Growing up in central Virginia, I understood from an early age that nothing captivates the region quite like NASCAR’s arrival each May and September at Richmond International Raceway. I remember my first race in the fall of 1993, watching Jeff Gordon, the upstart rookie sensation, battling Dale Earnhardt, the most polarizing — and most talented — driver the sport had ever seen.
That brisk afternoon turned out to be the start of a lifelong passion for racing, but it was also my first exposure to the force of NASCAR, in particular, as a brand engagement powerhouse. Driver loyalty is a point of pride for hardcore fans, and the way to show that dedication is quite literally to “fly the colors” — from flags and bumper stickers to hats, shirts and jackets.
But a NASCAR driver’s identity is more than just a number. It’s all driven by sponsorship. Without it, the racecar goes nowhere. There’s no fuel, no tires, no pit crew, no fabricators — no racing, period.
After the recent economic decline, it’s become increasingly rare to find decades-long driver/sponsor relationships like Jeff Gordon and his famous DuPont “Rainbow Warrior” scheme, but fans still make lasting connections between their favorite drivers and the brands that adorn their hoods on Sunday afternoon.
For nearly a decade, three-time Sprint Cup Series Champion Tony Stewart was synonymous with Home Depot orange. Every Earnhardt fan knew the black #3 Chevy carried the good name of GM Goodwrench. And any fan, young and old alike, would recognize STP’s signature “Day-Glo” red laid over the #43’s iconic Petty blue.
No other major American sport has so seamlessly connected supporting brands with competition — and no other fanbase has so loyally embraced those brands as they have in NASCAR. That’s why despite the lagging economy, NASCAR sponsorship continues to be a solid investment for companies of all sizes, from Lowe’s recent five-year championship streak with Jimmie Johnson to Quicken Loans’ new commitment with 2008 Daytona 500 Champion Ryan Newman.
I don’t remember who won the race that night in 1993, but I’ll always recall the sights and sounds of a day at the track with my dad — and the palpable energy of the fans cheering their drivers on to victory. Today, that same combination of passion, loyalty and competition is still a valuable opportunity for brands that invest in this multi-billion-dollar, 75-million-strong community called NASCAR.