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."
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.
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.
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.