Mark Howell · Thursday September 8, 2011
One of the drawbacks to teaching is that the students keep getting younger each fall. They stride across campus with (for the most part) enthusiasm and energy; every day is a new day full of unlimited potential and growth. They bubble over with health and vigor, bounding up-and-down staircases like young deer leaping forest streams. Their bright faces and athletic movements are matched only by their youthful attitudes; the world, for them, is little more than a playground – a place where they can seek thrilling adventure and meaningful experience.
By comparison, faculty members like me move closer to extinction with every first day of class. Those of us who used to walk step-for-step with freshmen now lurch along like dinosaurs, huffing-and-puffing from simple exertions we once laughed at with arrogance. The curly, flowing locks of semester’s past have either turned gray or thinned out into invisibility. Once-slender waistlines of younger days have given way to the spread of age and the cruelties of gravity. What once was young is now not so young. Growing older should mean growing wiser, but typically it means growing more irritable and exhausted.
These are the thoughts that spring to mind when thinking about what might be a Sprint Cup pairing at Stewart-Haas Racing. During a press conference at Atlanta, Tony Stewart mentioned that he’d been considering Mark Martin as a “co-driver” to Danica Patrick for the 2012 season. Given that Patrick is only supposedly going to compete in a handful of Cup races, someone is needed to drive the car at all of the other events. Going with a veteran like Martin means that the fledgling team will enjoy an almost-guaranteed shot at making the show each week, which means more exposure for whoever’s corporate moniker is plastered across the sheet metal. From where I sit, however, it sounds more and more unrealistic that Go Daddy will be the name.
The absence of Go Daddy on Patrick’s Cup car should not be surprising given the financial and social demands required from the company. Go Daddy already made a full-time financial commitment to JR Motorsports, agreeing to sponsor Patrick’s Nationwide team for the entire 2012 NNS season. To expect the firm to pony-up millions more so as to back Patrick’s Cup team seems impractical at best. If life around NASCAR competition teaches an observer anything, it’s that stretching a sponsor too far leads to no sponsor at all. As with any business deal, if a sponsor commits too much cash too soon, the company will most likely be forced to back away from its overall racing investment in order to keep the business itself afloat. The phrase “seeking/pursuing a re-allocation of our marketing and/or promotional funds” means that the sponsor is sweating out their overhead. When that becomes the situation, sponsorship of a race team is the first added expense to go.
That said, it seems like a no-brainer that some major corporate benefactor would be ready, willing, and aptly able to throw buckets of cash at the newest outfit in the Stewart-Haas stable. The sponsor of said team would be backing only the most recognizable name (and face) in motorsports today – even among casual fans who can’t tell an oilpan from a sauté pan. Patrick’s “Q rating” with the public is huge, much more so than that of even a seasoned veteran like Mark Martin (shameful to consider, yet very true). It seems to me that sponsoring a Stewart-Haas Cup car for Danica Patrick/Mark Martin would provide a company with massive amounts of what you’d call “bang for the buck”.
The problem is: what company could step in and make sense of the Patrick/Martin age difference when considering “audience” demographics? Mark Martin will turn 53 in January of 2012; Danica Patrick will turn 30 come March. A 23-year gap in age between a man and a woman is pretty severe, regardless of whether they’re teammates sharing a race car or “soul mates” sharing a ski lodge. Mark Martin has been sponsored by brands like Stroh’s Beer, Folger’s Coffee, and Viagra…well, you know what that does; Danica Patrick, on the other hand, has had recognizable backing from specialized, industry-names like Motorola and the afore-mentioned Go Daddy. So where does Tony Stewart and/or his marketing staff find a suitable sponsor for this new media magnet race team?
One issue will be trying to divide-and-conquer each driver’s overall fan base. Danica Patrick is good at attracting a younger, female audience given all of her various attributes: her age, her skill as a driver, her appearance, and even her aggression toward other drivers who have messed with her during events. The memory of Patrick storming down pit road to confront a rough-driving competitor at Indianapolis a few years ago still lingers in the minds of fans contemplating the relationship between guts and gender within big-time motorsports. Danica is also seen for her more “refined” qualities as a “foodie” and a wine connoisseur, which plays hugely with an entirely unique socio-economic demographic. I, for example, live in a region heralded for its foodie-friendly nature. When you mention Danica Patrick around these parts, you’ll likely hear more references regarding her well-known interests in gourmet cooking and wine collecting than you will about her run at the front with four laps to go in the July NNS event at Daytona.
Mark Martin, conversely, draws a more “old school” fan base. Such is going to be the case when you spend three decades as a NASCAR driver. Martin was a central figure in developing “the house that Jack built,” and he was also at the center of the driver physical fitness movement, logging hours in the gym at a time when most of his peers were staggering blurry-eyed toward what-they-hoped-was home. Mark Martin – much like Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott – seemed to represent a bridge between the NASCAR of old and the NASCAR about-to-be. Not that Martin is a stranger to seeing Patrick hanging out around his cars – Danica took a close look at his Cup ride at Phoenix back in 2005 during one of her initial visits to a NASCAR event. The key advantage to having Mark Martin as Patrick’s teammate is the fact that his thirty years of Cup experience – paired with Danica’s obvious skill behind the wheel of a race car – will greatly shorten her Sprint Cup learning curve. Great performances may not occur overnight, but good finishes will likely come sooner than later with a “tutor” like Mark Martin offering up both advice and constructive criticism.
It’s rather interesting that a major corporate sponsor hasn’t “gone public” already by leaking some news about its intention to finance the newest team readying to roll out the doors at Stewart-Haas Racing. Advance buzz is always a good thing, especially when you’re looking at a media freight train like the one that follows a big name like Danica Patrick. Granted, Mark Martin will be dragged along for the ride, but his desire to race a somewhat-limited schedule seems well-suited to fit in with the needs of this new operation.
The question remains: what company would best fit the audience/fan demographic most closely relevant to a team that employs both Danica Patrick and Mark Martin? It seems that any corporation looking to enhance its public image and gain immediate attention from race fans and Madison Avenue alike would call Smoke and offer up a healthy contract. From the moment the new car rolls off the hauler, the eyes of NASCAR Nation (among others) will be watching with rapt interest. It won’t be mere curiosity; the newest team out of the Stewart-Haas shops will garner both new followers and old converts. Either way, you’re looking at a fan base (even a casual one) that speaks loudly through money and loyalty. In other words: in the NASCAR way.
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