Thursday night, Fox Sports 1 premiered a five-minute video of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. taking his Xfinity series car for a midnight ride after spending some time outside the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The video has it all. It shows Wallace’s personality and his passion to drive fast cars.
Most importantly, it’s not light on sponsors. There’s Wallace driving his Ford Mustang. Then he puts on a Roush Fenway hat. He zips into his Ford EcoBoost driving suit. Security guards are eating Cheez-Its, which is Wallace’s primary sponsor in Saturday’s Hisense 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Product placement and sponsorship name-dropping are a key element to NASCAR as the sport navigates the post-recession world.
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Former Charlotte Motor Speedway president and racing promoter Humpy Wheeler called the rising cost of racing a “chronic disease we have now.” On one side it deters or prohibits many from getting involved. And on the other, teams and drivers with the most money can buy the best equipment and succeed without as much talent as others.
Wallace, like nearly all drivers at every level of NASCAR, has struggled for sponsors. He joked in an interview this week that even if he wins the Xfinity series this year, he may still not get a sponsor for next year.
But Wallace is a unique commodity: He’s talented, young, charming, good-looking and biracial. He’s unsure if his skin color helps, hurts or has any effect on his struggles to land sponsors.
“I wonder what goes on in these meetings, what is said,” Wallace said. “It’s like they look and say, ‘We have a driver.’ Then they flip open the page and it’s, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’ The first thing they (potential sponsors) see is NASCAR, and then they see a black guy. There’s not really a connection. I don’t know if that’s a red flag, but I’ve thought about it numerous times.”
Jim Cassidy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations who also oversees the diversity program, believes Wallace checks all the boxes a potential sponsor would look for in a driver, but he cited Wallace’s relatively recent success on a national level and his fresh start on a new team in a new series as reasons why things could have “reset.”
Sponsors are also coming back as NASCAR recovers from the recession, but it’s working from the top level down, Cassidy said.
Prices vary, but a primary sponsorship for a top-notch ride in the Xfinity series costs $5 million to $6 million. For the Sprint Cup series, a primary sponsorship could be upwards of $20 million.
To be sure, the NASCAR industry isn’t booming like when it was considered America’s fastest growing sport. Speedway stands are being torn down and attendance has fallen. TV viewership either declined or held steady in all but one year between 2006 and 2013.
And despite a new, more exciting finish to the season, the 2014 Chase for the Cup tied its lowest rating.
“It’s tough for anybody,” said Chase Austin, a 25-year-old biracial driver who competed in six Nationwide (now Xfinity) races and now competes in his native Kansas. “Just because there are a handful of black drivers that didn’t make it, there are 10 times as many white drivers who didn’t make it because of funding.”
Sponsors are trying to determine their reach in the social media age. What was once a matter of simple impressions for return on investment, Cassidy said, has become much more complex when considering how fans now consume the product.
A company would be marketing its African-American driver to a community that isn’t watching or coming to the sport. That could be a negative, or an opportunity.
Whereas 2 percent of NASCAR’s 2013 TV viewers were black, blacks made up 9 percent of Major League Baseball’s viewership, 15 percent of the NFL’s and 45 percent of the NBA’s viewership for the 2012-13 season, according to a Nielsen study.
“When you look at NASCAR, part of the challenge is not the driver but that someone is trying to reach a wider audience,” said Max Siegel, who owns Rev Racing and oversees the Drive for Diversity program. “Eighty or 90 percent of the fan base is white. If you want to invest money into reaching a wider audience, you have to demonstrate that the audience is more diverse and wider and not doing more of the same.”