With Nextel in the fold, however, this could change dramatically. And though the company says it is too early to discuss its prospective media plans around the NASCAR sponsorship (which begins with the 2004 season), it's clear that Nextel will be an active marketing partner.
"This is a huge opportunity for us, obviously, and there are so many directions in which we can go," says Nextel's director of sports and entertainment marketing Michael Robichaud. "It's really one of the most coveted sponsorships in sports."
What excites Robichaud most about Nextel's involvement with NASCAR is that the ten-year agreement calls for significantly more than a few hospitality tents. The company will provide communications technology and wireless data services for NASCAR, and will likely use it as a platform to discuss driver-safety initiatives.
"We like being involved in things where we do more than put up a sign or do a commercial," Robichaud says. "With this [sponsorship], we are physically going to be in the car."
Similarly, given the importance of communication in NASCAR racing, Robichaud sees a coveted opportunity to bolster the Nextel brand. "Time and time again, when you hear drivers talk about what was the difference between coming in first and coming in second, they say 'communication': talking with their crew chief and spotters," he notes. "Well, communication is what we're about." Not that Robichaud doubted that the sponsorship was the right one for Nextel, but response from the analyst community after the deal was announced encouraged him further: "They understand why we're doing this - they get the connection."
While Robichaud's role does not include creative or media responsibilities, he says that Nextel has always been "pretty diverse in how we get our messages out. TV's been very good for us, and so have radio and print." And while he says that the company's advertising and public relations minions have yet to formulate a plan to hype the sponsorship, he "expects there to be some elements of NASCAR in our creative."
Whatever path Nextel takes in terms of advertising and promotion, the company is working on a relatively tight time frame - the Daytona 500 is a little over six months away. "We don't just have to get the marketing and dealer programs up and moving, we have to make sure our network is ready to support the increased traffic we'll likely get," Robichaud notes.
Another challenge, of course, is getting consumers, advertisers and members of the media used to the "Nextel Cup Series" moniker. "People will probably think of it as the Winston Cup for a little while longer, and that's fine," Robichaud says. "We're going to have to earn our way in. We view this as a long-term investment, and we're not going to force things."