with NASCAR. Because of that, the #31 car, which is going to be a contender in The Chase for the Championship, is running without a primary sponsor.
For every race team that wants to be successful, they need more than a good driver or top equipment. The sponsors now have as much an impact as anything in NASCAR. They have become an essential part of the sport. The race cars are the billboards and the drivers are the pitchmen. For the good and the bad, they are a part of it and will be in the future. There has been a saying with these companies that are involved in NASCAR: "Race on Sunday, sell on Monday". And it's oh so true. Ask a fan if they shop at Lowe's or Home Depot, they might say something like "I shop at Lowe's because I'm a Jimmie Johnson fan". That is part of the new age of NASCAR.