Why would a controversial political advocacy organization sponsor a NASCAR race? The same reason a regional headache remedy would. It's cheap.
This week's revelation that the National Rifle Association will sponsor a race at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth this April prompted a variety of responses. NBC News was skeptical, wondering if it wasn't "a bad move" for the NRA associating itself with high velocity pieces of metal that injure or kill people — particularly after the off-road crash just two weekends ago at Daytona, where Michael Waltrip's paint job supported a Sandy Hook relief fund. Fox News noted that the race has long been associated with guns: "It's been a tradition at TMS that the winner of the Cup race gets to fire a six-shooter in victory lane. And the winner of the pole gets a rifle as a prize." The Verge's Tim Carmody wondered why the organization would bother, given the presumption that Texas racing fans are probably already on board with the NRA's mission. "Is this an ordinary and unremarkable sponsorship?" Carmody asked. "Or is it a desperate act of an organization with more money from the gun industry than real grassroots support?"
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What's odd about NASCAR sponsorships is how odd — and locally specific — they are. The sponsors for the 40-odd races on this year's schedule can be roughly categorized as companies falling into the following categories: fast food, grocery stores, skincare, soft drinks, motor oil, tools and auto parts, rent-to-own stores, geographic locations, automotive clubs, car companies, delivery services, tech, booze, junk food, insurance, casinos, banks, and Goody's pain relief powder, founded 1932.
Seriously. Goody's pain relief powder sponsored Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. This race is part of the Sprint Cup, meaning its rankings play into the overall championship for the series this year. Last year it was broadcast live on Fox. That's an awful lot of exposure for a company that sells headache powder primarily in one region of the country.
Likewise for the Aaron's 499 in Talladega, or the Bojangles' Southern 500. The former is sponsored by a chain of rent-to-own stores (hence the clever "4.99!" joke in the name of the race, which actually runs over 500); the latter, by a chicken and biscuits chain. Neither is necessarily an obscure brand, nor is either universally known. Unlike Bank of America or Coca-Cola, both sponsors of other races, Aaron's and Goody's and Bojangles could use better name recognition — or perhaps just a more sensitive name overall, in the case of Bojangles. Indeed, NASCAR gives local chains the opportunity to get in front of a national television audience at an affordable price.
That affordability is key. As noted by ABC15 in Arizona, the Sports Business Journal suggests that sponsorships for races in the Sprint Cup — like Goody's — cost only about $1 million. ABC15 asked the track with which the NRA made its deal what sponsorship cost.
"The title sponsorship costs for a Sprint Cup series race vary greatly from track to track, with variables ranging from market size to attendance, TV ratings and inventory included in the sponsorship package," Mike Zizzo, spokesman for Texas Motor Speedway, said in an e-mail.
Last year, TV ratings for NASCAR dropped sharply across the board, including a drop of 25 percent among 18-to-24 year olds — making sponsorship more affordable than ever.
The answer to Carmody's questions, then, seems to be: this an ordinary and unremarkable sponsorship. The NRA can do some self-promotion in front of a small but sympathetic audience for less money than you might think.