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.

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

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10 Amazing Facts About Bruce Lee

Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive
Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive

Bruce Lee is one of pop culture's most multifaceted icons. Legions of fans admire him for his movies, his martial arts prowess, his incomprehensible physical fitness, his championing of Chinese culture, and even his philosophies on life. Yet for all the new ground Lee broke, most of his recognition only came after his death at the age of 32. Read on to learn more about the life of this profound, if enigmatic, superstar, who is the subject of Bao Nguyen's Be Water, a new EPSN "30 for 30" documentary that will premiere on Sunday, June 7 at 9 p.m. ET.

1. Bruce Lee’s first starring role in a movie came when he was just 10 years old.

In 1950’s The Kid, a pre-teen Bruce Lee played the role of Kid Cheung, a streetwise orphan and wry troublemaker, based on a comic strip from the time. Starring opposite Lee, playing a kindly factory owner, was his father, Lee Hoi-chuen, who also happened to be a famous opera singer. (Bruce Lee was actually born in San Francisco while his father was there on tour; Lee would move back to the U.S. in 1959).

According to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, the movie was a big enough success in China to earn sequel consideration. There was just one problem: A young Bruce Lee was getting into fights at school and out on the streets, so his father forbid him from acting again until he straightened up—which, of course, didn’t wind up happening.

2. Bruce Lee was deemed physically unfit for the U.S. Army.

While he may have walked around with body fat in the single digits and could do push-ups using only two fingers, Lee still managed to fail a military physical for the U.S. draft board back in 1963. Despite being an adherent to physical fitness all his adult life, it was an undescended testicle that kept him from fighting for Uncle Sam in Vietnam.

3. Bruce Lee was an exquisite cha-cha dancer.

Long before he was known for breakneck fight choreography, Bruce Lee’s physical skills were focused on the dance floor. More specifically, the cha-cha. In Polly’s book, Bruce Lee: A Life, the author explains that the dance trend made its way from Cuba through the Philippines and soon landed in China. And once the cha-cha settled into the Hong Kong social scene, it didn’t take long for youth dance competitions to spring up. Lee had been taking part in cha-cha dancing since the age of 14, and in 1958, he won the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship. Foreshadowing his later dedication to martial arts, Lee would keep crib notes of all 108 different cha-cha steps in his wallet so that he could obsessively memorize them.

4. Bruce Lee refused to lose a fight to Robin.

The Green Hornet aired its first episode in September 1966, with Bruce Lee as the Hornet's (Van Williams) lightning-quick sidekick, Kato. The series would immediately be compared to Batman, ABC's other costumed crime-fighting show, and it wouldn't be long before a two-part crossover episode was in the works. And as heroes do, before they teamed up, they first had to fight each other. According to Newsweek, since Batman was by far the more popular show, the script featured a fight between Burt Ward's Robin and Bruce Lee's Kato that was set to end with the Boy Wonder getting the upper hand. But who would really buy that?

Well, Lee certainly didn't—and he knew no one else would, either. Williams later recalled that Lee read the script and simply said, "I'm not going to do that," and walked off. Common sense soon prevailed ... sort of. The script was rewritten to change the ending—not to a Kato K.O., but to a more diplomatic draw. Though The Green Hornet was Lee's first big break in the United States, the series itself lasted only 26 episodes.

5. Bruce Lee trained numerous Hollywood stars.

As Bruce Lee worked to become a big-screen heavyweight, he made a living as a martial arts trainer to the stars. Among Lee’s students were Steve McQueen, James Coburn, James Garner, Roman Polanski, and Sharon Tate. For his services, Lee was known to charge about $275 per hour or $1000 for 10 courses. McQueen and Coburn grew so enamored with Lee over the years that they remained close friends until his death in 1973, with both men serving as pallbearers at Lee's funeral (alongside Chuck Norris).

6. Roman Polanski may have (briefly) thought Bruce Lee murdered Sharon Tate.

In addition to providing Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate with kung fu lessons, Bruce Lee also lived near the couple in Los Angeles when Tate and four others, including Lee’s close friend Jay Sebring, were murdered by the Manson Family in August 1969. It would be months before the Manson Family was arrested for the murders, but in the meantime, according to an article from Esquire, Polanski had grown obsessed with finding a suspect, looking for potential perpetrators even amongst his own inner circle.

During one kung fu lesson in the months after the murders, Lee had mentioned to Polanski how he had recently lost his glasses, which immediately piqued the director’s interest. A mysterious pair of horn-rimmed glasses had been found at the murder scene near his wife’s body, after all. Polanski had even purchased a gauge to measure the lenses and find out the exact prescription so that he could do his own detective work, according to The New York Post.

The director, without giving himself away, offered to bring Lee to his optician to get a new pair—this would allow him to hear Lee’s prescription firsthand and determine if the specs discovered at the crime scene belonged to him. It turned out Lee’s prescription didn’t match, and Polanski never told his friend about his suspicions.

7. Bruce Lee had his sweat glands removed.

Bruce Lee in 'Enter the Dragon' (1973)
Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973).
Warner Home Video

Bruce Lee brought an impeccable physique to the screen that was decades ahead of its time. But because his roles required so much physicality, he would be drenched with sweat while filming. And apparently, the martial arts pioneer loathed the sweat stains that would show up on his clothing as a result. His solution? In 1973, Lee actually underwent a procedure to surgically remove the sweat glands from his armpits to avoid the fashion faux pas from showing up on camera.

8. Bruce Lee’s cause of death still raises questions.

Bruce Lee’s death at the age of 32 on July 20, 1973, was officially ruled the result of a cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain. Lee had complained about headaches on the day of his death, and was given a painkiller by Betty Ting Pei—an actress who claimed to be Lee's mistress—before lying down for a nap. He never woke up.

Though many reports at the time suggested Lee had an allergic reaction to an ingredient in the painkiller, Polly points to a mystery that began on May 10, 1973, when the star previously collapsed in a hot recording studio while dubbing new dialogue for Enter the Dragon.

In Polly’s opinion, Lee’s collapse had to do with heatstroke, since his stint in an overheated recording studio was compounded by a lack of sweat glands that prevented his body from cooling off naturally. Heatstroke can also cause swelling in the brain, much like was found during Lee’s autopsy. And Dr. Lisa Leon, an expert in hyperthermia at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, told Polly, “A person who has suffered one heat stroke is at increased risk for another" and that there may be long-term complications after the initial incident.

9. Footage from Bruce Lee’s Funeral was used in 1978’s Game of Death.

At the time of his death, Bruce Lee was involved in numerous projects, including the movie that would become Game of Death, his next directorial effort. According to Vice, there wasn’t much completed on the film by the time of Lee’s passing—there were some notes, a story outline (which simply read “The big fight. An arrest is made. The airport. The end.”), and 40 minutes of footage, including Lee’s now-iconic fight against NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Usually, a project in that situation would just be a lost cause, but production company Golden Harvest wanted to salvage what they could, so they hired Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse to put together ... something. The result was a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, comprised of 11 minutes of existing footage Lee shot, overdubbed clips from his previous movies, and stand-ins to fill out certain scenes. The director even resorted to using an unfortunate Bruce Lee cardboard cutout to complete one shot.

That’s not even the top rung on the ladder of poor taste: When the movie called for Lee’s character to fake his death, they used footage from his actual funeral to realize the scene, complete with waves of mourners, pallbearers, and closeups of Lee’s open casket.

10. Bruce Lee’s posthumous success resulted in its own sub-genre.

Lee’s career was exploding in China and gaining momentum in the United States by 1973, but he passed away just a month before his biggest hit was released: Enter the Dragon. The movie, which grossed more than $200 million at the worldwide box office, catapulted the late Lee to icon status. But with the star himself no longer around to capitalize, there would soon be a wave of knockoff films and wannabes looking to take advantage of the martial arts craze.

Both affectionately and derisively known as “Bruceploitation” films, this strange sub-genre of martial arts cinema gave life to z-movie oddities like Re-Enter the Dragon and Enter the Game of Death, starring the likes of—and we’re not kidding—Bruce Le and Bruce Li. Jackie Chan was even roped into a few of these movies, like 1976's New Fist of Fury. In 1980, Bruceploitation even went meta with The Clones of Bruce Lee, starring Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lai, who play genetic reconstructions of the late actor after scientists harvest his DNA.