When many of the existing NASCAR
driver and sponsorship deals were signed, the world economy was in much better shape than it is today. So as those deals approach their expiry, the economic chill is starting to be felt even in North America's most popular motor sport series.
Some drivers and teams are faring better than others. With one of the most high profile drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, Joe Gibbs Racing had comparatively little trouble getting confectionary giant Mars to re-sign as sponsor of Kyle Busch's #18 car in March, meaning that the distinctive and very colourful M&M's livery will remain in the sport for some years to come.
"Mars and its iconic brands are a big part of the Joe Gibbs Racing family and we're excited to continue what has become a winning relationship," said Joe Gibbs last month confirming a "multi-year" extension to the partnership between the two companies, said to be at the same financial level as before - rumoured to be worth around $20m annually.
Kevin Harvick doesn't have the same sort of high personal profile as Busch, but after coming third in last year's Sprint Cup championship he's started 2011 with two spectacular wins in the first eight races (the only driver to win more than once so far this season) and has more than earned the multi-year deal signed last year with Richard Childress Racing. But he's being made to work hard this year in service of his new sponsor Budweiser.
Decked out in a Bud hat and corporate-compliant black polo shirt, blue jeans and grey trainers, he visited the Crown Beverage distribution facility near Darlington Raceway earlier this month and was then dispatched to deliver some of the beer to a local Wal-Mart, pushing a trolly full of crates down the aisles before stocking up the shelves to confused looks from members of the public while the photographers got their photo op. Harvick reconciled himself to the circus by quipping, "I get to drink beer and not get in trouble for it."
And at least he's secure in the sport, unlike his RCR team mate Clint Bowyer who despite being in the Chase three times in the past five seasons is yet to sign a new deal with the team. "I've talked to Richard a couple times, and hopefully we're getting close on that," he said. "Hopefully we can get our sponsors locked in and get everything put in place and not have to worry about it."
Another of RCR's drivers, Jeff Burton, has just sealed his own multi-year extension with the team and with his sponsors, construction and mining equipment manufacturers Caterpillar, to keep him in the #31. 43-year-old Burton remains one of the sport's most popular drivers, despite a lacklustre season to date. Burton has been with RCR for nearly eight years, and Caterpillar has been a sponsor since the start of 2009. Terms of the agreements were not announced, as sponsors, teams and drivers alike remained close-lipped about the hard negotiations going on this year, with sponsors seeking to cut their exposure and teams desperate to minimise the hit on their revenue.
Greg Biffle will be feeling a lot happier having signed a three-year extension with Roush Fenway Racing to continue driving the #16, and his primary sponsor 3M has signed a similar deal that will see team, driver and sponsor carry on through to the 2014 season. 3M is a model of the long-term, committed sponsor that makes a real difference to an organisation. They originally linked up with Roush Fenway Racing back in February 2005, initially using the #16 to promote their Post-It brand: five weeks in to the arrangement and the new sponsors found themselves on the car heading for victory road at Texas.
"We set the bar pretty high early on with 3M and they have stood by us on our best and worst days over the years," said Biffle. "The people at 3M have found a way to innovate and make their NASCAR
program work for their incredibly diverse businesses and brands in a way that continues to amaze me."