At every race track in the country, the Stars and Stripes of the United States fly among flags pledging allegiance to Ford, Mobil 1 and Budweiser, among many others.
Along with the waving banners, corporate names are proudly displayed on T-shirts, toolboxes, hats and trailers—to say nothing of the vehicles that make their way around the track.
The prominence of such advertising and sponsorship can be overwhelming to the casual viewer, but for diehard racing fans, these decals and emblems represent the livelihood of their favorite sport.
Like every other professional sport, racing is a performance-based industry. Unlike every other pro sport, the winnings from performing well commonly go back into the operating budget.
“The purse money in any form of motorsport will never be enough to cover the bill to go racing every weekend,” said Kate Fegley, who runs K1 Marketing in Mooresville, N.C., and counts NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series team Rick Ware Racing as her primary client this year.
Racing teams need sponsorship agreements to function. Without them, it becomes far more difficult to improve and climb the ranks of an expensive sport. In drastic cases, racing teams can fold entirely if they don’t acquire enough financial backing.
But sponsorships are becoming increasingly difficult to come by at every level of racing, and drivers everywhere are feeling the purse strings tighten.
Not only are drivers competing against fellow racers on the track, they are competing against their peers for sponsors off the track. With so many drivers at so many levels, there is only so much money to go around.
“Trying to find sponsorship is the toughest thing in racing,” said Austin Hill, a driver currently in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series playoffs. “The actual racing part—you being behind the wheel and driving—is so much easier than it is to talk a big sponsor into sponsoring you and getting behind your brand and backing you, especially when there’s so many racers trying to make it in the series.”
Building a planA seemingly obvious part of looking for sponsorships is knowing where to look and approaching the right companies.
But not all businesses are well suited to be racing partners for reasons ranging from lack of available funds to a lack of understanding their own target audience.
Some, on the other hand, fit perfectly.
“When you think about motorsports sponsors, you think about beer, cigarettes and auto parts, so we fell into one of those categories,” said Mike Paris, the motorsports marketing manager at Advance Auto Parts from 1992-2017.
Paris said that drivers and teams who could prove a partnership would enhance Advance’s visibility, produce positive feedback or boost product sales had the best shot at earning the company’s backing.
To succeed today, Paris believes drivers need to be respectful and grounded in reality when asking for support.
“They’ve got to look at a sponsor as a partner and not a bank,” he said.
It also helps if drivers are uncontroversial racers who have good relationships with the media and racing’s governing bodies so that they can make appearances on radio shows and at track events.
“They need to be everywhere and accessible,” Paris said. “A lot of guys will think, ‘I’ve got to race, I don’t have time for that.’ Well, that’s part of it. … You have to build it into your plan.”
At some of racing’s lower levels, drivers often partner with companies they already do business with—auto parts dealers and the like. Paris added that sometimes the best situation, however, is just to find a businessperson who enjoys racing. But in those cases, they may not have a way to precisely determine their return on investment.
“The guy who’s got his own little backhoe service or small company of some type, he’s got to feel good about it,” said Peyton Sellers, a Danville-based late model racer. “He’s got to understand it may not be a direct return on it, but you’re helping somebody that needs some help, and you enjoy going to watch these cars go around in circles.”
Getting socialThe rise of social media has allowed racing fans to keep up with a driver’s life, travels, family and races without having to leave their homes.
NASCAR, as one example, has seen attendance and television ratings dip over the past decade, but social media impressions have soared, according to Forbes. The way fans enjoy racing now is vastly different from just a few years ago.
In addition to showing his vehicle at dealerships and signing autographs, ARCA racer Andy Seuss said he now finds himself hosting Facebook Live events to interact with fans and show off his sponsors.
“Growing up, if you wanted a T-shirt of your favorite driver, you had to go to the track. You couldn’t just go to Walmart or order it online,” Seuss said. “If you wanted to talk racing, you went to the track. I don’t know that popularity is down as much as the way we used to view it is down. You don’t have to go to the race track (anymore).”
To that end, Fegley said companies prioritize a strong social media presence for their sponsored drivers. This also helps showcase their own brands and keep the sport relevant with a younger audience.
Although social media could be blamed for putting a dent in racing’s attendance, those same digital channels can also be used as a means to secure sponsorship.
Paris said it’s not uncommon for racers to tag brands and businesses they do business with in social content in hopes of catching their eye.
“It is a great and inexpensive way to be noticed by some of these larger companies and start a conversation,” Paris said. “Probably better than a cold call.”
‘Start with a large fortune’The joke runs through all levels of racing, but there is a painful twinge of truth to it.
“How do you make a small fortune in racing?” Paris asks. “Start with a large fortune.”
Racing has never been mistaken as a get-rich-quick sport. In fact, it helps if you’re already rich.
These partnerships are more vital at the lower levels of racing, where a lack of sponsorship can mean the difference between winning and not racing at all.
“The local guy is the most thankful (for sponsors) because that $2,000 somebody gave him would have been straight out of his pocket or he doesn’t race,” said David Jessey, former vice president of sales and marketing for Evernham Motorsports.
The money earned from sponsorship helps ensure that drivers have top-notch cars and access to equipment that can improve performance—like a pull-down rig, chassis dyno or wind tunnel.
“The more sponsorship you have, the more attention to detail you can have—whether it’s another person on the crew or another part,” Seuss said. “It exponentially gets you better as you have a little bit more money to try to focus on that weekend.”
Added Sellers: “With more sponsorship, with more dollars, your cars go faster. You can get better motors, you can get better chassis, you can get better people.”
Sponsorship money also goes toward paying for the logistics of operating a racing team.
“Tires are number one, engines are number two, travel is number three, probably,” said Sellers, listing his team’s biggest expenses. “We don’t think about it, but you pay insurance and tags, truck and trailer wear and tear, hotel rooms. Our travel is a very big part of the budget.”
The funds earned from sponsorship is not fun money. Almost every dollar has a purpose, and there are only so many viable sources of that cash.
“If an owner likes you, sometimes ... they’re fine with pitching in a little bit,” said Hill, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver, “but they’re also not going to go broke doing it.”
Words to live byAt the crux of motorsports sponsorship is the premise of brand loyalty on the part of the fans.
Racing fans are historically fiercely loyal to their favorite drivers and the brands they represent, which has spawned a saying in the racing community: “Win on Sunday, buy on Monday.”
The saying suggests that if a driver performs well on race day, his fans will support the brands that support him the next day.
“That’s why Ford, Chevy and Toyota have invested millions and millions of dollars into our sport,” Fegley said.
All other sorts of businesses have benefited from the same mantra. If they can see the return on their investment, they are more likely to continue sponsoring drivers.
Ultimately, sponsors keep drivers on the track, fans become loyal to drivers and sponsors find new customers in fans.
If one segment falls out of line, the whole industry will suffer in one way or another.
“It’s twofold: Without sponsors, you wouldn’t be able to race, and without the fans we wouldn’t be able to get the sponsors,” Fegley said. “Without them, we literally would not exist as a sport.”
Parker Cotton is a sports reporter at the Martinsville Bulletin and Danville Register & Bee. You can reach him at (276) 638-8801 ext. 215. Follow @ByParkerCotton.