More for their money

Drivers' obligations to sponsors increasing as NASCAR gains popularity among fans

In his brief NASCAR career, Jamie McMurray has made the rounds of hospitality tents and corporate gatherings on behalf of his sponsors.

But nothing prepared McMurray for a request last month by his Grand National series sponsor, Yellow Transportation.

McMurray, now a full-time Winston Cup driver, and David Stremme, who drives the Yellow No. 1 car in McMurray’s absence, were summoned to Columbus, Ohio, for the National Truck Drivers Championships. They met with 20 or so Yellow drivers participating in the competition and were asked to make a run on the course in a Yellow big rig.

“I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I got behind the wheel,” McMurray said, “but after a few minutes, I felt right at home. Of course, you could probably ask somebody else who was a witness to it, and they might have a different story.”

It’s all in a week’s work for drivers who smile for photos, shake hands and sign autographs for the companies that fork over up to $15 million to sponsor Winston Cup teams and up to $5 million for the Grand National series.

Those sponsors want more for their money than just a logo on the hood.

That’s why Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes an appearance at every track on behalf of Budweiser, as well as other appearances away from the track; it’s why Mark Martin visits Viagra’s health-care trailer; and why McMurray and Stremme got to embarrass themselves in front of the truckers.

“My dad drove trucks for 30 years, so it was pretty cool for me to get to experience it,” Stremme said. “Naturally, I was trying to get the best time on the course until they explained to me, that your score is based on accuracy, not time.”

When NASCAR visits Kansas City this weekend, Stremme will visit Yellow’s Overland Park headquarters and meet with employees. He’ll also visit two customer-service centers in Des Moines, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D., before leaving the area.

Driver Dale Jarrett, left, attends a special ceremony for the six millionth Taurus sold by his race car sponsor, Ford Motor Co. The ceremony took place in October 2002.

“We want to incorporate the Yellow racing drivers into as much of the program as possible,” said Mike Brown, a vice president for Yellow, “but never to a point where it becomes onerous.”

The requests of Grand National sponsors don’t compare to those in Winston Cup. When McMurray was hired full time by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates to drive the No. 42 Havoline Dodge this season on the Winston Cup circuit, fellow driver Jimmie Johnson called and said: “Man, your life is going to change.”

McMurray said: “The Grand National series runs 34 races, about the same as Winston Cup, but you do a lot more stuff for your sponsor. And not so much for your sponsor, but we do stuff for Dodge, we do stuff for Action Performance (a souvenir and merchandise company). In the Grand National series, I never did an appearance for a manufacturer or a souvenir maker.”

Not that anybody’s complaining.

“When the sponsor comes in, he wants your full, undivided attention,” said legendary racer Richard Petty, who now owns three Winston Cup teams. “He wants the teams, the show cars, he wants the drivers to do commercials and runs them all over the country.

“When they’re paying that much money, they should get as much out of it as they could, but a lot of times it makes it tight on the drivers and owners. We found out over a period of time, the guys who pay the most money, ask the least from you.

“But you get an associate sponsor who is giving you a little bit of money, he wants you more than the guy who is paying the big bills.”

In the early days of Winston Cup racing, many sponsors were automotive-related — such as STP and Champion Spark Plugs — and understood that racing came first. Now, the sponsors range from cereal to cell phones to pharmaceuticals.

“I won’t say it’s any harder,” Petty said. “They expect the drivers to be personalities. Back when we came along, they just expected a driver to win a race. Now, winning is important, but the big deal is getting your people and your product out there.”

In fact, two-time Winston Cup series champion Terry Labonte said he didn’t remember making more than three sponsor appearances after he won the championship in 1984.

“Today, you can make three appearances a week for your sponsors,” Labonte said, “just because you have more sponsors involved in the sport.”