Last week I started my very own hypothetical race team and picked my short list of the most talented drivers racing in Sprint Cup today. Any of the five would make a strong start for a new team for sure, and talent like that should attract sponsorship to the team as well.
But I said I wanted to start with a two-car team, and being an upstart, I might not get all the top talent I’d like to have. So what to look for in a second driver? Well, part of success in today’s NASCAR is marketability. That’s right, the ability to look good on TV and push a product to its intended demographic has become increasingly important. I’ll admit, I’ve never quite gotten it – after all, shouldn’t driving ability be paramount? But it’s not always that easy. These days, in addition to being able to wheel a car like he stole it, a driver has to look good on television, be able to speak flawlessly to a group of VIPs, act in commercials if the sponsor so desires, and do windows. OK, so I made the last one up, but it’s not really that far off. Today’s driver cannot simply be a driver anymore. That’s why, with the notable exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr., I paid special attention to drivers outside the typical NASCAR spotlight – the guys who always seem to find a ride because of their personal appeal. Here’s my list of five guys in Cup who have those intangibles needed to woo and impress sponsors and fans alike – even if they don’t always get the spotlight.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Why I’d want him: Junior is about the most marketable person on the planet. He has the image of the easy-going guy down the street who you might invite to sit on your porch and share a beer. His seemingly blue-collar roots – the early years were far from easy – are intertwined with racing royalty. Not afraid to speak his mind, Earnhardt Jr. also isn’t going to say anything to embarrass himself or his sponsors. He’s not vanilla, but he’s not habanero, either. On track, he’s a clean racer who has earned the respect of his competitors. He sells product like water in the Sahara, and souvenir sales are one of the things that make funding today’s teams a financial possibility. Earnhardt Jr. is also a team player. Finally, he’s not afraid to have fun on and off the track, and his fans appreciate someone who reminds them of themselves.
Why I might not: Junior is a paradox – though he seems outgoing, in reality, he is almost painfully shy; you have to wonder if the latter limits his accessibility at all. He’s not always articulate, but that’s so tempered with being genuine and real, it probably doesn’t matter. In an ironic twist, his overwhelming popularity keeps him from being accessible to the fans – he’s usually so tied up with corporate or media obligations during a race weekend that it leaves precious little time for interaction with the average fan – the one who doesn’t have corporate hospitality or garage passes. That doesn’t seem to hurt his popularity, but it is a reality to be aware of.
2. Casey Mears
Why I’d want him: Mears is young, outgoing and is one of the most fan friendly drivers in the Cup garage these days. He goes out of his way to be accessible to his fans – one of his first questions when he moved to Hendrick Motorsports was whether he would still be able to sign autographs at his souvenir rig each weekend before the race. Not only does Mears want to sign every week, he is one of the few drivers who doesn’t require a ticket. He simply meets every fan he can in the time he has between team and sponsor obligations. He does it because he wants to, not because of his image. Mears’s reputation is that of one of the nicest drivers in the garage, and that perception seems to be accurate. Mears is articulate and well-spoken, but he isn’t boring. He is family-friendly, but has a sense of humor. By his own words, he’s passionate and easy-going, both-qualities that don’t necessarily always go together in one person.
Why I might not: Despite his family name – one that’s almost synonymous with racing – and driving for one of Cup’s premiere organizations, Mears doesn’t mind taking a backseat to a more outgoing teammate. That’s really not a bad thing, but sometimes a little more “look at me!” is in order. Still Mears ought to get enough looks from his personality that he can afford to fly under the radar sometimes – as long as he jumps in front of the radar on occasion.
Why I’d want him: Sadler is another one of those guys you’d just enjoy hanging out with. He’s not wild and crazy, but he doesn’t shy away from something that looks like fun, either. He’s not afraid to make fun of himself (remember the rabbit release commercial?). He’s certainly not an ego. Another TV commercial comes to mind where Sadler attempts to give champ Jimmie Johnson advice. Johnson calls for the Nextel Cup trophy and then asks Sadler what he was going to say. Of two possible scripts, Sadler chose that one, even though the punchline was at his expense. He’s also an avid hunter, a hobby which many people can relate to and enjoy.
Why I might not: Sadler is almost too nice for his own good. Being nice is never a bad thing, but sometimes Sadler’s relaxed demeanor has been mistaken by some fans as his on-track demeanor. As ridiculous as that is, that perception could give sponsors or fans pause to question his drive. The drive is there, of course, but well, when it comes to selling something, perception is reality.
Why I’d want him: Vickers is young – just 24 – and as an added bonus, can get a previously unnoticed racecar airtime simply because he’s fast, especially when you aren’t expected to be fast. Vickers is one of the few remaining drivers born in North Carolina, and that has a certain appeal to old-school fans. Vickers is friendly and genuine. He showed tremendous poise for such a young man when his best friend, Ricky Hendrick, was killed in a plane crash on his birthday. The very next week, Vickers spoke of his friend in a press conference despite the very real hurt that probably made him want to be anywhere but in front of a television camera – and then he raced, and congratulated his friend and teammate when he won the race. Vickers is mature for his young age and proof that tender age is not an excuse for bad behavior.
Why I might not: If Mears is under the radar at times, Vickers might as well be underground. That’s too bad, because Vickers brings a lot to the table. He’s not an unknown, but he’s not gracing the front page, either. Still, other than an unfortunate miscalculation on a bump draft at Talladega, he’s not on the front page for the wrong reasons. He’ll speak his mind if he needs to – the key for Vickers would be getting more people to listen.
Why I’d want him: Carpentier is one of those personalities that makes you sit up and take notice. He has a wicked sense of humor and is smooth and outgoing. He’s run naked down pit road on a bet, and he’d do it again. While that might not seem like a big deal, it speaks volumes; he’s as good as his word and not afraid to laugh at himself. Those are important qualities in any business. Carpentier is obliging to the media, answering questions in French for Canadian reporters and then English if need be. He’s a hometown boy to a demographic that hasn’t had a lot of locals in NASCAR in recent years.
Why I might not: Carpentier’s personality isn’t showcased by his current sponsor. He’s not making commercials, and he’s not getting race broadcast airtime because he’s not being helped by his equipment. While a different sponsor might use Carpentier’s considerable charm better, his current lack of notoriety isn’t going to make a new sponsor come running.
While I stop short of saying that I’d take marketability over talent, I do realize that the sport has grown to where you can’t ignore the off-track assets a driver brings, either. The cold hard truth is that marketability matters, and there are drivers out of work because of that. If I really was going to start a two-car team with one of those guys I mentioned last week, and one other, I’d take any of these five in a second – they have the personalities to win over sponsors and fans alike, and that’s important in this day and age. Now, as soon as I win the lottery, I can begin negotiations.