The Frontstretch: Dog and Pony Show for Sponsors Can Leave Fans With a Flea Circus by Amy Henderson -- Friday March 21, 2008

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Dog and Pony Show for Sponsors Can Leave Fans With a Flea Circus

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday March 21, 2008


Over the years, the sponsor landscape has changed drastically, from one of small, mostly local automotive-driven businesses to one of billion-dollar international corporations who pump millions into the race teams for the right to paint their logo on the hood of a racecar. And in return, they get a polite, smiling racecar driver to come to the hospitality village to speak to VIP's and potential clients.

Oh, and to appear at the occasional company meeting.

And maybe sometimes make a commercial.

And did we leave out the photo shoot and the 17 grand openings? Sorry about that. And while you're at it, you said "darn" in your last interview. Clean up the language, okay?

Sure the sponsors pony up a lot of money, but do they really own the drivers? Sometimes you have to wonder if they ask too much. They want a perfection from their drivers that alienates those drivers from the fans.

Case in point: the defending Sprint Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson. Johnson has been accused by fans of being too vanilla, too company line, too…well, boring. But are the canned interviews really Johnson, or, for that matter, any of his competitors? Ask Johnson, and he'd say no—but that catering to sponsors from the age of 14 as a necessity to race will teach you what to say to keep them happy. Even if it's boring.

Canned, politically correct responses are the norm for Sprint Cup Series drivers.

Drivers are constantly reminded if their sponsor has paid for an in-car camera, to be sure that they don't do something that might embarrass the corporate types wooing clients in their skyboxes. Meanwhile, the fans are practically begging for them to show some personality. Last time I checked, sponsors were dependent on fans to sell product…but even that landscape is changing, and the most brand-loyal fans take a backseat to a corporate client.

Not only the drivers' personalities are being curbed. Not long ago, you could see half a dozen drivers signing autographs at their souvenir haulers, relaxed and enjoying a little interaction with the fans. Now that too has changed, and while drivers still do appear, it's a hurried affair sandwiched between sponsor appearances, limited to a hundred or so fans who had to show up at the crack of dawn to secure a ticket and who are rushed through the assembly line faster than a new Chevy in Michigan.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said a few years ago that his contract stipulated nearly 60 appearances annually for Budweiser. Roughly half of them were hospitality at the track, leaving several midweek jaunts to wherever the company wanted him to go. And that was just one sponsor. Add in the time spent making appearances and shooting TV spots for associate sponsors, and NASCAR's top drivers, and it's no wonder the appearances for the fans both at and away from the track have dwindled. These guys need some time to prepare for the race, not to mention taking care of all the business that we all have to do-like laundry, grocery shopping, and spending quality time with family.

Even NASCAR wants the drivers to be more personable and to show their feisty sides lately. But NASCAR itself was never the real problem—the drivers aren't trying to please NASCAR, they're trying to please the sponsors.

Now, I'm not saying fans should not be grateful to the many sponsors that make it possible for their favorite team to race each week. But it would be nice for the sponsors to recognize the average fan more often—the guy who saved up for weeks for his ticket and the chance to see his favorite wheel it on Sunday, not the one sitting in the corporate box and the hospitality tent on the company dime. They should loosen the reins a little, allow their drivers to speak up and speak out—they aren't trick ponies. We want NASCAR to recognize the sport's roots, but sometimes the people footing the bills need to think on that vein as well—giving the drivers more time to interact with fans and to be relaxed when they do would go further than the 33rd stale Q&A in hospitality. Sometimes less is more.

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03/21/2008 06:18 AM

Drivers can’t win. Either they’re vanilla or their crybabies. Jimmie Johnson may come off as bland sometimes, but part of the reason for that is that he and his team are so danged good it bores people. When he said “This is for all the Johnson haters”, people jumped all over him.

There IS something to be said for a driver who keeps his temper in check, and not just because it’s the sponsor-friendly thing to do. Yes, we loved the Yarborough-Allison fight, but we love guys like Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin too. When Jimmie Johnson retires, he will be remembered as a great champion, and the only reason people hated him was because he beat their driver. That’s the way it always works.

03/21/2008 07:14 AM

My momma always told me…. “it takes all kinds to make this world go ‘round….” They are who they are and that’s what we get. Just think if they were all the same… how boring would that be…. 43 Tonys or 43 Marks, or 43 whoevers…. that would be way to much for any one fan to stand. I like the mix, even if I don’t like some of the pieces and parts.

NA$CAR started out to be about racing. Now it’s more about walking, talking, 200 mile an hour billboards. Face it, that’s the way it’s going to be from here on out. And as I said yesterday, everything has a sponsor….. this comment brought to you by the productive joining of my Mom and Dad.

03/21/2008 08:16 AM

Vanilla & Bland!

Welcome to today’s NA$CAR!

Oh, did we mention the Tux’s at the banquet???

Just how sick is that one?

Bobby Ricky
03/21/2008 01:18 PM

Jimmie IS bland. He never says much of anything. And he talks on his radio show about drinking wine in his NYC apartment.

And now, he’s showing that, unless his car is set up perfectly, he can’t race, either.

03/22/2008 01:08 PM

It’s the “WalMarting” of Nascar. And if someone gets offended from seeing or hearing something on TV then there’s hell to pay.

I can’t blame the drivers for playing it safe. But I would love to see a driver come out onstage in NY in overalls and a straw hat. “Let’s hear it for the rednecks who made this sport! Why are we in NY anyway?!?”


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.