Editor’s Note: This article originally ran on July 28th, 2006.
The Busch Series has long had a reputation as a starting ground for new teams and young, upcoming drivers, but the huge influx of Cup wheelmen into the series in recent seasons has had an effect on that philosophy. Fewer seats have been available to drivers looking to prove themselves, and for startup teams, it has been a difficult road to find the funding necessary to compete with the Cup powerhouse organizations that have accompanied the Cup drivers into the Busch Series. Now, we have a sponsor willing to tell us why.
Before we let that sponsor tell his story, let’s review the problem. The funding of much needed sponsorship dollars has now become the biggest obstacle for Busch only teams, not just to be competitive but to simply compete in the first place. That’s an interesting problem to have, as the Busch Series for years has been not only a place for new teams and drivers to enter the sport, but new sponsors as well. For companies with a smaller marketing budget than the $8-$15 million it might take to sponsor a Cup team, the Busch Series is ideal for them to be a part of racing at a high level. Frequently, they can get into the series for half to a quarter of what they’d need to spend in Cup. Yet, nowadays little of this money seems to be going to Busch only teams while the Cup teams and drivers are flourishing? Why?
We’ve often wondered why a sponsor would pay the same amount for a small, nearly invisible placement on a Cup driver’s car when they could have the primary spot on a smaller team’s hood. It would seem to us that you’d get more bang for the buck with the larger logo. One possible answer might be the unsure nature of the game and the risk that a smaller team might not make the race. Many people, such as Busch Series regular David Green, have expressed a desire to see some sort of system put into place to protect these teams and insure their participation.
While a measure such as what Green suggests might help those teams to make a race, it turns out there may be a different reason for the lack of sponsor interest in them. John Comstock, Director of Marketing for Western Sizzlin Corporation, had an experience last weekend in Martinsville that might shed some light on just how deep the problem really is.
Comstock and Western Sizzlin made their first foray into NASCAR sponsorship by electing to support Mac Hill Motorsports and the No. 56 Chevrolet driven by Kevin Grubb. Comstock had definite reasons for choosing this team because he describes himself as a race fan first and foremost, with a true desire to support the rookies and underdogs. As he phrases it, “I will always root for David to slay Goliath.”
Things really couldn’t have gone better for the first-time sponsor, because Grubb paced the field for laps 104 through 123. It looked like the beginning of a beautiful relationship, but then the reality of the present day Busch Series set in. “I was ecstatic that we were performing so well,” says Comstock, “and the coverage that we were getting on a national broadcast was priceless. I had Tivo’d the race and couldn’t wait to get home to see the car that I had invested so much money in being highlighted on the broadcast as we led the race. What did I find when I went to the portion of the recording that had the 30 laps we were at the front? Plenty of coverage of what D.W. was doing in 30th place, Denny Hamlin‘s struggle for eighth place and all sorts of commentary about the other Cup drivers in the race. Here is a young team without all of the funding of the big guys actually leading a race by almost the entire frontstretch, and all the commentators have to talk about is Carl Edwards‘s hectic schedule trying to get back and forth from Pocono to Martinsville.”
There you have it, folks. That’s your answer to the question of why more sponsors aren’t interested in supporting up and coming Busch Series teams, or, more correctly, why they can’t afford to support them. Doubtless there are several sponsors like Comstock and Western Sizzlin who would love to help the underdogs, but the reality of the situation is that this is a business deal, and there needs to be some return on investment to justify the expense of the sponsor. It does a company no good to have the hood of the car when the car doesn’t get any coverage.
Now, it’s understandable that we may not see the cars at the back of the field. That’s nothing new. But it is downright shameful that a car leading the field for 20 laps fails to appear in the television broadcast.
So, whose fault is it? Is it NASCAR, for allowing the Cup drivers to dominate the series, or the television network for failing to cover all of the teams that deserve to be covered? Ironically, commentators have made a point to highlight the problem of too many Cup drivers in the Busch Series this season, while at the same time focusing their television coverage exclusively on those same drivers while excluding the Busch teams. Comstock concedes that the network probably gets better ratings when they highlight the more popular Cup drivers, but as a fan, Comstock knows what he’d prefer to see. “I do know that personally I would like to see the Cup drivers out of the Busch Series, just to help the smaller teams be more competitive and maybe win a race or two. The dominance of the Cup drivers in the Busch Series is a joke. They might as well just call it Nextel Cup 2.” On the other hand, he also concedes that the series might not get as much coverage as it currently enjoys without the Cup drivers. That being said, if the Cup drivers and teams must be present, he’d like to see a better balance in the coverage.
“I would just like to see the broadcast guys give equal billing to the Busch regulars when they are doing well,” says Comstock. “I watched the race again and was mad all over again as the cameras followed Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick around and around the track as they led the race, and didn’t focus on Grubb while he was leading except during a restart and while he was being passed by Harvick. I don’t have sour grapes, but maybe the announcers could make more of an effort to support the drivers equally and even highlight some of the smaller teams to help support the organizations that essentially sign their paychecks.”
So what conclusion did Comstock and Western Sizzlin come to after their first NASCAR sponsorship experience? Sadly, the same conclusion that countless companies before them have probably come to. It’s a matter of economics, no matter where one’s heart truly lies. “It did affect my decision to participate with future sponsorships, but did not discourage me from participating completely,” says Comstock. “I think that the unfortunate part is whether it makes sense to sponsor the smaller teams. Even if they have success, they don’t get the coverage that the teams with Cup drivers get, so why not maximize the return on investment by spending more to sponsor the bigger teams? My heart is with the rookies, but financial obligations and responsibilities make it a tough decision.”
So the upcoming Busch teams and drivers are the ones that suffer the consequences once again as yet another new sponsor entering the sport sees the economic realities of the increased presence of the Cup drivers in the Series. In spite of the desire to help the underdog and the lure of the bigger logo, if it can’t be backed up by the return on investment, Western Sizzlin, like many other companies, may have to put their much needed financial support behind Goliath instead of David.