Moving Billboards: A Brief History of NASCAR Advertising

Robert Laberge, Getty Images
Robert Laberge, Getty Images

When Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR in 1948, the sport's handful of sponsors were almost exclusively local businesses. Today, organizations and companies from Aaron's Inc. to Zaxby's pay millions of dollars a year to put their logos on the hoods of cars and trucks in NASCAR's top divisions. In honor of this weekend's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway, here's a closer look at the history of stock car racing's moving billboards.

Cigarette Companies Light the Fire

In late 1970, NASCAR great Junior Johnson asked the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to sponsor his car for the upcoming season. Johnson, who Tom Wolfe once described as the "last American hero" in a piece for Esquire, had lost his auto parts-dealing sponsor in a plane crash, and, like most drivers at the time, faced financial uncertainty during the offseason. R.J. Reynolds, which was looking for creative ways to spend its enormous advertising budget after the federal government's ban on cigarette advertising on television took effect in 1971, had a better idea. Just as former sponsors Ford, Chevy, and Dodge withdrew from stock car racing, R.J. Reynolds stepped in and agreed to sponsor a $100,000 championship series to be known as the Winston Cup. The Winston Cup survived through 2003, after which it became the Nextel Cup (and later the Sprint Cup), while R.J. Reynolds' investment paved the way for other sponsors to enter the sport.

The Man Who Launched a Thousand Logos

Andy Granatelli was a Texas-born racing junkie who made a name and a nickname—Mister 500—for himself in open-wheel racing. Granatelli would rise to prominence as the spokesman and CEO of STP, sponsoring cars in the Indianapolis 500 for more than three decades. After Mario Andretti became the first STP-sponsored driver to take the checkered flag in Indianapolis in 1969, Granatelli planted a huge kiss on him in Victory Lane. Granatelli first greeted stock car racing legend Richard Petty with a handshake 2 years later, but the duo's relationship would soon blossom. According to Ryan McGee's fascinating story for ESPN The Magazine last month, Granatelli offered Petty $250,000 for the upcoming season and a $50,000 bonus for winning the championship if he partnered with STP. Petty, whose father, Lee, created the signature blue hue that decorated his car, balked at the idea of painting his car red, but eventually agreed to a half-and-half paint scheme featuring an STP decal on the hood. "I'll never forget the reaction on people's faces in the garage," Dale Inman, Petty's crew chief and cousin, told McGee. "In that instant, the whole way that people thought about sponsorship in NASCAR changed."

Iconic Partnerships

In addition to Petty and STP, there have been a number of other famous sponsor-driver pairings in NASCAR history. Harry Gant became known as "The Skoal Bandit" after his sponsor of more than 20 years. Dale Earnhardt won two of his first three Winston Cup Series titles in the yellow-and-blue Wrangler Jeans Machine. GM Goodwrench replaced Wrangler as the primary sponsor of Earnhardt's No. 3 car from the start of the 1988 season until Earnhardt's death at the 2001 Daytona 500. Jeff Gordon, "The Rainbow Warrior," has driven the DuPont car for his entire career, while many race fans will forever associate Tony Stewart with his former orange and black Home Depot car.

Location, Location, Location

Primary sponsorships generally cost between $10 and $25 million a year. That generally includes a spot on the hood and a prominent presence on the driver's and his pit crew's uniforms. The cost of being a major associate sponsor, which might earn your company a spot on the trunk lid, is roughly $1 to $5 million per year. Parts of the car, including the area to the left of the number on the side door, are reserved for official NASCAR sponsors and may not be sold by the team. Prime locations in addition to the hood include the dashboard and headrest, thanks to the heavy use of in-car cameras.

Roll Tide

For years, beer, tobacco, and motor oil companies ruled the track. Procter & Gamble began to change that trend when it sponsored cars bearing the logos of Crisco, Tide, and Folgers in the mid-1980s. Other non-traditional NASCAR sponsors lined up for a piece of the pie after P&G's products enjoyed an increase in sales. In the two decades since, Cheerios, Hooters, The Cartoon Network, TaxSlayer.com, Wave Energy Drink, Spam, and L'eggs, among hundreds of other companies, have been major NASCAR sponsors.

It's becoming increasingly common for cars to feature several different paint schemes throughout the season, with sponsors unwilling to pay the cost for a full season. Sports Business Journal recently reported that only 10 Sprint Cup teams use the same paint scheme for the entire season. In recent years, cars have featured the logos of professional and college sports teams. Carl Edwards' No. 99 sported the Boston Red Sox logo on its hood after Fenway Sports Group bought half of Roush Racing in 2007. Aaron's Inc. unveiled a special paint scheme honoring Alabama's BCS Championship during a race at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

Making a Religious Statement

NASCAR's sanctioning body has the final say over what logos and images can appear on its cars. Occasionally, the paint schemes create controversy. In the week leading up to the 2004 Daytona 500, Interstate Batteries Chairman Norm Miller replaced his company's logo on the hood of Bobby Labonte's No. 18 car with an advertisement for Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ. "It's a chance to get the word out," Labonte told reporters. "Someone who is curious about Jesus and has never been saved sees the race and says, 'Hmmm, I'd like to see what that's about.' ... Maybe we can change their minds."

It wasn't the first time NASCAR was forced to make a religious ruling. In 2002, Morgan Shepherd put an image of Jesus on the hood of his truck. NASCAR officials asked him to remove it after receiving complaints, but changed their minds a few weeks later and told Shepherd the logo could stay.

Comparatively Cheap Exposure

In 2006, Eric Wright of Joyce Julius Associates, a research firm dedicated to sponsorship impact measurement, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the average screen time for a race car's primary sponsor during a typical race is 12.5 minutes and the average number of times the announcers mention the sponsor is 2.6 times per race. The comparable value to the sponsor for the time on screen, according to Wright, is $1.7 million. A sponsor's exposure goes up if its driver takes the checkered flag or is involved in a wreck, especially if the wreck occurs in the later stages of the race and the company name is still visible when the car comes to a stop. "If you crash, crash fabulously, and make sure your logo is not wrinkled up,'" Dave Hart of Richard Childress Racing once told a reporter.

Drinking and Driving

While the sport began its long-time partnership with beer companies when Miller High Life became a sponsor in 1972, NASCAR prohibited distilled spirits companies from sponsoring teams until 2004. The decision to repeal the self-imposed ban drew some criticism, but NASCAR President Mike Helton defended the call, in part, by arguing that NASCAR fans view distilled spirits as a part of everyday life. While several hard liquor brands became primary sponsors after the ban was lifted, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's opted not to renew their contracts after the 2009 season.

NASCAR Politickin'

Given the sport's enormous popularity and the interest in appealing to the "NASCAR Dads" demographic, a race track would seem like a decent place for a presidential hopeful to campaign. NASCAR's BAM Racing Team made sponsorship proposals to Barack Obama and John McCain during the summer of 2008, but both candidates declined. The team's No. 49 car was a Toyota, the only foreign automaker that participates in the sport, and driver Ken Schrader was a documented Republican donor. A Sprint Cup Series car carried a George W. Bush logo in 2004, but was not officially affiliated with the Bush campaign, while Democratic presidential hopeful Bob Graham sponsored a truck in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2003.

In April, Texas Gov. Rick Perry paid $225,000 to have his name and campaign logo featured on the front, back, and both sides of Bobby Labonte's car at the Samsung Mobile 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

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Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?

Elsa, Getty Images
Elsa, Getty Images

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team was founded in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions will host the Houston Texans.

How 'bout them Cowboys?

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Washington Football Team on Thursday.

WHat's with the night game?

In 2006, because six-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Pittsburgh Steelers will welcome the Baltimore Ravens.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.