The hectic schedule that comes with Independence Day festivities often steals attention away from NASCAR events held in early July. But while people plan for camping trips, picnics, and visits with family, the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races go on as they always do, sometimes lost in the shuffle of cookouts, parades and community activities. Fireworks, too, are an expected and anticipated part of the July 4th holiday, and this year’s return trip to Daytona filled the bill. As was the case in February, a new face graced the space in Victory Lane following the Cup event – yet another chapter of the excitement surrounding this year’s scramble for a spot in the Chase. The Nationwide race had its share of excitement, as well, in a variety of interesting ways, even though people found themselves having to juggle prior commitments.
So there I was on Friday evening: sitting at Wuerfel Park just south of Traverse City, watching a Frontier League baseball game between the Traverse City Beach Bums and the visiting Evansville Otters. It was the second inning when the Otters began a slugfest against TC’s starting pitcher. As the visiting team racked up run after run, the fans sitting near me began exploring other entertainment options. A few people opted for a trip to the concession stand, while a family with three kids headed off to the playground near right field. One man, seated behind me, popped in a pair of ear buds and began listening to something on his iPhone. I assumed he was simply listening to the play-by-play of the ballgame, until I heard him utter the words “Daytona” and “Ricky Carmichael.” I quickly spun around in my seat and faced him. “Is that the Nationwide race?” I asked. The man, who had directed the comment to his wife, pulled out one of his earpieces and said “Carmichael just had a wreck.” Suddenly, I had a new best friend.
As the game wore on, and as the home team struggled in their effort to attempt a comeback, I paid close attention to the family seated right behind mine. They were obviously NASCAR fans, and they were trying to maintain their connection to the race broadcast (I’m not sure how they were picking up the feed, but the man kept saying that “the signal” was drifting in and out). I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversations, and I was impressed by the fact that both the husband and his wife could explain how restrictor plates worked to their children. Their children seemed less-than-thrilled about the specifics of plate racing, but they showed some interest, nonetheless. Talk of the Nationwide race waned until a few innings later, when the man announced that “Patrick just got the lead with Stewart’s help.”
Again, I spun around in my seat to face the man. “Danica Patrick’s in the lead?” I asked. “How many laps are left?” The man fiddled with his telephone and tipped it back-and-forth a bit; “They’ve got 58 to go…” he said with a grimace, as though he was trying to make out the information through a weak signal. “Stewart pushed her to the front.” Suddenly, there were other eavesdroppers in the crowd, as people throughout our section of seats along the third-base line looked toward the man, as though he were about to announce that night’s lottery numbers. Such is the allure of Danica Patrick…
My mind began to race; here was a possible subject for my column this week. If Danica Patrick went on to win the Subway Jalapeno 250 Powered by Coca-Cola, the world would surely tip off its axis. The weekend would enter the history books as yet another NASCAR record was established in 2011. But then… what if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went on to break his three-year-plus-change losing streak by winning the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola the following night? That was a “push-me, pull-you” restrictor plate race, but Junior seemed to run pretty well at Daytona in February (save for the late-race accident that knocked him down the finishing order). Perish the thought! One could only speculate as to what havoc might sweep NASCAR Nation if either (or both) of those scenarios played themselves out. My focus on the ballgame quickly shifted toward a focus on the events that seemed to be unfolding, even though holding the lead at Daytona with 58 laps to run was about as sure a thing as keeping the grass from growing by staring at it (and I know about this one; I try it every summer).
My thoughts drifted from the baseball game to more pressing issues; I began to think about Danica Patrick (and no, not in THAT way…) It’s easy to play “What if?” when faced with the possibility of such a significant sports story. Toss in the fact that recent reports predict that GoDaddy, Patrick’s primary sponsor, might come under new ownership very soon (a sale that closed last week), and suddenly all sorts of variables enter the picture. Danica Patrick is a sponsor’s dream-come-true, and any ride she has will almost certainly be fully-funded, but what company would best benefit from her almost-certain move to NASCAR on the heels of her first Nationwide win? Even though there were 58 hard-fought laps to go, the gears between my ears began to grind.
If Danica Patrick were to suddenly be in need of a primary sponsor in NASCAR, regardless of whether she intended to run in the Nationwide Series or in the Sprint Cup Series, she might have to look no further than to her own home state. There’s a company located there that enjoys a loyal audience with both baseball fans and NASCAR fans alike. The notion behind this thought came from a scan through the Beach Bums’ 2011 program – within the pages of the book was an advertisement from a potential sponsor that’s visible from the front gates of Wuerfel Park itself, a business that just might fit the demographic that Danica Patrick should court if she suddenly finds herself making the move to NASCAR.
The potential sponsor is Culver’s, a family-owned fast food franchise that is solidly based all throughout the American Midwest and quickly spreading into regions like Texas and the Carolinas. Culver’s originated in Sauk City, Wisconsin – a town located about 80 miles from where Danica Patrick (in 1982) was born – on July 18, 1984. The business has grown, in part, because of its dedication to serving its customers high-quality food in a clean and family-oriented/communally-based environment. The Culver’s across from the ballpark near Traverse City, for example, hosts a weekly “cruise night” for area car enthusiasts; such are the ties that the restaurant chain seeks to generate, and such are the ties that generate an almost-religious level of customer loyalty (serving good burgers and frozen custard also helps). Patrick might create a “perfect storm” of sorts if she (or her team of management people) decided to capitalize on her Wisconsin roots and her move into a loyalty-driven sport like NASCAR.
I’ve written here before about my disdain for sponsors that encourage less-than-respectful reactions to their products and the race teams they fund. Hence, my issues with GoDaddy, based – in large part – on my previous experience with a race team sponsored by the Hooters restaurant chain. My disdain even extends to companies that deal in alcoholic beverages; I don’t care if people drink while at the track, but I am always a bit alarmed when I see a brewery or distillery promoting those kinds of beverages on the side of a race car. I’m fully aware of the historic relationship between “moonshine” and NASCAR, but that doesn’t mean that there still needs to be one. The notion that people must “drink responsibly” is all well and good, but sponsor loyalty and personal control in public (or even in private) settings don’t always sync up. A more acceptable sponsor is capable of attracting a larger and more diverse fan base, and that larger fan base can result in increased sales – which almost always lead to increased revenues. Culver’s seemed to me, as I sat in the stands at Wuerfel Park, like a good fit for Patrick: a popular eatery that could align itself with a popular driver.
Not that Danica Patrick truly embodies the fast-food model – she prides herself as a “foodie” and a wine collector – but what a way for her to build on her connection to a Midwestern, “girl-next-door” upbringing. Putting this popular young woman from Wisconsin in a stock car sponsored by a Wisconsin-based company with locations in NASCAR-friendly regions could result in a long list of relevant tie-ins. There could be discounts on purchases following a race win (much like Shell does for card-carrying customers on the Wednesday after a Kurt Busch victory), or the creation of menu items in honor of Patrick and her race team. The employees at Culver’s are even called “The Blue Crew” – how already-NASCAR-appropriate is that? Darrell Waltrip used to race with help from “The Dew Crew” way back when, so might such a name apply to Patrick’s team? Such were the thoughts that churned about in my head as the baseball game unfolded before me. The innings, like TC’s chances for victory that night, slipped away, but there was still my new best friend, his iPhone, and the finish to Friday night’s Nationwide race.
When the finishing order was posted, the man seated behind me scrolled through the names. It was refreshing to hear the mixed rundown within the top 10; to hear Sprint Cup names like Logano and Busch scattered amongst Nationwide regulars like Leffler, Sorenson, and Allgaier reaffirmed that there’s a wealth of talent to be found in both touring divisions. In the end, Danica Patrick wound up tenth after getting tangled in the final lap/at-the-line, eight-car scrum that shuffled the eventual finishing order (and that missed my neighbor’s post-race report). Once the smoke had cleared, Patrick had led five times for 13 laps at Daytona, having been both the “pusher” and the “puller” in tandem drafts with drivers like Tony Stewart and Aric Almirola. Her run was something to admire, even though she fell (yet again) short of Victory Lane.
The end of Saturday’s Cup race, however, provided me with much more food for thought. With Matt Kenseth finishing a close second to David Ragan, who cast aside the restart gaffe that cost him a possible win in the 500 back in February, the Culver’s sponsorship idea came to me yet again. With Crown Royal announcing its plan to drop sponsorship of Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford at the end of 2011, might it not be a good time for the Wisconsin-based, family-friendly hamburger chain to find a steady home in NASCAR’s top touring division? Kenseth is a Wisconsin native, so his regional roots are already in place. He’s also got children, which seems like a good fit for a company that’s dedicated to community outreach.
Maybe it’s not such a crazy idea after all, especially since Kenseth is recognized as a consistent title contender who began his career racing throughout the Upper Midwest. With sponsorship dollars in short supply, might not any financial port in a storm look hopeful?
You bet your butterburger with a side of fries, it does.
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