‘Junior Nation' not only ones seeing green

Where the Red Army once dominated NASCAR crowds, this weekend's races at Lowe's Motor Speedway likely will feature a grandstand that has gone green.

New sponsors and a new number for the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., have led fans to gobble up new T-shirts, caps and other merchandise. Once clad in red Budweiser No.8 gear, many Dale devotees have adopted the green No.88 of AMP Energy drink.

“The Junior Nation has done a full embrace. There's no doubt about that,” said Mark Dyer, president and chief executive of Motorsports Authentics, a joint merchandising venture by International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports.

After posting a loss of $6.5 million in the first quarter of 2007, Dyer said, Motorsports Authentics turned a $3.6 million profit in the same period this year. Earnhardt is the only driver featured by name on the home page for the company's Web site.

Compared with merchandise sales after other drivers have switched sponsors, Dyer said, “this one's off the charts.”

Along with AMP, Earnhardt's other major sponsor is the National Guard.

At JR Motorsports – Earnhardt's racing company – year-to-date sales are double the 2007 figures, due mainly to fans wanting Earnhardt's current colors and number, said Thayer Lavielle, vice president of marketing and brand development.

“They have fully embraced the partnership,” she said

Just ask Melinda Morgan, a homemaker in Gold Hill.

“I love his new stuff,” she said via e-mail. “Before, I could not put my grandson in Bud stuff, but now we're all AMPed up!”

Morgan said her family doesn't drink alcohol but buys AMP “by the case.”

“We are thrilled for Junior and his sponsors,” she said. “It makes (NASCAR) more family-friendly.”

No wins, but lots of exposure

Earnhardt hasn't won a Sprint Cup points race since 2006, but he's definitely No. 1 in marketing.

Through the first 10 points races this season, Earnhardt's sponsors have had a combined $150 million worth of television exposure, according to research by Joyce Julius & Associates, a Michigan firm that measures the impact of sponsorships.

That figure is about $24 million more than the next driver, Jeff Gordon. The firm calculates exposure value by comparing screen time and mentions of sponsors to the estimated cost of a TV commercial during a race.

Earnhardt's two top sponsors, AMP Energy and National Guard, got more than half of that exposure value, according to the research. That visibility has been invaluable in building awareness of AMP, a relatively new beverage from Pepsi, said Brett O'Brien, a senior manager on the AMP Energy team.

“He has had an impact, no doubt,” O'Brien said of Earnhardt.

Since AMP was announced as Earnhardt's sponsor, O'Brien said, product awareness has grown 30 percent, based on consumer polls. That has translated to double-digit sales growth, he said.

“We're definitely outpacing the category,” O'Brien said.

AMP has aired TV commercials and rolled out 16-ounce cans featuring Earnhardt, O'Brien said. “We've pushed through almost 10 million of those,” he said.

The biggest benefit for AMP, however, might be having its name splashed across Earnhardt's hood and on most Earnhardt merchandise, said Trip Wheeler, vice president and manager of the Charlotte office of Velocity Sports & Entertainment, a marketing firm.

“Most people didn't know AMP existed,” he said. “Now they do.”

New star for old sponsor

As for Earnhardt's former sponsor, don't shed a tear for Budweiser, Wheeler said. Fans who drank Bud before still do.

“They're not going to switch to AMP and vodka,” he said.

Hendrick Motorsports announced last June that Budweiser wouldn't be Earnhardt's sponsor when the driver joined the racing team this year.

Bud was already looking at other drivers in 2007, suspecting that Earnhardt might be off-limits due to Hendrick sponsorship contracts, said Tony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch.

Research led the company to Kasey Kahne, who wasn't as popular as Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson but had plenty of potential, Ponturo said. Since signing with Kahne, Ponturo said, Budweiser hasn't seen a dip in orders from wholesalers.

“He was embraced immediately by our system” Ponturo said.

Kahne also is more established than Earnhardt was when he teamed up with Bud as a rookie, Ponturo said, noting that fans voted Kahne into last Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race, which he won.

“We're not naïve. We know that the sort of halo we had with Dale Jr. in nine years, you're not going to get in four months” with Kahne, Ponturo said.

“We're in no rush,” he said. “What we have today is first-class, and it can go nowhere but up.”

Fans loyal to driver

At least one fan wishes Earnhardt still wore Bud's iconic red.

“He looks so much better in Budweiser,” said Kim Satterly of Louisville, Ky., via e-mail, adding that she plans to be at the Coca-Cola 600 this Sunday at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

“I will be wearing AMP gear,” Satterly said, “but I would rather be in Bud wear.”

Others aren't fazed. Troy Campbell of Houston said he's an Earnhardt fan regardless of sponsor.

“I have all my No. 8 Bud collectibles on one side of the garage,” he said via e-mail, “and all of my No. 88 AMP collectibles on the other side.”

“There is also AMP Energy drink in the fridge,” Campbell added. “I have the leather Bud jacket, all of the Bud T-shirts and the Amp jackets as well, and I love them all.”

For Pamela Miller of Bunker Hill, W.Va., the sponsor and color don't matter as long as Earnhardt keeps racing.

“I'll wear red, blue, green … whatever,” she said via e-mail. “I don't have strong feelings about merchandise. I have strong feelings about the driver.”