Racing sponsors now at a crossroads of performance, ratings and ethics

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The last several weeks have seen sponsor stories take over from on-track ones as the dominant players in the North American racing news.

NAPA, of course, has made the biggest announcement with its decision to leave Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the year, in the wake of the controversy at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season finale at Richmond. 5-Hour Energy, additionally, seems displeased with the action the organization has taken in a statement it has released.

Other sponsors are on the move, which is normal in racing, but noteworthy in their timing after Richmond. Valvoline leaves Roush Fenway Racing for Hendrick Motorsports; Jimmy John’s goes with driver Kevin Harvick from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Castrol made the jaw-dropping decision earlier this year to leave John Force Racing at the end of 2014 in NHRA after 29 years.

And then there is the report this morning that GoDaddy is re-evaluating its role as a primary sponsor in IndyCar with Michael Andretti’s team, citing low television ratings as the impetus for a potential move out of full-time primary sponsorship there.

It all adds up to a fascinating question: Which part of racing do sponsors prefer most? Is it on-track performance, ethics, or ratings?

To borrow a term from NASCAR President Mike Helton, the “ripple effect” of the last few weeks has changed the corporate game in a way we haven’t seen for quite a while. Sponsors often come-and-go from racing but it’s become increasingly apparent the Richmond saga has made a bigger impact on all forms of motorsport than we might have realized in the immediate aftermath.

If it’s on-track performance you crave, ideally, IndyCar would be the best bang for the buck. It costs substantially less – think in the $4 to 8 million range – for a season-long sponsorship (by comparison to $15 to $20 million in NASCAR). A sponsor can advertise itself at the Indianapolis 500, the largest single-day sporting event in North America, and have the chance to win a variety of different circuits.

That said, the marketing and promotional aspect of the variety apparently does not justify the ROI as it stands now. Roger Penske, for instance, has had to put together a consortium of sponsors to field Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe’s cars since Philip Morris tobacco money exited at the end of 2010 (livery was withdrawn at the end of 2009). Elsewhere around the grid, teams have become increasingly reliant on drivers bringing sponsorship to secure a seat. There’s still plenty of talent on the grid, but the days of fully-funded rides without bringing a dollar are drawing to an end.

NASCAR, meanwhile, can offer better TV ratings on the whole, with the performance aspect secondary. It’s why Danica Patrick, for instance – long seen by this writer and others as a good-but-not-great driving talent who has made most of her career via marketing – can afford to run 25th to 30th place every week, but maintain the GoDaddy support for the awareness and buzz she creates off-track.

Now, though, NASCAR faces an ethics crisis the likes of which it has rarely seen. If NAPA’s departure is the tip of the iceberg in terms of corporate America withdrawing its dollars, it could create another “ripple effect” – to borrow Helton’s words again – where more sponsors depart and hundreds of families see jobs go away. That might be an extreme way of looking at it, but it is certainly possible if sponsors don’t see the value in the tens of millions of dollars invested and the PR too damaging to their brands.

A good take from the Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass, linked here, suggests NASCAR needs to implement a “grand plan” to soothe sponsors and their concerns. Pockrass notes there are elements where NASCAR is already involved in direct communication with sponsors – notably via Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps – but that needs to expand in the wake of the Richmond controversy.

As a fan, you want to see sponsors – regardless of series – do the job of activating and creating a connection that spurs you to root for said sponsor and buy more of their product. As a sponsor, you ideally want to be successful in all three aspects of performance, awareness and moral standards.

Depending on the fallout the rest of 2013 as it relates to sponsor movement, we’ll see which of the three takes precedence in the motorsports landscape.

NHRA Norwalk winners: Blake Alexander, Hagan, Gray, Krawiec

Norwalk winners, from left, Tanner Gray, Eddie Krawiec, Blake Alexander and Matt Hagan. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Blake Alexander captured his first career NHRA Top Fuel win, winning Sunday at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

Alexander becomes the 105th different winner in NHRA Top Fuel history.

Alexander won the race with a 4.011-second pass at 297.81 mph, defeating Terry McMillen.

“It felt really good,” Alexander said afterward. “I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my whole life. I’ve come close but have lost sponsors, thought I was never going to drive the car again and basically we have gone through everything to climb back to the top.”

Alexander qualified 12th for the event and defeated three of the sport’s heavyweight drivers – Don Schumacher Racing pilots Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher and Leah Pritchett – before entering his second career final round.

In Funny Car, Matt Hagan earned his second event of the season with a run of 4.094 seconds at 288.21 mph over points leader Courtney Force.

It was Hagan’s first win since the season-opening race at Pomona, California.

“We just had a good solid car all weekend,” Hagan said. “We qualified well and went down the race track pretty much every lap.

“It’s been a while since we turned on four win lights but it’s a nitro Funny Car; you never know what you’re going to get.”

Hagan was the No. 3 qualifier and defeated fellow DSR teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. and Jack Beckman, followed by Kalitta Motorsports’ J.R. Todd in the semifinals en route to meeting Force – who had qualified No. 1 – in the final round.

Courtney Force defeated John Smith, Shawn Langdon and her father, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force.

In Pro Stock, young Tanner Gray earned his third win of the season and eighth of his career. Gray covered the quarter-mile in 6.615 seconds at 209.62 mph, defeating two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders in the final round.

Gray becomes the only Pro Stock driver to reach the winner’s circle three different times this season.

“This was definitely a huge accomplishment,” Gray said. “We struggled a lot at the beginning of the season.

“We did a lot of testing and couldn’t really see where that hard work was because the results weren’t showing. It feels good to have finally turned a corner and see where all of the hard work has paid off.”

Gray defeated Chris McGaha, Matt Hartford and Drew Skillman prior to his final round win over Enders, who now has one win and four runner-up finishes in the first 12 races of 2018.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec won for the third time in his career at Norwalk with a pass of 6.923 seconds at 195.05 mph, defeating 2016 PSM champ Jerry “The Alligator Farmer” Savoie.

“It was a good one for me,” Krawiec said. “It’s been a good weekend for us. It was a struggle early on trying to dance through the rain drops.

“We were trying to get a handle on a new track and understand what it is we need to do. We were able to get it done and get our bike in the winner’s circle.”

Savoie is now 1-1 in final round appearances, with a win at Charlotte and runner-up Sunday.

The next NHRA national event, which kicks off the second half of the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, takes place July 6-8 at New England Dragway in Epping, N.H.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Blake Alexander; 2. Terry McMillen; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Leah Pritchett; 5. Tony Schumacher; 6. Richie Crampton; 7. Clay Millican; 8. Mike Salinas; 9. Doug Kalitta; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Pat Dakin; 12. Dom Lagana; 13. Kyle Wurtzel; 14. Chris Karamesines; 15. Brittany Force; 16. Luigi Novelli.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Courtney Force; 3. J.R. Todd; 4. John Force; 5. Jack Beckman; 6. Shawn Langdon; 7. Robert Hight; 8. Ron Capps; 9. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 10. Jim Campbell; 11. Dale Creasy Jr.; 12. John Smith; 13. Del Worsham; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Jeff Diehl; 16. Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray; 2. Erica Enders; 3. Drew Skillman; 4. Bo Butner; 5. Jason Line; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Vincent Nobile; 8. Matt Hartford; 9. Greg Anderson; 10. Alex Laughlin; 11. Deric Kramer; 12. Chris McGaha; 13. John Gaydosh Jr; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. Charlie Westcott Jr.; 16. Kenny Delco.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. LE Tonglet; 4. Angie Smith; 5. Hector Arana Jr; 6. Angelle Sampey; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Jim Underdahl; 9. Matt Smith; 10. Mark Paquette; 11. Scotty Pollacheck; 12. Cory Reed; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Steve Johnson; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Joey Gladstone.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Blake Alexander, 4.011 seconds, 297.81 mph def. Terry McMillen, 4.155 seconds, 289.20 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.094, 288.21 def. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.220, 227.54.

PRO STOCK: Tanner Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.615, 209.62 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.608, 208.30.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.923, 195.05 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.071, 175.39.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Richie Crampton, 3.802, 321.81 def. Pat Dakin, 3.834, 318.24; Mike Salinas, 3.884, 268.38 def. Luigi Novelli, 14.101, 30.94; Terry McMillen, 3.816, 324.98 def. Brittany Force, 9.389, 79.86; Clay Millican, 3.759, 332.26 def. Dom Lagana, 3.837, 323.89; Steve Torrence, 3.800, 329.99 def. Chris Karamesines, 4.052, 300.06; Tony Schumacher, 3.807, 327.66 def. Kyle Wurtzel, 3.902, 306.74; Blake Alexander, 3.802, 319.75 def. Antron Brown, 3.808, 326.71; Leah Pritchett, 3.794, 328.94 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.805, 321.73; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.798, 330.15 def. Schumacher, 3.779, 330.31; McMillen, 3.793, 327.11 def. Crampton, 3.810, 320.51; Pritchett, 3.788, 327.74 def. Millican, 3.817, 327.03; Torrence, 4.027, 269.89 def. Salinas, 4.001, 232.07; SEMIFINALS — McMillen, 3.854, 317.57 def. Torrence, 3.929, 302.96; Alexander, 3.799, 329.91 def. Pritchett, 4.185, 254.28; FINAL — Alexander, 4.011, 297.81 def. McMillen, 4.155, 289.20.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.998, 322.58 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Dodge Stratus, 4.338, 224.21; Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.994, 327.19 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.990, 323.27; Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.994, 324.51 def. John Smith, Toyota Camry, 4.373, 248.52; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.034, 315.05 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; John Force, Camaro, 4.066, 320.13 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.140, 311.49; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.047, 319.07 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 9.812, 93.13; J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.016, 316.01 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 5.438, 142.39; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.045, 318.77 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.847, 202.00; QUARTERFINALS — Todd, 4.004, 321.27 def. Capps, 9.588, 81.56; J. Force, 4.085, 319.75 def. Hight, 4.116, 308.07; Hagan, 4.010, 322.27 def. Beckman, 4.022, 321.73; C. Force, 3.971, 325.37 def. Langdon, 4.025, 315.19; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 3.981, 320.58 def. Todd, 4.031, 321.50; C. Force, 4.007, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.053, 321.27; FINAL — Hagan, 4.094, 288.21 def. C. Force, 4.220, 227.54.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.632, 208.26 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.614, 208.78; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.607, 209.65 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.603, 209.07; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.608, 209.04 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.648, 208.55; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.616, 208.23 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.632, 208.23; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.626, 208.42 def. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.765, 205.66; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.751, 207.40 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 6.802, 203.52; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.599, 208.94 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.588, 208.88 def. Charlie Westcott Jr., Ford Mustang, 6.848, 201.85; QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.671, 207.85 def. Nobile, 7.216, 141.86; Gray, 6.600, 209.04 def. Hartford, 15.697, 42.27; Skillman, 6.614, 209.14 def. Line, 6.625, 208.59; Enders, 6.634, 207.56 def. Coughlin, 6.737, 207.50; SEMIFINALS — Enders, 6.636, 207.59 def. Butner, 6.651, 208.42; Gray, 6.610, 209.30 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Gray, 6.615, 209.62 def. Enders, 6.608, 208.30.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Angie Smith, Buell, 6.932, 192.17 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.993, 190.19; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.907, 195.56 def. Mark Paquette, Buell, 6.932, 189.60; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.906, 193.85 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 6.959, 192.11; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.896, 194.60 def. Hector Arana, Buell, Foul – Red Light; Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.903, 193.29 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.066, 189.71; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.866, 195.39 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.964, 193.71; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.926, 193.32 def. Matt Smith, 6.899, 195.48; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.953, 192.69 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — A. Smith, 6.972, 191.10 def. Underdahl, 7.080, 188.73; Krawiec, 6.889, 193.46 def. Sampey, 6.922, 193.35; Savoie, 6.916, 193.13 def. Hines, 6.991, 192.25; Tonglet, 6.940, 194.58 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 7.187, 155.10 def. A. Smith, 7.627, 128.07; Krawiec, 6.865, 194.24 def. Tonglet, 6.898, 195.11; FINAL — Krawiec, 6.923, 195.05 def. Savoie, 7.071, 175.39.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 964; 2. Clay Millican, 847; 3. Tony Schumacher, 817; 4. Doug Kalitta, 749; 5. Leah Pritchett, 736; 6. Terry McMillen, 643; 7. Antron Brown, 622; 8. Brittany Force, 594; 9. Mike Salinas, 475; 10. Scott Palmer, 471.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,038; 2. (tie) Jack Beckman, 788; Matt Hagan, 788; 4. Robert Hight, 771; 5. J.R. Todd, 767; 6. Ron Capps, 755; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 637; 8. John Force, 577; 9. Shawn Langdon, 537; 10. Bob Tasca III, 532.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray, 882; 2. Greg Anderson, 856; 3. Erica Enders, 830; 4. Vincent Nobile, 812; 5. Drew Skillman, 751; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 732; 7. Bo Butner, 717; 8. Chris McGaha, 691; 9. Deric Kramer, 659; 10. Jason Line, 628.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec, 515; 2. Andrew Hines, 510; 3. LE Tonglet, 440; 4. Jerry Savoie, 389; 5. Hector Arana Jr, 377; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 363; 7. Matt Smith, 355; 8. Angie Smith, 272; 9. Angelle Sampey, 257; 10. Hector Arana, 255.

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