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Second Place

Matt Crossman, Sporting News

Living The NASCAR Life

Can you exist on nothing but products involved with NASCAR? Our intrepid reporter finds out. By Matt Crossman

Just past midnight, in the wee hours of Friday morning, I started to doubt the wisdom of basing my entire existence on using nothing but NASCAR products. Bristol Motor Speedway is a long way from my house in St. Louis, and I was sick of driving, even though I was riding in style in a tricked-out 2005 Ford F-150 (official pickup truck). Making matters worse: I was 530 miles into a 500-mile trip.
I was lost.

I didn’t have a map.

And my cell phone was dying.

As I white-knuckled the mammoth truck through a switchback, I remained intent on proving my hypothesis: Over a race weekend, I could eat, wear, consume and buy nothing but NASCAR products. It would be just like Super Size Me, only without the health risks and weight gain.

I finally found my Best Western (official hotel), and the next day I started the NASCAR routine. For the next four days, my mornings consisted of putting on Old Spice (official deodorant), using an Oral-B toothbrush and toothpaste (official oral care products), shaving with Gillette (official shaving products) and putting on a NASCAR golf shirt and Levi’s (official jeans). To answer your next question, Fruit of the Loom is a sponsor for Robby Gordon.

Because there is no official NASCAR milk and I didn’t want to put Powerade (official sports beverage) on my Kellogg’s (official cereal), I ate breakfast at McDonald’s (team sponsor) every day. Leaving the F-150 at the hotel, I drove a 2005 Chevrolet Monte Carlo (official pace car) to and from the track.

If you learn nothing else from this story, learn this: I’ll do anything for freebies. No, wait – learn this: NASCAR is not what it used to be.

The days of the sport being solely sponsored by beer, automotive and tobacco companies have been gone for a long time. NASCAR’s move to the mainstream was accelerated even further when Brian France became chairman and Nextel became the title sponsor.

It seems quaint that, a year and a half ago, a cigarette company was the title sponsor of NASCAR’s top circuit. Nicorette is a sponsor now, and 1,100 companies are involved either with NASCAR or a team. Of those, 102 are Fortune 500 companies.

The cars steal the show
On the way from the hotel to the track on Friday, I filled up at R&S Sunoco (official fuel) in Abingdon, Va. Whatever bad mood lingered from the night before evaporated while I was at R&S. It sounds silly, but this five-minute stop (and two subsequent visits) brightened my trip. You know you’ve found a good place when the sign outside says, “Coming April 1, Free Gas. Inquire inside.”

Raymond Hurd, the owner of the station, was impressed by my Monte Carlo. Did I mention it was painted like the No. 99 Busch Series Best Western car? Trust me; if you want to draw attention to yourself, drive a car that looks like a racecar.

The car represented my most blatant partisanship. Other than that, I didn’t favor any one driver, unless you count my Tony Stewart belt, Mark Martin Velcro wallet and just-in-case Dale Earnhardt Jr. flashlight with Duracells (official alkaline batteries).

I drive like a maniac when I cover a race, just like golf writers whisper and baseball writers take steroids. To help, Hurd suggested places to open up the Monte Carlo. Abingdon is in the Appalachians, with highways full of twists, turns, inclines, declines and cops.

Because I would drive the 144-mile round trip from Abingdon to Bristol three days in a row, I needed to know about the local law. A cop wouldn’t bust me in this fake racecar, would he? “Not unless he’s by himself,” Hurd said, “or with somebody.”

Thanks, Raymond, but I’ll handle the jokes around here.

My NASCAR-logoed vehicles were great icebreakers all weekend. The Ford F-150, customized NASCAR style by American Specialty Trucks, got this: “That’s one pimp-ass truck, for real,” from a tongue-ringed guy at a Chevron (team sponsor) in Indiana. Dave Baker of Fremont, Ohio, who saw me pull the Monte Carlo up to the hotel, told me he painted his wife’s 1987 Thunderbird like Davey Allison’s Texaco car. I gave two guys a ride to the track in the 99 car after they hooted at me. They said to call them “two nitwits from New Hampshire.” As those Nextel (official series sponsor) commercials say: Done.

Fully vested
Friday was qualifying day, which doesn’t get much attention at most tracks. Bristol is not most tracks. It’s the Lambeau Field of NASCAR, only more than twice as big. On race weekend, eastern Tennessee is a NASCAR petri dish. I was living the NASCAR life on a lark – I mean, a Serious Journalistic Investigation – but many fans live the NASCAR life, too, albeit on a smaller scale.

They wear drivers’ shirts and hats and use the products drivers endorse. The result: endlessly ringing cash registers. NASCAR says the sport’s average fan spends $ 700 a year on tickets and merchandise. And that’s just the NASCAR stuff. Fans line up in front of drivers’ merchandise trailers week after week.

NASCAR and the sponsors won’t say how much an official sponsorship costs, but one source puts the figure at $ 3 million to $ 5 million. The numbers are elusive because sponsors don’t want competitors to know how much they’re spending. And NASCAR protects its privacy on these matters like a cornered Little E fan protects the last Budweiser (official beer) at the Sunoco APlus (official convenience store).

More is known about how much sponsors pay to be on cars. The cost varies depending on the team and driver, with more prominent teams drawing bigger fees. The major teams – Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson – get up to $ 20 million each from their primary sponsors.

The sponsors pay those fees for exposure  –  and access to fans’ Velcro wallets. The fans’ loyalty, to the sport and to drivers, is legendary. NASCAR says its fans are three times more likely to buy a sponsor’s product over a nonsponsor’s. “I will not drink a Coke,” a Gordon fan told me. “If I go to a fast food restaurant and they do not sell Pepsi, I get water.” When she buys gas, she rounds off cents at 24, Gordon’s car number.

You won’t hear me diss fans, but I will speak truth in love. NASCAR fans buy some stupid things. NASCAR has many official, licensed and sponsor’s products that make the world a better place, such as the Domino’s (official pizza delivery) pepperoni pizza I ate Friday. But there are a ton of items carrying the NASCAR logo that make you wonder.

Take talking NASCAR bottle openers, which are sure to cause the collapse of the U.S. economy. Talking NASCAR bottle openers are a lot like puffy vests, the kind made famous by Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy. Just as there’s absolutely no reason to buy a coat with no sleeves, there’s absolutely no reason to buy a talking NASCAR bottle opener. If you buy either, you have too much money and you’re just spending it willy-nilly. That kind of spending always leads to an economic crisis.

These boots are made for hawking
The Busch race at Bristol was rained out Saturday – April in Tennessee is supposed to be lovely, but it was freezing. I never thought the weather would be so bad, so I didn’t have a NASCAR winter coat. At least my feet stayed warm and dry, thanks to my Timberland PRO boots (Busch Series team sponsor).

NASCAR has no official shoe, and there are no major teams with a shoe sponsor. I had never heard of Timberland PRO’s deal before, and neither had several NASCAR people I asked as I tried to find shoes.

Jim O’Connor of Timberland says it doesn’t bother him that his sponsorship gets little attention; it’s more important to him to leverage his NASCAR relationship with retailers. When Timberland PRO runs a big promotion, the retailer is more likely to give it prime space because of the NASCAR tie-in. Similarly, one of the goals of Checkers/Rally’s (official burger and drive-through) is to attract franchisees through its connection to NASCAR.

Best Western also multi-tasks its NASCAR relationship. The company sponsors a Busch car, has business-to-business deals with other sponsors and runs numerous programs targeted at race fans, including a website (bestwesternracing.com). Says David Scholefield, vice president of North American sales and motorsports marketing: “You can’t enter any sports marketing relationship and pretend to play.”

Other companies use NASCAR to promote specific product lines. While getting ready for the weekend, I suggested to Levi’s that my regular Levi’s would suffice. A few days later, six pairs of Levi’s Signature Series arrived on my doorstep.

Free chocolate, bad. Fruit, good.
Saturday brought the weekend’s toughest temptation: free food in the media center. Cookies, brownies, all kinds of sugary goodness were laid out in front of me. But eating media center food violated the spirit of this story, so I came prepared to stand against the devil’s chocolaty schemes – with a NASCAR-licensed cooler full of Dasani (official water), Planters peanuts (promotional partner) and even fruit. Yes, NASCAR-licensed fruit.

Jack Bertagna works in sales and marketing for Castellini Group, owner of the fruit and vegetable license. One part of Castellini’s NASCAR effort is to sell branded produce at every Wal-Mart Supercenter within 150 miles of a track on race weekend. Before the Daytona 500, during a late-night visit to a Wal-Mart, Bertagna found his bins of potatoes and onions nearly empty. Neighboring bins were full. An incredulous clerk pointed to the NASCAR logo. “The dadgum thing is working,” Bertagna says.

If NASCAR-licensed fruit sounds like the new NASCAR, how about a driver shilling hair products? Garnier Fructis sponsors driver Brian Vickers. A Garnier stylist does Vickers’ hair before every race so he looks good for appearances. So I had my hair done, too, and I spent the rest of the day finely coiffured  –  and in fear that Cale Yarborough would find me and beat the crap out of me.

On Monday, I checked out of the hotel, paying with my Visa (official card). The return drive home went much better. I didn’t get lost. The truck drew more praise, first at a Chevron in either Kentucky or Virginia (still no map – NASCAR has licensed atlases; I was too dumb to get one) then at a Subway (team sponsor) in Illinois.

My driveway was the start-finish line. As I pulled in, I didn’t take the checkered flag, and there was no celebration and no crew ready to welcome me. In that way, the end of living the NASCAR life was nothing like the end of a race. But in another way, it was exactly the same: I had a ton of sponsors to thank.