Matt McLaughlin · Thursday November 13, 2008
A news item earlier this week probably flew well beneath most fans’ radar screens, but it raised my blood pressure up a notch or two. It hearkens back to comments I made in last week’s column that touched on NASCAR’s current economic crisis. Some fans reading that have written to strongly support my opinion; but apparently, no one in Daytona Beach is getting the message.
In case you missed it, this week NASCAR offered up “news” in one of their turgid press releases to the effect that O’Reilly Auto Parts is now the Official Auto Parts Supplier of NASCAR. As such, the memo noted the deal allows for O’Reilly Auto Parts to be “an exclusive NASCAR partner, and utilize NASCAR marks and marketing programs in store and in related media.” (Of course, it also left open the possibility that that some other parts chain could become the Official Truck Parts Supplier, Official SUV Parts Supplier, or the Official Mini-Van Parts Supplier of NASCAR, since O’Reilly only got the “official auto parts” part of the deal. Such a contract seems typical of the ravenous greedhounds at NASCAR who are milking the life out of this sport.)
My purpose here is not to diss O’Reilly Auto Parts. I’ve never even been in one of their stores, and brothers and sisters, I buy a ton of auto parts. In fact, I might be in the YearOne Hall of Fame by now with the four Chevys my buddy and I are restoring for resale. I haven’t made a conscious decision to avoid doing business with them; it’s just that their nearest store is over 200 miles from my farm, and that’s a long way to go to get spark plugs. According to their website, O’Reilly claims to be the fastest growing parts chain in America, with 1,830 stores open and more on the way. Maybe an O’Reilly’s will open next door to me next week — although I doubt that. Neither of my neighbors seem inclined to move, and my area is zoned “Limited Redneck, Non-Running Cars, and Appliances Storage.” However, they could indeed open a store near here in hysterical Guthriesville (perhaps beside the Wawa that the Anti-Christ has slated for the intersection of Horseshoe Pike and Bondsville-Hopewell Road). I’d certainly take a stroll through the joint to see what they had, and if they had genuine countermen or the usual “couldn’t get any other job so this will do, though I hate it” high school degenerates.
“So what?,” many of you are thinking. NASCAR has more “Official This’s and That’s” than a junkyard mongrel has fleas. If there’s not an official Toilet Tissue of NASCAR yet, it’s only because no jerry roll corporation has waved a sufficiently large check in front of the powers that be’s piggish little faces.
The problem here, once again, is that in this troubled economy NASCAR is competing against the teams and tracks for sponsorship dollars. If O’Reilly Auto Parts wanted to become involved in NASCAR racing, they could have backed any number of worthy teams right now desperately searching for sponsorship to stay viable. This year, O’Reilly’s signed up to be title sponsor of a Cup race, two Nationwide races, and two Truck Series events. However, it remains to be seen if the company will continue to sponsor races after dumping all this cash into NASCAR corporate coffers for their “official” rights. And this is in an era where track owners are already facing declining attendance and increasing expenses.
It’s also weird to know that O’Reilly will be the Official Parts House of NASCAR when some of their main competitors are also knee-deep in the sport. NAPA signed a deal with the late Dale Earnhardt to sponsor the third team run out of his DEI shop. They went on to follow Michael Waltrip to a team of his own, for better or worse. CARQUEST is a co-sponsor of Rick Hendrick’s No. 5 team and, of course, is the “Official Auto Parts Supplier of Hendrick Motorsports,” a firm which has changed its “Official Oil” more often than I change printer ribbons. So, as a NASCAR fan, do you shop at O’Reilly’s because they’re the Official Parts House of NASCAR, or do you shop at NAPA because you like Mikey, or do you go to Carquest because Jeff Gordon wears their patch on his uniform? Or, do you go to Rich’s Auto Parts store on the corner, because there’s always a fresh pot of coffee up on Saturday mornings — and, he once opened his store at 10 PM on a Sunday after running into him at the diner, when the alternator on the truck you needed to get to work on Monday crapped the bed on the way home from Dover?
But in NASCAR’s world, O’Reilly, not Rich’s, will always win out. In one of those underhanded deals NASCAR is famous for, it appears even cars sponsored by other auto parts chains will have to run O’Reilly decals as part of the contingency program next year — just as the Alltel car and the AT&T car have to run Sprint decals on their cars this year.
What’s ironic about this is auto parts chains other than the anointed ones still carry parts that also include “Official NASCAR” signage. I change a ton of spark plugs, and every box of Autolites I use has NASCAR’s official logo on the package. It’s the same with WIX Filters, Mobil One oil, and numerous other products that I’m forgetting. So, when you a buy a set of NASCAR’s official spark plugs from a non-sanctioned parts house, are you liable to be bought up on charges of treason or even blasphemy? The sheer illogic of the whole situation seems lost on the hog boys at NASCAR, and will remain so as long as the trough they have their snouts in remains full — even while starving piglets around them try to muscle their way to their trough for a smaller portion simply to remain alive.
To be truthful, the whole myth of NASCAR fans being fanatically loyal to sponsors involved with the sport is as out of date as whitewalls and fake convertible roofs. To this day, I still drink Folgers coffee because they sponsored Tim Richmond. I wear Wrangler jeans because they sponsored Dale Earnhardt back in the day. I drink Coors Light because they backed Bill Elliott in his glory years. Some habits die hard. But I can’t think of a more recent sponsorship agreement that sways my personal buying decisions. I work hard for my money. When I spend it, I want a good product at a good price, and I don’t give a flying fig if I’ve seen their decals on a race car, much less on the list of NASCAR’s anointed ones. In fact, I’ll even avoid some products simply because their makers are in bed with NASCAR in what I see as adulterous circumstances. If a corporation backs the Labor Day weekend race at a track anywhere else than Darlington, they’ve lost my business for life. No Pepsi, Sharp, Sony TVs, or Pop Secret popcorn will be found on these premises; and occasionally at the grocery store, I’ll move all the Pop Secret back behind competitors’ brands just to hide it.
So, best of luck to the O’Reilly people with their new corporate relationship. But if you’re thinking that you’re going to sway the real car guys into your store by writing NASCAR big checks, don’t count on it.
Gentle readers, I have made my point. Allow me to swing off on a tangent as you have indulged me so many times before. I’m a real car guy. I can prove my bonafides with the scar tissue on my knuckles, grease under my fingernails, and boxes full of used car parts to vehicles I haven’t owned in two decades carefully piled in my garage … just in case. I’ve owned over 150 vehicles in my lifetime, and have spent more on tools this year than I did on clothing and furniture combined. In fact, I’ve spent more on car parts than I have on food every year for at least a decade. I’ll live on hot dogs and generic corn chips for months at a time just so long as I can drop a rebuilt big block under the hood of the latest project car. The “toy car” I keep in the garage is worth four times more than my daily driver that lives in the driveway. I’ll gladly scrape the ice off the windows of the daily driver, cursing the weather with a cigarette dangling from the corner of my mouth rather than letting the Trans Am spend a night under the stars. My Harley is parked in the living room all winter lest it catch a chill.
Let me tell you how real car guys pick a parts house. You go to the place where you’ve found a counter person, usually quite a few years older than the kids at Pep Boys, who knows what he’s doing. He gives you the right parts time after time, whether it’s for your late model truck or your 40-year-old Ford. If you tell him you need valve cover gaskets for a small block Chevy, he goes and gets them without a glance at the computer. The same happens when you tell him you need a battery for a Ford F-Series pickup. He’s the guy who sells you calipers, then remembers to ask you if you have enough brake fluid at home to complete the job because you seldom do, saving you the ride back. He’s the guy willing to hang out a half hour after work so you can get there with a ride from a buddy to get the parts you need, to get your car running so you can get to work the next day. Eventually, he remembers your first name and greets you as a friend. He’ll drop parts by your place on the ride home from work, have a beer with you and offer advice. When you need the hard to find stuff, he leaves the computer, scours paper catalogs that are dog-eared and, if necessary, takes down your number and calls you later to say he’s found what you need for your 40-year-old Plymouth. He’s got pictures of his cool old cars and his projects at his work station. He’ll call tech lines and tear through boxes with you to find the correct starter for that old El Camino you just bought with an engine of unknown vintage and displacement. He’s the guy who takes pride in being a counterman and, given a chance, wouldn’t switch to selling high end electronics just because it pays better.
Car guys find their counter guys and stick by them loyally. They also don’t hammer their guy to find him a foot actuated starter for a International KB1 panel truck and then run down to Pep Boys to get their oil because it’s 50 cents a quart cheaper; instead, they steer business to their counter guy and his shop. And if they run into the guy’s boss, they remind him that guy is the only reason they shop there. If they run into their counter guy at a bar, they buy him a brew.
The relationship between a real car guy and his counter guy is almost as sacred and cherished as a marriage … and there are a lot fewer divorces. And that’s from someone who’s followed my counter guys from store to store as they changed jobs just like I used to follow the Dead. So, maybe what O’Reilly’s needs to be doing with their marketing money is to increase the salaries of their best counter people to keep them around, rather than dumping it into the troughs of NASCAR — where all their cash is nothing more than just another drop in the bucket.
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