Return on NASCAR Sponsor Investment: You Get Out What You Put In

Heath HeidemannCorrespondent IJanuary 1, 2009

In this time of economic hardship, NASCAR is seeing a serious decline in sponsorship. Companies are finding it hard to spend the amount of money is takes to be a 200-mile-per-hour billboard.

That is, of course, unless you have a name like Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, or team name like Childress, Hendrick, or Roush. They have the luxury of sponsors coming to them, in some cases.

The simple reason being the amount of exposure these teams give a sponsor. The drivers make the Chase on a consistent basis. Most of the time, these drivers are favorites to be seen in Victory Lane. This all translates into air time, or advertising, for the sponsor.

This, unfortunately, leaves about two-thirds of the field out of the picture.

In that two-thirds, there are exceptions to the rule.

Enter Michael Waltrip.

Michael Waltrip and NAPA have been a package deal since 2001. NAPA had followed Dale Earnhardt through the ranks, teaming with Ron Hornaday in the truck series and Nationwide series, than Michael in Cup. Though Waltrip hasn't won a race since 2003, NAPA has stayed loyal to him.

The loyalty is mostly a result of the advertising opportunity that is Michael Waltrip. He is not just an owner, or driver, but a character. The team has embraced the hardships they have faced, and have chosen to put it into the ad campaign we see on race Sunday.

The hilarious commercials are one part, but Michael also attracts the camera at the track. We see him on stage, we see him during rain delays, we see him on Monday NASCAR shows as a host. Always wearing NAPA, and always saying one word whenever he can. "NAPA."

Understandable that the commercials we see involve even more cash from NAPA. They pay for prime air spots on top of the sponsorship of the team. Not every sponsor can afford that luxury, but in this example, it benefits both sponsor and driver.

Little Debbie is another good example of this. They were on the way out of the sport. Along comes Marcos Ambrose. The company already had commercials with Ken Shroeder, again with a humorous twist. They immediately made one with Marcos and a koala bear. Even here in Wisconsin, I have seen "Marcos" standing by the snacks.

They latched onto a fan friendly, fan favorite driver and did more than most others do in multi-year deals.

I can speak from personal experience as well.

When Brian Vickers was signed to drive for Hendrick, his primary sponsor was GMAC. I was not in the market for a car, but I did like Brian.

While I was walking through a supermarket, I was heading for the shampoo isle. I was single at this time, and shampoo was shampoo. There at the corner, wearing a bright green drivers suit, was a cut-out of Brian Vickers! His suit said Garneir Fructis.

I never was one to try fruit smelling shampoo. I never would have. I was proud to support Brian Vickers.

I shared this story with wife, who I met a year after this. I was trying to get her into NASCAR, and trying to associate it with day to day life.

I am still trying to live it down.

In retrospect, the campaign was probably more targeted at females, being that Brian was a very handsome young man in a shampoo isle. But I bought it, and never (well, for a year) thought twice about it.

With teams that have more cars than sponsors right now, I would think getting in the sport could be done at somewhat of a bargain. Combining the aforementioned strategies, companies could have the name on the hood, run in store promotions, and even have money for a commercial or two.

Utilizing the driver, teams, and airtime as much as possible is crucial. Amp jumped right in with Dale Jr. UPS did it with Dale Jarrett. Fed Ex and Home Depot with Gibbs, Aflac with Edwards, and Kasey Kahne with Allstate. They did not let the on track performance do the selling. They implemented plans away from racing to make successful relationships.

I still buy Tide from Ricky Rudd's heat exhausting Martinsville win, Coke because of the "Coke Family" campaign, Vitamin Water for Edwards, tried Amp because of Junior, Jack Daniels for Clint Bowyer, AT&T for Burton, have not gotten the nerve to do a Red Bull for Vickers (but fruity shampoo was OK), M&M's, you get the idea.

Any company second guessing an opportunity in NASCAR needs to look at itself as the problem in this scenario. If they do not want to spend money in a place with that much power and exposure, they themselves have the wrong people in place.