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 VIPs 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.
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 100 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 mid-week 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 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.