By admin | January 2, 2012
By Richard Allen
In the high times of NASCAR back in the early 2000s teams could almost dictate terms to their sponsors. In good economic times with television ratings near their all time peak and fans being made to put their names on waiting lists for tickets at several tracks, teams had leverage over their backers. If one sponsor left there were seemingly several others waiting to take their place.
Now, with the economy lagging companies are apparently being more careful about how they spend their advertising dollars. Also, television ratings are well off of the numbers of a few years ago and grandstands often reveal large empty spaces at the drop of the green flag at many tracks. Those factors make NASCAR less attractive than it once was in terms of getting exposure for products.
Suddenly, sponsors seem to want more for the commitment they make to race teams when they write checks as large as $15-30 million.
At the end of the 2011 season, M&Ms asserted itself with Joe Gibbs Racing after Kyle Busch was benched by the sanctioning body from Nationwide and Sprint Cup races at Texas Motor Speedway for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday under caution during a Camping World Truck Series race at that same track.
The candy maker removed its name from the side of the JGR #18 car for the final two races of the season. And more, if reports are to be believed, Mars Candy came close to leaving the team all together.
It should be mentioned that this move was not without some precedent. Even in the high times of a few years ago, Home Depot fined and rebuked driver Tony Stewart after he engaged in some unruly behavior. But the action by M&Ms was more drastic in that they actually did remove their name from the car and threatened to leave the team.
Kurt Busch felt the sting of sponsor driven expectations even more severely than did his brother when he was removed(or mutually agreed to leave) from his ride at Penske Racing after being caught on video dishing out some rather surly comments toward an ESPN reporter and cameraman after he experienced mechanical troubles in the season’s final race.
Although the elder Busch’s employer had to be near the breaking point with the volatile driver, his ultimate removal from the #22 Dodge was no doubt at least somewhat motivated by an embarrassed sponsor.
Another recent incident involving a NASCAR driver had all the look of a sponsor/PR related scramble. Last week, Kasey Kahne posted on Twitter that he was repulsed by a woman openly breast feeding her child in a public market. That led to a number of angry responses from some of the driver’s followers. In one exchange, Kahne went so far as to call one woman a not-so-nice name after she voiced her disapproval of his earlier tweet.
Soon after, the posts were deleted and a formal apology was issued that had all the makings of being crafted by a public relations spokesperson. While the apology and removal of the tweets may very well have been the driver’s idea, it would be hard to imagine that sponsors and/or the PR savvy folks at Hendrick Motorsports in charge of placating sponsors didn’t have a hand in the sudden change of heart.
And while NASCAR drivers have always been among the most accessible professional athletes, it seems as though they are becoming even more accessible of late. On January 2nd, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. made what he admitted was his first ever appearance at a college football game in Jacksonville, Florida. When asked why he had come to the game he candidly but light heartedly told the interviewer, “Taxslayer.com is why I’m here.” It’s probably safe to say that Junior would not have been at the game had one of his sponsors not requested it.
NASCAR, its teams and its drivers have always been quite conscious of how their actions will be viewed by sponsors. Now, it appears as though that viewpoint is taking even greater significance since the next $15 million sponsor isn’t waiting right around the corner.
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