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Third Place
Bob Pockrass, The Sporting News

NASCAR Sponsors: In Wake-up Call, Teams Must Forget Politics, Figure Out Why They’re Leaving

NASCAR survived a major scare Wednesday thanks to a 216-202 vote in the House of Representatives that will allow the military to continue sponsoring race teams.

To some, it’s a time to celebrate and a time to label the politicians who championed the ban on military sponsorships as jerks.

But this is not a time for a lot of congratulations and pats on the back for surviving another round with Congress, or for name-calling by NASCAR fans that staunchly opposed the amendment that might have forced the National Guard and other military sponsors out of the sport.

Instead, it’s time for NASCAR and the sport to look in the mirror. It’s time for the top executives in the sport to figure out not just why politicians are voting for the military to get out of motorsports but why major corporations also have cut back their spending in NASCAR.

In the House, 95 congressman changed their votes since the original amendment to ban military sponsors was voted on in January 2011—77 switched to yes, 18 to no.

Among the most notable to swing his support toward the amendment was John Mica, who has represented the Daytona Beach area for two decades.

That should send shivers down the spines of NASCAR officials at the sport’s headquarters in Daytona Beach. Granted, one reason that more congressman agreed to support the amendment this time is that this measure had a dollar figure attached to reduce the Department of Defense budget by $72 million. That sounds like a lot of money until looking at the actual budget, which is $603 billion.

For most companies, a NASCAR sponsorship might account for more of its operating budget than 0.01 percent. So it’s reasonable that NASCAR might get just as much scrutiny from other corporations as it’s getting from Congress.

Publicly, NASCAR is trying to sell its story with news releases that indicate that 114 Fortune 500 companies in the United States participate in NASCAR in some way, shape or form.

That’s great. They obviously find something in the sport that works for them.

But let’s face the facts. Matt Kenseth, a championship contender and the 2012 Daytona 500 winner, isn’t fully sponsored at Roush Fenway Racing after Crown Royal left the sport last season. Roush also has yet to find sponsors for 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and 2011 Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Red Bull, which sponsored and owned two race teams, also got out of the sport last year. General Mills cut back. So did UPS, The Home Depot and Aflac.

Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway each shut down a race team for 2012 because of a lack of sponsorship.

The only organization to add a team this year was Michael Waltrip Racing, while Stewart-Haas Racing added a part-time team for Danica Patrick. As a result, a typical Sprint Cup race this year includes 12-15 teams that are either unsponsored or woefully underfunded.

The U.S. Army, which sponsors Ryan Newman’s Stewart-Haas team, has announced it won’t return in 2013, and everyone wants to blame politics. But there are several other team sponsors that still haven’t committed for 2013, so it’s likely the Army won’t be the only one.

Army officials were quite candid about why they are leaving the sport—they said NASCAR produced some results for it but not enough.
The National Guard’s sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports is producing up to 40 recruits a year, according to those working to ban the sponsorships.

Yet National Guard officials still believe in the program. What is it getting from its sponsorship that the Army is not? And why?

Why are Nationwide, Farmers Insurance and 5-Hour Energy stepping up their NASCAR efforts? Is there something from their successful programs that can be used to model future marketing programs?

NASCAR and its race teams should be begging companies that have left the sport for information on why they’re leaving. What went wrong? What could the sport have done better?

NASCAR officials say they have a five-year plan to address some of these issues, a plan designed to make the sport more attractive to sponsors. Part of that plan is selling the NASCAR story better.

That’s what NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France talked about when asked about the five-year plan a few weeks ago. NASCAR is in the second year of the plan and when asked about its success, France talked about improved communication and NASCAR taking over its digital rights in 2013.

He said he is happy with the progress but nothing should be done just for the sake of being in a hurry. France believes the industry as a whole is collaborating more in making the sport better and more attractive to sponsors.

But it’s hard for those outside the NASCAR offices to remain patient, especially when sponsorships are scarce and teams are struggling financially and going out of business.

Obviously not every company will stay in NASCAR forever. Marketing programs and budgets change and motorsports might not fit in anymore. But it appears there’s more work that needs to be done to make NASCAR a sponsorship program a company can’t live without.

As much as race fans want to complain and criticize politicians, the fact is that many politicians are hard-working people who care about how tax dollars are spent and have different philosophies on where that money should go.

The same is true in corporate boardrooms across America as far as how companies spend their money and marketing dollars.

NASCAR dodged a bullet Wednesday, but the slim margin of victory should serve as a wake-up call to the entire sport – and that means tracks, teams and the sanctioning body – that it needs to find ways to produce better results for sponsors and make even the most skeptical people take a second look at NASCAR.