Unique new sponsors popping up in NASCAR

Once upon a time, products tied to the manufacturer or maintenance of cars adorned the sides of those competing in NASCAR. The sport gained support from not only the manufacturers, but corporations tied to the races from parts and pieces to the ones selling beer at the tracks.

But in the latest sign that this isn’t your daddy’s NASCAR, a wide berth of corporations have taken over the sport in the last decade. From medical products to Web companies to cell phones, the sport’s undergone a major shift in just what type of companies are backing its competitors, ranging from small, growing entities to Fortune 500 companies.

And why not? With a fan base noted for being loyal to products and an economy that forces teams to search deeper and wider into corporate America, it’s natural that an increasingly diverse range of products would be appearing in the sport. In 2010, the group of companies sponsoring NASCAR teams is highly diverse, probably with an equally wide range of goals and ways of activating their programs.

In an era when business-to-business relationships have become a factor in the sport and a time when teams are utilizing an array of sponsors to back an individual team for a season, the doors and hoods of cars sport an increasing variety of colors and sponsors.

Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 with Bass Pro Shops. Four-time champion Jimmie Johnson is backed by Lowe’s Home Improvement stores and the Kobalt Tools brand. Jeff Gordon’s long carried the colors of DuPont and its string of products.

Then look a little further.

The sponsors for the top 12 drivers range from Shell/Pennzoil (points leader Kevin Harvick) to Crown Royal, Post-It, Hamburger Helper, Go Daddy, Old Spice and Miller Lite. Further into the standings the spectrum continues. The No. 43 made famous by Richard Petty is backed by Best Buy. David Reutimann pilots the Aaron’s Dream Machine. Aflac, Scotts, Claritin, Target, FedEx, Little Debbie’s and ExtenZe showcase the variety in the sport.

For NASCAR, it’s a shift that has allowed teams to continue to flourish at a time when the economy’s putting a squeeze on both fans and corporations. For sponsors, it’s a chance to attract a piece of NASCAR’s audience.

In discussing plans for the 2010 season, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France pointed out that things are turning upward in the sport, especially with the addition of new groups coming in to back the teams.

"The best place for corporate sponsors to work best has always been NASCAR, and that’s no different today," France said.

"So, while it’s tough, it’s not easy, we do see that getting a little bit better and we do see full fields of race cars, which is always an uncertain thing when the economy is tough. For 2010, for the most part, we will have highly competitive, well-funded teams, no small thing in a tough place."

But what’s drawing these new companies into the sport?

It’s a variety of factors. Go Daddy, the company best known in auto racing circles for backing Danica Patrick and a provocative line of ads, has found a new home in NASCAR. In addition to joining the Nationwide Series this season with Patrick, it joined forces with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. last season and is now a co-primary sponsor for Mark Martin and his Hendrick Motorsports Sprint Cup team.

Why would a company that sells Internet domain names make the move into NASCAR?

"It’s got a huge fan base, lots of television time, lots of exposure in TV, online and (a) very strong fan base," says Barb Rechterman, senior executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Go Daddy. "We like NASCAR because it has all those attributes. The fan base is also really, really loyal. For us, that’s kind of a key factor. They’re loyal to their drivers, they’re loyal to the sponsors of their drivers."

The company decided NASCAR would be a good fit. So, it seems, is Martin, the driver now carrying its banner in the Cup series.

While the 51-year-old driver is different from Patrick and Earnhardt in terms of the fan base he attracts, he brings his own unique assets to the company — ones that help it make the most of its move into NASCAR.

Earnhardt was actually a customer long before he was a spokesperson, bringing that knowledge to the deal. Martin brings his own advantages.

"Mark is a winner, obviously. He’s having a tremendous season and had a tremendous season last year," Rechertman said. "He’s exciting to watch. He has a big fan following, very well liked. … So the attributes that he brings to the table are a little bit different than Dale’s, I’m not sure that he’s going to be as technical as Dale, but at the same time he brings this level professionalism to us that we are very excited about, so we’re pleased with our sponsorship of him."

In uniting with Martin, the company has not only joined forces with a proven winner, but also a fan favorite.

ExtenZe enters the sport in a different way, opting to unite with a rookie driver and a developing team. The company, which has three primary products, including male and female enhancement and a best-selling all-natural sleep aid, works with Kevin Conway and the Front Row Motorsports team.

What about NASCAR does it find attractive?

"NASCAR is a unique sport in that sponsor participation is not only accepted, but encouraged. In no other sport does the fan base really understand and appreciate that sponsors are what makes that happen," said Robert Wilhovsky, director of motorsports marketing for ExtenZe. "… NASCAR is very unique and special in that regard. You have a real relationship with your consumer, and it’s a great way to communicate your brand’s message and get that intimate relationship with your consumer."

ExtenZe, like Go Daddy and others, involves more than just sponsorship of the car with merchandising and advertising campaigns supporting it. ExtenZe has also crafted a local heroes program through which it pays tribute to people "who go to great lengths to make a difference in their hometowns."

It’s one of many ways ExtenZe is raising its profile through the NASCAR program — and something that shows it doesn’t always matter what size team one sponsors and the benefits to working with a smaller team.

Furniture Row Racing driver Regan Smith agrees. His company appears to be a non-traditional stock-car sponsor in a more traditional model of using the car for advertising. Yet the very nature of the furniture showroom being in the sport is yet another sign of how far the sport has come.

"Basically, Furniture Row’s whole mentality is that racing is their marketing," he said. "This is what they use. They can get to more people by racing than they can anywhere else."

It’s one of the many ways companies find to work with NASCAR — and one of many reasons growing a diversity in sponsors works well with the fan base.

"It’s all up to the team," Wilhovsky says. "What it comes down to at the end is what you do with that sponsorship and how you move the needle and activate and what you do with it and make it make business sense. As long as you can do that, you’re fine."