Economic times forcing teams to seek new sponsors

Kevin Conway is a walking billboard for – how can we say this

delicately? – better performance in the bedroom.

“That’s kind of the elephant in the room,” he says with a

mischievous grin, wearing a race suit with the word “ExtenZe”

around his neck, across his chest and back, and down the sides of

both legs.

All giggling aside, the sponsorship deal for the No. 37 car

shows how teams must look beyond conventional sponsors in these

tough economic times. This is a sport that requires more than just

a fast car and a talented driver; someone’s got to be willing to

foot the bill with a lot of zeros on the check.

Which brings us to Conway, a 30-year-old, college-educated

rookie who knew he’d need more than just a heavy right foot to

break into the Sprint Cup series.

Like anyone who’s had trouble sleeping, he’d seen one of those

bawdy ExtenZe infomercials sandwiched between pitches for

stay-at-home jobs that will turn you into an instant millionaire

and video collections for long-ago television shows.

Hmmm, he thought, wonder if ExtenZe would be willing to sponsor

a stock car?

“If you look back a few years ago, there was no such thing as

an energy drink. Red Bull kind of created that category, much the

same way ExtenZe has done for the male enhancement category,” said

Conway, who majored in marketing at UNC Charlotte.

“It’s the heart of America,” said Robert Wilhovsky, the

company’s director of motorsports marketing. “You reach a real

loyal, passionate customer base that sticks with you. They

appreciate and understand your involvement in their sport, their

way of life, and it resonates well with them. They, in turn, thank

you at the counter.”

Conway, however, has had a tough time as a Cup rookie. He wasn’t

approved to race in the season-opening Daytona 500 because of a

lack of superspeedway experience, and he hasn’t finished higher

than 31st in his three starts. The team needs to be in the top 35

to maintain its automatic spot in the field after the next event at

Bristol; Conway is 40th.

Although he said there was some resistance at first from NASCAR

officials it didn’t take much of a selling job. After all, the

series once had a car sponsored by Viagra.

“If you look back historically, particularly in the last 10

years, NASCAR has attracted a broad spectrum of sponsors,” said

Ramsey Poston, the series’ managing director of corporate

communications. “We’ve seen more sponsors coming into the sport,

which is encouraging.”

Especially at a time when many teams have folded or merged

because of a lack of sponsorship dollars. NASCAR, like every other

major sport, has felt the sting of the economic downturn, though

Poston said some recent deals indicate the worst is over.

To pay the bills, teams have been forced to look beyond the base

of beer companies, home improvement stores and package delivery

services.

For last weekend’s race at Atlanta, Greg Biffle was sponsored by

the U.S. Census Bureau in the first of a three-race, $1.2 million

package.

“Get those Census forms in,” Biffle quipped. “If you don’t

send your form back, I’m going to be at your doorstep.”

Although it might be difficult to tell from the potpourri of

logos at a NASCAR track, Poston said there are standards when it

comes to approving sponsors.

First, the product must be legal.

“Absolutely, there are limits,” he said. “We have a lot of

casinos that are title sponsors and car sponsors. But right now,

the gray area is online gaming.”

There’s no such gray area with Conway’s sponsor. That hasn’t

stopped the junior-high-level humor, so the company decided it was

best to go along with the joke (in contrast to Viagra, which

refused to make light of its product during its stint in

NASCAR).

The team sells shirts on its Web site and from its merchandise

trailer that turns up at the track each week.

“Everybody’s had a good time with it,” Conway said. “And

everybody just wears us out for samples.”

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