HAMPTON, Ga. -- At the bottom of Ricky Craven's race car, 3 inches above the exhaust pipe and 3 inches in front of the rear tire, is a bumper sticker promoting Kenmore appliances.
As Craven makes laps at 190 mph around the Atlanta Motor Speedway this Sunday during the MBNA America 500, the advertisement will blend in with other stickers to become a blur.
Apparently $500,000 doesn't buy a lot on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
As many race teams scramble to find primary sponsors, others are fighting for the nickels and dimes of the sport known as associate sponsors.
In the grand scheme of a $10 million to $15 million operation, a single associate sponsorship doesn't pay for much. But add them all together, and they buy a lot of tires, testing time and technology.
Some elite teams can get top dollar for an associate sponsorship; the kind of money others would consider a primary deal. A sport that reveres money as much as speed, remains perpetual: Big money leads to even bigger money.
Everyone else struggles to keep up.
Associate sponsorships have become big business. Corporations that don't have the kind of dollars it takes to splash their logos on the hood can buy a spot on the trunk, rear quarter panel, door post or the back of the car. When their checks clear, they get pit passes, occasional meet-and-greets with the driver and a handful of personal appearances.
A race team with a smart marketing plan can group several sponsors to tie in with the primary sponsor. On the Busch Series circuit the team that does that best is ST Motorsports.
Stacy Compton has Kingsford Charcoal as a primary sponsor, and Johnsonville bratwursts, Glad, K.C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce and Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing as associates.
''We're the meals on wheels,'' said car owner Tad Geschickter. ''All of the associates really benefit by being associated with Kingsford. What a primary sponsorship costs now compared to what it cost three years ago is a huge jump. If you can get enough associates together, you won't have sticker shock. Everyone can swallow it a little easier.''
Geschickter said a lot of teams also trade sticker space for free parts.
''There are 15 different sponsor stickers on our car where we trade off for free products,'' he said. ''That's real money. When you don't have to pay for things like belts and hoses and radios when everyone else has to pay for them, it's real money.''
Craven's car is sponsored by Tide. That's why Kenmore, Whirlpool and Downy are on board as associates.
The stakes are considerably higher in Winston Cup. A top-funded Busch Series team operates on about $5 million a year. It takes three times that much to be one of the high rollers in Winston Cup.
Mobil One pays about $10 million to be an associate sponsor on two Penske South cars Fords driven by Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman. That's more than enough money to be a primary sponsor on just about any other car in the garage area.
Quaker State split what would be considered a primary sponsorship into associates among Hendrick Motor sports cars driven by Jeff Gordon, Terry Labon te, Jerry Na deau and Jimmie John son.
MB2 Motorsports, which operates Pontiacs for drivers Johnny Benson and Ken Schrader, provided a price list for buying space on their cars. A small mention on the hood, just below the primary mention of Valvoline or M&Ms, cost
$1 million a year. A spot below the primary mention on the rear quarter panel is $1.7 million. The back of the car, a spot known as the TV panel because it's viewed by in-car cameras from other cars, is $1 million. The cheapest spot on one of their Pontiacs is the post between the door and rear side window. That spot, known as the B-post, costs $150,000 a year.
''If the primary sponsor hasn't purchased the entire car, the rest of the income has to come from associates so we can have adequate funding to compete,'' said Jay Frey, general manager at MB2.
Even if it's nothing more than a blur on race day.
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