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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: The Best Ad Campaign in NASCAR History

Dale Jarrett picks up his helmet and steps out of the garage in his UPS firesuit. Poignant music begins to play. Dale walks slowly in front of the now iconic UPS truck and stares at it pensively.

He is seen driving the truck in front of the garage. Elliott Sadler and Martin Truex Jr. are seen looking on, and then his buddies Bobby Labonte and Kyle Petty watch the truck go by with smiles on their faces.

The truck is seen alone running on the track, and Dale’s “crew chief” shouts in his headset, “Dale, you got company out there!” Other cars driven by Labonte, Truex, Petty and Sadler join in and inform Jarrett that “you ain’t leavin’ without a race!”

The three-time Daytona 500 winner obliges: “You want a race, you got one!”

His father Ned Jarrett, a NASCAR champion himself, cheers him on: “Go Dale Go!” Finally, after seven years, Dale Jarrett is racing in the big brown truck.

It all started when UPS signed the deal to sponsor Dale Jarrett in Robert Yates’s No. 88 car before the start of the 2001 season. In one of their first commercials, UPS immediately begins to try to persuade Jarrett to race in a standard UPS delivery truck, assuring him, “If you cross the finish line in the big brown truck, there won’t be a dry eye in the place!” Dale refuses, and keeps refusing, despite the pressure from UPS people, kids in the mall, Jackie Stewart, and apparently everyone else in the known universe.

As UPS continues to pressure Dale (“The new logo makes it look a lot faster!”), even numerous celebrities get into the act. Wayne Newton, Joe Walsh, Charlie Daniels all perform spoofs of their hits, modified into a plea to race the truck. George Thorogood performs a comical send-up of “Bad to the Bone” called “Brown to the Bone” (“cause it’s big and it’s brown, b-b-b-b-b-brown to the bone!”). Kermit and Miss Piggy even try to persuade him.

At the beginning of the 2005 season, Dale interrupts a UPS meeting to agree to race the truck, and the news is broadcast as far as Japan before Dale goes back into the meeting and asks the group to keep the news low-key for a while.

And on it went. We want to race the truck. People love the truck.

Like most NASCAR drivers, especially champions, Dale Jarrett was everything a sponsor could ask for. A winner who raced clean and almost never caused trouble on or off the track. Linked to history through his father. A mild-mannered, genuine good ol’ boy that represented what was likable about good ol’ boys. He even had a cool NASCAR-type name. Especially in his prime, it was a no-brainer for a company like UPS, when they were looking to get into NASCAR, to sponsor the car driven by Dale Jarrett.

However, even considering that, few drivers could have pulled off “We Want to Race the Truck” like Jarrett did. Always deadpan, but always with the bewildered and just slightly impatient, irritated look on his face at the continuing insanity around him.

This columnist’s personal favorite spot: Jarrett is riding in an airfield cart with a UPS rep, and he questions how he will compete on the track with the truck’s top speed of 75 mph. The UPS rep explains that UPS has one of the largest airline fleets in the country. When Dale asks what that has to do with racing the truck, a UPS truck screams by with jet engines hilariously attached to it. Dale is completely satisfied, and the ad ends with the jet-engine-adorned UPS truck racing full throttle down a runway.

But there were so many other ones. There was the pit stop practice, where it is learned that not only do the wheels have about 15 lugnuts on them; but also, much to the crew’s surprise and dismay, that there is also another tire behind the outside one that needs to be changed. The exchange in the elevator with the woman who asks him to race the truck; Dale says, “No can do, ma’am” and a UPS rep reprimands him: “Can do, Dale. Can do.” The yoga class with Dale struggling to keep his balance. The suggestion that he wear the truck driver’s uniform shorts. The proposed movie version (“Truck On The Track!”), featuring a Rob Lowe look-alike as Jarrett. The department store scene, with Dale minding his own business riding an escalator, and an announcement comes over the PA: “Would the owner of a white Ford Taurus, please race the big brown truck.”

UPS and Dale Jarrett carried on what were basically variations on the same gag for seven years and it’s still pretty doggone funny. Note to Lorne Michaels: hire some UPS commercial writers for Saturday Night Live.

There will be motorsports journalists everywhere who will give Jarrett his just due for his racing career, and rightly so. His 1999 Cup championship and three Daytona 500 victories alone should undeniably land him in the Hall of Fame someday. Undoubtedly, his accomplishments on the track will get the acknowledgment that is duly deserved.

But his impressive career numbers aside, Jarrett made many of us laugh in commercial breaks probably more than any other driver did. Just by mastering a look of slight discombobulation at the idea of racing against other racecars in a parcel delivery truck.

The UPS ads reminded us all that the marketing of the drivers, the sponsors, and the sport is all part of the big show too.

The big brown truck crosses the finish line first after a hard-fought battle. The “race” fades and the 1999 Winston Cup champion is seen holding the keys to the truck. He unhooks the key from his key ring that includes a UPS keychain. Ceremoniously, wordlessly, he hangs the key on the hook that reads “RACE TRUCK.”

He clutches the UPS big brown truck key chain in his hand and looks off into the distance. And even in a commercial that, like all commercials, is written and rehearsed to perfection, the emotion of the moment seems to be getting the better of Dale Jarrett.

The commercial, the music, a Hall of Fame career, and the funniest ad campaign in the history of NASCAR ends with UPS thanking Dale for a great ride.

NASCAR fans’ faces everywhere might still have dry eyes, but they are probably wearing smiles reflecting on seven years of a brilliantly executed joke. Thanks to Dale Jarrett and the UPS marketing department, now people really do love the truck.

Well done, DJ.

Kurt’s Shorts – Friday, March 14, 2008

  • Tony Stewart raced his heinie off in Atlanta just to get a top five and a post-race interview. You could tell he had been rehearsing his tirade while he was racing… I wonder if his explosion at Goodyear after the race was the kind of emotion Brian France said the sport is looking for more of. We’ll find out when the No. 20 hauler shows up at Bristol after Tony blasted their official tire maker.
  • One cautionary word to Stewart, though, if he switches the tires on his hearse to Firestone, I hope he’s prepared for a long wait at the shop. I speak from experience. No Firestone employees are ever going to be nicknamed “Smoke,” trust me.
  • You wonder how much of what goes on with the tires is politics, who makes the decisions, how knowledgeable they are, who’s getting paid, who’s in a position that shouldn’t be, at Goodyear and/or at NASCAR. At my “other” job, I work for a large corporation that, for the most part, makes a great product, but the mismanagement that goes on is unbelievable sometimes. I can conceive that Goodyear possibly has people making big decisions who have their own self-interest in mind more than the quality of the racing. I hope that’s not the case, because there is danger involved with motorsports. I’m just saying I believe it’s possible.
  • Here’s a good headline: “Despite Stewart’s comments, Goodyear insists tire is worth at least one crap, proves with photos”

Hope you enjoyed Happy Hour this week. Here’s to a great final race for DJ at Bristol.

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