NASCAR Drives Sponsor Pitch

With a tough economy, NASCAR is using Advertising Week as a vehicle to make a play for new sponsors. From taking a presence on multiple panels to running an ad in the official program, the racing business is fueling the perception that the turbo growth it experienced last decade has lost some RPMs.

"We're in a little bit of a lull now, and we're taking a lot of abuse for it," said Michael Waltrip, a driver and part owner of several teams who appeared on a NASCAR-run panel. Waltrip added that from his vantage point, attendance at races and television interest remains robust.

But he said NASCAR teams need to "fight through this tough time" and cut their costs. It takes about $20 million a year to race a car and fewer sponsor dollars necessitate some trimming.

In a direct pitch to potential sponsors in the audience, Waltrip said Napa and Best Western are "more than just my sponsors, they're partners." And citing his willingness to do grassroots outreach and social-media campaigning for them, he said: "I know the value of a sponsor ... and I'm there for them."

He said he'll plug new product offerings directly on his Twitter and Facebook destinations. And some sponsors can receive unexpected boosts through B-2-B contact, saying Domino's and Best Western signed an agreement to place Domino's phone numbers on Best Western key cards that had roots in their mutual involvement with Waltrip's company.

Teams that are part of Michael Waltrip Racing are in both the top-tier Sprint Cup Series as well as the Nationwide Series. The NASCAR-staged panel was moderated by NASCAR announcer Mike Joy, who pointed out a salesperson from Fox Sports in attendance. Fox carries the Daytona 500 and other races. NASCAR also had an executive with Nationwide, which sponsors a NASCAR series, on the panel with Waltrip along with a second driver.

NASCAR's ad in the Advertising Week program offered a similar approach to Waltrip's pitch. "With over 75 million loyal fans ... a NASCAR partnership ensures every weekend your consumers will have a rooting interest in your brands when it's endorsed by their favorite driver," it read.

On the panel, John Aman, Nationwide's associate vice president, strategic sponsorships, said the insurer has been satisfied with its 2008 agreement to take over title sponsorship of the NASCAR Nationwide Series from Anheuser-Busch.

With auto insurance a core business, he said Nationwide was somewhat reluctant to get involved, given the number of crashes. But the company began to believe "we can use that as a metaphor for what we do everyday," providing help and dollars after an accident.

Nationwide is ahead in plans to make its sponsorship a break-even proposition, Aman said. One reason: NASCAR fans tend to have better driving records, own multiple cars and be willing to buy home insurance from Nationwide. "They're a better customer than the general population," Aman said.

Aman touted NASCAR's success with new media in driving customers to Nationwide. He said potential customers that come to a Nationwide site via a NASCAR site are twice as likely to go through the process to receive a quote, and twice as likely to buy insurance.

On the panel following the one with Waltrip and Aman, NASCAR CEO Brian France made an appearance in a less promotional role. On new media, he said NASCAR is mindful that it needs to protect the investment of TV networks that pay to carry its events, but it also needs to experiment with new platforms.

"The trick for all the big sports leagues is we have to be there," he said.

NASCAR and Turner have shown companion coverage to a TV race on NASCAR.com.

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