Gordon embraces unique sponsorship

We’ve seen the photos and television live shots of NASCAR drivers sitting in luxury suites at the Super Bowl, walking the red carpet at Hollywood premieres, soaring in the cockpit with the Navy’s Blue Angels, belting out the national anthem at Wrigley Field and even sitting down with the president of the United States in the Oval Office.

Yet Jeff Gordon is convinced he has found a job perk that trumps all that flash and splash: the ability to make a life-saving difference for millions of people — the ultimate high-speed impact.

He has fully embraced his sponsor, the AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger. It’s a traditional sponsor setup with a nontraditional twist — one that makes this a special relationship for Gordon.

In the few months since their relationship began, Gordon and his team sponsor have already helped feed nearly 400,000 American senior citizens who might otherwise go hungry, according to the AARP. And that’s just in the cities that have hosted one of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series races so far.

“Representing the companies I have over my career has always been fun and exciting,’’ said the four-time champ Gordon. “As a race car driver you want to represent a cool, fun brand. But now that I’ve been a race car driver all these years, I think it’s even cooler to change people’s lives.’’

It’s certainly a different kind of adrenaline rush for an athlete used to living on the edge and a sport more accustomed to hawking beer, motor oil and home-improvement stores. By these standards, Gordon’s decision to put a charity on the hood of his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolet’s seems revolutionary.

And he’s hoping it is.

“It’s a totally different mind-set,’’ Gordon said. “Honestly, I don’t know if 10 years ago I would have gotten behind something like this . . . but with just the experience of life and the things that become more important to you, I’ve gotten into it and to me, it’s fascinating.

"I feel like it did come at the right time in my career. And I feel like we’ve sort of set a trend in NASCAR that will be catching on.’’

As NASCAR’s winningest active driver, a four-time points champ and perhaps its most polished pitchman, Gordon had several sponsorship opportunities to consider when his long-term deal with DuPont ended in 2010.

But Gordon, who has raised millions of dollars for his Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation and is a national spokesman for Sounds of Pertussis (whooping cough awareness), has long been one of the most philanthropic athletes in all of sports.

He isn’t just a talking head, trying to get a sponsor mention. Gordon’s voice changes, and he becomes visibly passionate as he talks about the Drive to End Hunger program. He shares the startling statistic that more than 51 million Americans, including 6 million older than 60, are going hungry and the numbers are growing.

It is one thing for a famous race car driver to convince fans they should taste the latest, greatest energy drink but quite another to ask them to help feed our nation’s hungry.

The question was how the AARP Foundation’s goals to raise money and awareness with Gordon’s backing would translate into full-time NASCAR race sponsorship.

The flashy term in the industry for this is “cause-driven” sponsorship. And while it’s not unusual to see a team or driver get behind a cause or a charity to raise money on a race weekend here or there, it is new to have a major star dedicated to a single cause for the whole racing season.

As untested a venture as it is for Gordon, it’s also uncharted ground for the AARP, which looked at NASCAR fans’ reputation for involvement and outreach and saw a mostly untapped market of 80 million fans.

“As we began talking about this at the AARP Foundation, we said, ‘This is going to be unusual,’ ’’ said Jo Ann Jenkins, president of the AARP Foundation. “It’s more and more difficult to raise money and draw attention to the charity. But we have found the NASCAR community most receptive.

“If we’re going to solve this issue of hunger, we need to reach everyone and not rely just on our traditional group of AARP supporters.’’

But, Jenkins readily admitted, even the AARP must conduct sensible business and make the numbers add up to justify a sports sponsorship. To that end, the Drive to End Hunger campaign was already a success a month into the season.

Through the first three races on the NASCAR schedule, the AARP Foundation’s sponsorship on Gordon’s car had produced the equivalent of $7.6 million in in-broadcast exposure, according to Joyce Julius & Associates, which tracks and evaluates the corporate sponsorship.

Just as important to this mission — and part of what makes this initiative so different — is getting fans to rally around the cause both locally and nationally.

Gordon said he first realized the impact of his sponsorship during the season-opening Daytona 500, where he earned a front-row starting position for his new-look Chevrolet.

The media attention and excitement surrounding him directly resulted in a huge boost for the AARP Foundation’s first stop on a food drive that will continue at every market and city on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.

During Daytona Speedweeks, the Drive to End Hunger campaign secured enough donations from race fans and local businesses to provide 77,855 meals through Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

And Monday after the race? Daytona International Speedway donated all its leftover food from race concessionaires. It’s a policy other tracks have since adopted.

“That’s where it hit me,’’ Gordon said. “Hearing and seeing the impact and all the awareness that went on and the contributions to the local food banks in Florida alone . . . it’s real exciting to part of this.

“And it says a lot about our fan base and how giving they are.’’

And, as Gordon soon discovered, while he doesn’t necessarily get the lavish perks and fringe benefits of more traditional sponsors, he has received something just as valuable: good karma.

A week after Daytona, he ended a 66-race winless streak and drove his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevy into Victory Lane at Phoenix.