Contrary to some of the sponsors and marketing agencies that scaled back their activities at the Daytona 500, Ask.com showed up with its CEO, president and a team of close to 25 for its first race as NASCAR's official search engine.

The primary sponsor of Bobby Labonte's #96 Ford, Ask hit the ground with a team of Ask Ambassadors (think pretty girls in white and red), a fleet of branded golf carts that seemed to be everywhere, and a ritzy motorcoach parked next to Lake Lloyd in the speedway's infield. Daytona also marked the launch of an exhaustive ad campaign on Fox that includes 30 different 15-second spots and will run throughout the first half of the season.

"We're still in a learning mode," said Scott Garell, Ask's president. "We'll maintain this mix through the first quarter and then step back and see what's most effective."

Garell didn't reveal Ask's spend, but he called NASCAR 'the focus of the company and the broadest activation we've had'.

Veteran GMR Marketing executive Mike Boykin, whose agency represents Ask, said he has never seen a better time for a sponsor to enter the sport, because of declining rates and the opportunity to shine when other sponsors are pulling back.

"That's what the Ask guys saw," said Boykin, sitting outside his agency's motorcoach in Daytona's fenced-off blue lot, where DeWalt, National Guard, Coors Light and Oakley were heavy into hospitality.

While newcomers such as Ask and Verizon made their big splash at Daytona, it wasn't hard to find evidence of the recessionary times. Bank of America, NASCAR's official bank, did not show, and others were taking a more conservative approach.

"Given our limited opportunity for at-track activation, we decided to eliminate our hospitality programming at Daytona," said Bank of America spokesman Joe Goode in an e-mail, noting that SunTrust is the track's official bank. "Client-focused events continue to be an important and appropriate means of generating new business and increased revenue. However, we are taking reasonable steps to reduce the cost of these events and in some cases to postpone or cancel them."

Other signs of the times were evident. A Michael Waltrip Racing sponsor reduced its travel party from 15 to five, and they stayed one night instead of two or three. One agency put six people in its three-bedroom condo and rented cars from Thrifty rather than Avis to save on travel expenses.

On the consumer side, Sprint's FanView, which last year rented at the track for $50 a day and $70 for the week, could be had for a flat rate of $29.99 for Sprint customers, $49.99 for non-customers. The flat-rate feature was a tie-in to the company's flat-rate calling plan.

"It's a little light," Boykin said of the activity around Daytona. "But the thing about this sport is that there are so many companies, if a few don't show up, look at how many are still here."

Then again, many marketers pointed out, this is Daytona. Any signs of cutbacks will be more obvious at the other 35 Sprint Cup races than at NASCAR's marquee event.
by Michael Smith

Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal