Racing Beat: Corporate bailout

NASCAR truck series gets new title sponsor for 2009.

An anemic economy has affected all sports organizations but possibly none so much as NASCAR. Sponsors, in an effort to shore up their own financial houses, are not as quick to jump on the racing bandwagon, and this has been a major issue with lending names – and money – to the premier league of American racing.

But the NASCAR truck series, previously sponsored by the Sears Craftsman brand, has found new life with the announcement that Camping World is the new title sponsor of the series in 2009. It marks the first corporate change to the series, which was underwritten by Sears since its inception in 1995.

“The folks at Camping World have really made a strong connection in recent years to the sport by various sponsorships and partnerships in and out of events, in and around teams, throughout,” says NASCAR CEO Brian France. “They really have a good feel for NASCAR. Frankly, the other thing that gets us excited is the type of company that they are and the connection they make to the various RV owners and campers who are synonymous with NASCAR events.”

Camping World has sponsored Ron Hornaday’s truck for several seasons and also has served as title sponsor of various NASCAR events, with special emphasis on the truck program.

“It doesn’t take a lot to realize that this series is one of the series that a lot of our fans would tell you is the most exciting, most competitive form of NASCAR racing that we have,” France says. “The TV ratings are evidence of that, up 19 percent [in 2008].” It’s the premier featured series on the Speed Channel, France adds, where the truck series has been lent a high degree of esteem.

While popular with fans, the truck series had trouble filling out its fields in 2008. There were 11 events in which several trucks were missing, primarily due to sponsorship woes.

Marcus Lemonis, Camping World CEO, believes the entrance of his company into such a high-profile role can help put the series back on the upswing.

“Obviously, I’m sure some of you are thinking about the economy,” Lemonis says, adding that his company “will continue to support in different ways the partners that we’ve done business with for the last three years. We still have and enjoy relationships with International Speedway Corporation, Smith Motorsports Incorporated and Dover Motorsports on the trackside.” Kevin Harvick Inc. too, Lemonis says. “KHI will continue to be a very, very important marketing partner.”

It started out as the SuperTruck Series, and it was an odd event. It didn’t have pit stops – it had halftimes. At one point it had two intermission periods – except during longer races, when there were three breaks. But the series that would soon be sponsored by Craftsman proved to be far more than a novelty act.

The races grew more competitive each year, and the drivers were hardly shade-tree mechanics who simply wanted to see how fast an F-150 would go. It became not only a proving ground for some current Cup and Busch stars, but it became a place for Cup and Busch stars to have fun racing again.

Mark Martin, who returns to one last full-time ride in NASCAR Cup competition this season, calls the truck series the most fun and competitive of the sanctioning body’s three top divisions.

“These trucks really race like the cars did back in the days before restrictor plates,” Martin says. “That’s something the fans enjoy.”

Former driver Steve Grissom says the adjustment, from a driving standpoint, isn’t difficult going from car to truck. “You’re trying to accomplish the same thing in a truck that you are in a car,” Grissom says. “But a truck is aerodynamically different than a car, so it’s a matter of learning what the truck wants and what it needs.”

From a business standpoint, some stability was sought, and despite the product on the track there were worries that the series was in financial trouble.

NASCAR policy is that no financial details are released, but France says the Camping World deal is a benefit to both his sport and the new sponsor.

“Everything worked out fine,” France says. “But there’s another important thing in these kinds of sponsorships that is equally or more important, and that’s the kind of company that you get and what they’re going to do from an activation standpoint with this sponsorship, how they’re going to help grow our franchise