Touting The Sponsor – It’s Nothing New

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One of my favorite complaints among racing fans is about drivers who are constantly hawking for their sponsors. The lament is generally followed with something like “…they just started doing that a few years ago.” Well — not exactly. Granted, it is extremely annoying to hear Dan Wheldon asked a question about how loose his car was; and his only answer is about how the National Guard continues to inspire his team, as he takes a swig of NOS energy drink turned for the camera; but to some extent — it’s been happening forever.

It’s a necessary evil and it is annoying, but don’t ever say this is a new phenomenon. Drivers have been shills for whatever is on the sidepod and firesuit for years. There is not a microphone that a sponsor’s product didn’t like. It may just be a little more prevalent now.

Go ahead and pop in a tape form twenty years ago and listen to the interviews. Al Unser, Jr. would drone on and on about how well his Valvoline car was handling before the crash took him out. Scott Pruett would ramble on about the performance of his Budweiser car before the engine let go. Scott Brayton always got in his plugs for Amway. Even one of my favorites, Rick Mears, would always refer to his ride as the Pennzoil car.

About the only exceptions to those that always got interviews on a regular basis in those days that never gave their sponsors one second of free on-air promotion, were AJ Foyt or Mario and Michael Andretti. You never heard AJ Foyt say my Copenhagen car was a piece of junk, nor did the Andretti’s ever talk about their K-Mart Havoline cars not handling well. You wouldn’t expect Mario or AJ to suddenly become marketing mouthpieces. That wasn’t done in the fifties or sixties. You named your car the Dean Van Lines Special and that was that.

Michael Andretti was another story. Never the best interview, you never expected Michael to spew off a whole list of sponsors in an interview. Jack Arute was lucky to get him to talk at all. But given the list of sponsors that Newman-Haas had on their cars, you would think that someone on the team would have gotten hold of Michael and told him he could be a little more sponsor-friendly.

The greatest example of the far extreme of Michael came in 1994 at Phoenix. Hiro Matsushita had contact with Teo Fabi in turn four before collecting Paul Tracy, as well. Hiro had spun and was sitting crossways in the middle of the track. Rookie Jacques Villenueve seemingly ignored the yellow and came around the turn at full speed when he came upon the helpless car of Matsushita. He braked but still hit Hiro’s car dead center, splitting the car in half and rupturing the fuel cell. Villenueve’s car sustained heavy damage as well. Miraculously, both drivers walked away from the crash uninjured. In the interview immediately after the crash, while explaining what had happened, Villenueve calmly explained, “Well, my Player’s Reynard was handling quite well up until then”. I can remember a shaken Derek Daly, who was on the broadcast for ESPN just shaking his head at the timely promo.

Yes, it can get on the nerves of every fiber in your being. But just remember…without the K-Marts, Pennzoil’s, Players and Budweiser’s of that era; or the 7-Eleven’s, Target’s, National Guard’s or Z-Line Design’s of today – there would be no series. These companies and products foot the bill and pay out an exorbitant amount of money. They expect a great deal of value from their investment, and rightfully so.

When racing moved from the garage to the boardroom in the eighties, drivers were expected to be a lot of things that didn’t involve driving a racecar. They were to be model representatives for their companies. Drivers were asked to make multiple off-track appearances to endorse the name of a sponsor. And they were expected to serve as pleasant hosts in the sponsor’s tent at the racetrack on race weekends. Oh and by the way…they were expected to win. Even if you didn’t, you were to mention the product as often as you can in every interview. If not, they would go to another team next year or drop out altogether. It’s that simple.

That’s quite a lot to ask for someone whose only goal growing up was to keep the right foot down and win races. But this is big business. It has been for at least a generation now. Those that haven’t figured that out by now have found themselves on the sideline with no idea why someone of lesser talent is driving while they watch.

In this economy, teams that are lucky enough to have good sponsors in place need to do all that they can to keep them happy. They need to continually show the sponsor that they are receiving a good return for their dollar.

So the next time you hear about the ABC Supply car performing well or even the Venom Energy Boys doing a good job this weekend – give the drivers a break. They are just doing their job. It’s nothing new. It’s just the nature of the business these days. In fact, it’s really been that way for quite a while.

George Phillips

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4 Responses to “Touting The Sponsor – It’s Nothing New”

  1. James O. Says:

    Drivers’ plugs never bothered me, it’s the boilerplate. “Well, the Kotex/Tampax car was a rocket ship all weekend and we were hoping that if the yellows fell our way, we’d make up the 3 laps and finish in the Top 10. The guys worked so hard all weekend and I feel terrible for them….”

    The plugs which Do irritate me come from the broadcasters. Does Jack Arute ever say “tire?” I think it’s always “Firestone Firehawks.”

  2. This isn’t confined to just racing. Remember when Michael Jordan won the 1992 Gold Medal? He draped the American flag over his shoulder, and in the process, over the Reebok logo that adorned his team apparel. (“Reebok is NOT Nike!!!”) Shameless, shrewd marketing tactics are not restricted to a single sport.

    There are more examples, I’m sure. Let me finish my Irish coffee and dwell on it for a bit.

  3. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    Bobby Alison had class. In winner’s circle he would end the interview with just “It’s Miller Time.”

  4. Nice work George – It constantly amazes me at how little people really understand how their sports are financed. It’s not gate, and hasn’t been for a very ong time. It’s mostly advertising either through broadcast spots or via sponsorship and endorsement. If it weren’t for this money, we might as well be watching a demolition derby at the county fairgrounds. THe teams would have similar budgets, the drivers similar pay and the networks a similar interest.

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