Fans, Sponsors Still Racing to NASCAR


When the NASCAR season starts up this weekend at the Daytona 500, corporate America will have a lot riding on stock cars.

There will be the Cheerios car, the Valvoline car, the Home Depot car and the UPS car. Many other companies have also invested millions of dollars to link themselves to the popular sport.

The reason is simple: The number of race fans is growing and broadening, and they can’t seem to get enough.


“My dad used to wake me up, saying, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines,” said Rachel Robertson, a 28-year-old stockbroker from Lexington, Ky. “When they start those engines, it gives me cold chills.”

As a result, NASCAR sponsors say their dollars are well-spent to turn fans like Robertson into their customers.

Valvoline Inc. says it’s spending at least $18 million on NASCAR sponsorship this year. Company vice president Jim Rocco, however, estimates that Valvoline’s on-air exposure during races is equal to $60 million in TV advertising.

And Rocco said the fans “are very, very product-loyal. That’s why we’re here.”

Tracy Schoenadel, executive director of the ESPN Sports Poll, which measures the popularity of sports for corporate clients, said, “In NASCAR, you can actually identify the teams by the sponsor. ...They call the Corn Flakes car the Corn Flakes car.”

Others say that fans’ brand recall extends to the checkout line.

“NASCAR gets 72 percent of its fans claiming that they almost always or frequently buy brands that sponsor over ones that don’t,” said Bill Doyle, vice president of Performance Research, a Newport, R.I., media research firm. “When you are a NASCAR fan, you become all-involved. You watch races on TV and you go to races and you look for the stuff at the stores.”

Fans say their brand loyalty comes from feeling a kinship with the drivers.

“I don’t shop at Lowe’s just because they have a car, but that does make a difference,” said Steve Martin, 36, a NASCAR fan from Grand Rapids, Mich. Martin, who works for a food distributor, also said he’s more likely to go to Valvoline for oil changes because the company’s driver, Johnny Benson, is from Grand Rapids.


Sponsorship fees have risen as sponsors and racing companies realized that NASCAR fans are more diverse and affluent than they’d thought, said Doyle. He said more than half have household incomes exceeding $50,000 and more than a third are women, who do most of the family shopping.

Sponsors won’t disclose how much they spend on Winston Cup teams, the top tier of NASCAR. But they are widely reported to spend close to $20 million.

Valvoline says it’s paying as much as $18 million this year as co-owner of driver Johnny Benson’s team. But the Lexington, Ky., motor oil company won’t confirm rumors that it didn’t renew its contract last summer with top driver Mark Martin because negotiations got too pricey.

Although TV ratings slumped slightly in 2000, those in racing circles say NASCAR remains popular and profitable. For evidence, consider Fox and NBC: the networks are spending $2.8 billion in the next six years to broadcast NASCAR races.

That contract is four times bigger than the previous one. And at more than $400 million a year, the broadcast deal is nearly that of baseball and hockey combined.

The TV audience may grow because many fans say they’ve been priced out of the grandstands. The average Winston Cup ticket price is about $80.


“It’s getting away from the people who made it what it was,” said Robertson. “It’s getting away from its roots.”

Those roots are Southern, middle class and blue collar. Stock-car racing dates to the 1930s, when moonshine runners tinkered with their vehicles to make them run faster.

But it wasn’t until 1948 that Bill France Sr. founded the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, as NASCAR is formally known. And, it was another four decades until the sport’s popularity began to extend beyond the Southeast.

“NASCAR was kind of a good ol’ boy business for much of its life but has become probably one of the most aggressive sports on the planet,” said Tom Cotter, a sports marketer from Charlotte, N.C.

The growth -- of prices, profits and fans -- isn’t about to quit, he said.

“What NASCAR is doing is building up kinetic energy with TV and the Internet ... that will explode in another burst of exposure,” Cotter said. “If we think NASCAR has grown big to this point, in five years it could be twice this big.”