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VAARROOOMMMM! NASCAR’s sleek and unbeatable marketing vehicle

by Jordan Green

She gestures through the window of the plate glass-enclosed break room towards the sleek concrete floor a couple steps down, where Dodge Chargers in various stages of assembly sit in neat matching rows. One half of the room is set aside for the No. 22 Caterpillar car; the other for the No. 55 Napa car.

Some look like mere husks of metal with their liveries blaring the primary sponsor and little patches designating lesser backers. Some of the vehicles contain engines under their hoods; others are no more than a chassis ‘— welded tubes of metal, including pieces that bisect the window and reinforce the roofline in case the vehicle were to roll. Tubing runs through the passenger side creating reinforcement around the cockpit.

The auto garage of Bill Davis Racing in High Point looks like a laboratory. The mechanics stride efficiently over the floor dressed in starched gray, laughing easily, moving with an athletic economy. Only their facial hair ‘— groomed moustaches and stubbly week-old beards ‘— seems to hearken back to a time when this was a semi-legal thrill pursuit and not one of North Carolina’s biggest industries.

Bill Davis Racing is owned by its namesake, an Arkansas businessman with roots in the trucking business, and his wife, Gail Davis.

‘“This is really spotless,’” says Angie Copen, a young woman wearing a lavender sweater with a scarf flung around her neck and long, brown hair that frames her face. ‘“You’re working on different cars all the time that perform at the top of their game. They recycle some parts. A gear can be reused about three times. Every time you run a race you bring the engine back and clean it out and reuse it. The brakes are shot after one race.’”

Over the phone Copen, a 30-year-old West Virginian, has identified herself as communications manager for the Cat team.

The Cat team?

Of course, that’s short for Caterpillar, the Peoria company that is the world’s largest maker of construction and mining equipment. And the team supports the No. 22 Dodge Charger driven this year by Dave Blaney. Nearly every aspect of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing enterprise is underwritten by corporate sponsorships. The corporations’ names are spoken devotionally.

There is the Caterpillar team. There is the Napa team, which is the crew for the No. 55 Dodge Charger driven by Michael Waltrip. Then there are the three truck teams: the No. 5 Toyota Craftsman, driven by Mike Skinner; the No. 22 Toyota Craftsman, driven by Bill Lester; and the No. 23 Toyota Craftsman, driven by Johnny Benson. The teams are named after Toyota because the trucks are Toyota Tundras. Craftsman is the sponsor of NASCAR’s premier national truck-racing series.

Caterpillar also gains exposure from Bill Davis Racing’s tractor trailer, a rolling billboard for the equipment company that can haul two cars to races in the upper deck of its box and logs 65,000 miles a year.

The über-sponsor would be Nextel, which holds the naming rights for the first-string stock car racing series that begins in Daytona Beach, Fla. on Feb. 11 and concludes in Miami on Nov. 19. Nextel took over the sponsorship in 2004, after more than 20 years in which the series was synonymous with Winston, the cigarette brand owned by RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Then there are the races: the Budweiser Shootout in Daytona Beach, the Samsung/Radio Shack 500 in Fort Worth, Texas, the USG Sheetrock 400 in Chicago, the Chevy Rock-N-Roll 400 in Richmond, Va., and the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 in Atlanta.

Most of the speedways retain the names of the towns where they’re located, Southern locales that evoke a sense of rural ingenuity and attachment, places with names like Martinsville, Darlington, Talladega and Rockingham. Now the speedway names more often reflect the metropolitan or regional advertising markets for which the corporate sponsors wish to compete: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway. One is even named after a home-improvement retail chain. The Lowe’s Motor Speedway, which serves the Charlotte market, could be considered perhaps the Washington, DC of racing.

Copen, who started working at Bill Davis Racing in 2005, is a relatively new face in the garage.

She summons Gray Warren, the company’s 49-year-old parts inventory manager who she describes as ‘“the encyclopedia of Bill Davis Racing,’” to give the tour. Warren, a man with gray hair and a salt-and-pepper moustache, wears a black sweatshirt advertising the Caterpillar logo and black denim pants. His slight build lends his body an efficiency that seems to propel him around the room in long strides. He talks with a direct gaze and greets people with an iron handshake. He acquits himself with a broad smile and an open friendliness.

Warren started working for the Davises not long after they went into business.

Bill Davis got involved in stock car racing through his relationship with fellow Arkansan Mark Martin, who ended Nextel Cup seasons with the second most accumulated points in four different years. Martin drove a Davis-owned car for three years in the Busch Series races, NASCAR’s second-string racing circuit, for three years in the late ’80s. According to the company’s official biography, Martin urged Davis to fully commit to the racing industry, and the owner complied by relocating to High Point.

Davis hired another promising driver named Jeff Gordon in 1991. Gordon earned three wins for Bill Davis Racing in the Busch Series in 1991 and 1992. Davis had plans to take him and another new driver, Ray Evernham, to the Winston Cup. Before that happened, the talented Gordon was lured away by Hendrick Motorsports. The 47-year-old Martin, who is sponsored by Viagra, has hit most of his career peaks driving for Roush Racing.

Hendrick and Roush are located in the Charlotte area. Bill Davis Racing is one of the few outfits located outside the Charlotte and Mooresville areas, Petty Racing in Level Cross and Richard Childress Racing in Welcome being notable exceptions.

As they walk from the garage to the reception area in the front of the building where the tour begins Copen and Warren pause to watch Tony Anderson, car chief for the No. 22 Caterpillar racing team, try on one of the new fire suits for the 2006 season. The mechanics laugh. The jacket is too baggy.

‘“Every patch you see on that suit, there’s a certain amount of money behind that,’” Copen says.

The Caterpillar logo is dominant, of course, with its peaked form plastered over the abdomen, the zipper splitting it down the middle. There are dozens of smaller patches. Cat Rental, Cat Financial, Remington, Konica Minolta, Bosch Spark Plugs and Sunoco are just a few.

In the lobby standing in front of a table covered with folded Caterpillar shirts Warren gets straight to the point. The fans naturally gravitate to the drivers. Warren knows part of his job is to help sell the sponsor.

‘“Caterpillar is not your normal retail corporate sponsor like Tide,’” he says. ‘“They use it as a sales tool. They will bring clients through. They use it as a rally point. At many of the races they purchase large blocks of tickets for their customers. They have a hospitality tent. They might entice a major customer to buy forty tractors.’”

‘“It makes them feel like they’re part of the team,’” Copen says of the company’s affiliation with the racing enterprise.

Thomas Built Buses, a local manufacturing company, also uses NASCAR races as lubricant to close deals with clients, Warren says.

‘“When a municipality decides to purchase a school bus the company will use this as a sales tool,’” he says. ‘“Fans of racing are blue-collar and white-collar people. The people that work on these vehicles are race fans. NASCAR racing is a very visible vehicle.’”

The two mention Joyce Julius, a marketing company that times the duration various corporate logos are seen in televised racing events to give the corporations a quantifiable report on the value of their sponsorships.

The corporate branding of NASCAR marks a long distance from the sport’s roots when moonshiners ran illicit liquor in the trunks of modified Detroit iron over back roads through the hillier sections of the North Carolina Piedmont back in the 1940s, gunning their engines to stay ahead of rural lawmen. But the magic of translating love of roaring engines, burning fuel and hot steel into consumer spending was readily observed by the early ’80s when a certain soft drink hitched to the star of Darrell Waltrip, whose brother Michael drives Bill Davis Racing’s No. 55 Dodge Charger.

‘“Mountain Dew was probably the sixth or seventh ranked soft drink,’” Warren says. ‘“Mountain Dew sponsored Darrell Waltrip in 1981 and 1982. He had 24 wins. At the end of 1982 Mountain Dew ranked third in sales in the Southeast, after Coke and Pepsi.’”

The galaxy of products that can gather luster from NASCAR’s gold appear to be virtually limitless, starting with cars.

‘“The old adage in the business,’” Warren says, ‘“is, ‘what wins on Sunday sells on Monday.’

Once the American car business resembled a pitted battle between Ford and Chevy. Now, with the two Detroit auto giants faltering, Toyota is edging into the action. And women have proven themselves a significant segment of the fan base, opening vastly larger revenue streams.

‘“Forty percent of the fan base is women,’” Warren says. ‘“Who does all the shopping? Well, they may buy Gatorade because Gatorade is the sponsor of the race they saw.’”

Auto racing operates through a hierarchy of interlocking loyalties.

‘“They are a fan first of the sport,’” Warren says. ‘“Then they are a fan of the team, certain drivers, certain makes of automobiles. A race fan is a very brand-loyal person.’”

NASCAR is a sport whose players are known for their genuineness ‘— and their drive to make money.

‘“The fans are able to mingle with the drivers down in the pits,’” Warren says. ‘“They have an incentive to be accessible. They get royalties on each one of these shirts that are sold. The more popular they are, the more T-shirts they sell, the more money they make.’”

He adds, ‘“We’re not only athletes and mechanics; we’re salesmen.’”

The rigorous athleticism and precision mechanics of the sport are certainly not to be overlooked. And a little of the old backcountry wiliness still abides.

‘“The driver in one of these cars works in a very hostile environment,’” Warren says. ‘“There’s the G-force, the heat. It can get up to 130 degrees inside the cockpit. He’s in that environment for three to four hours. Today’s driver is very physically fit.’”

NASCAR imposes strict rules on how the cars are built. The engine must have a specific cubic displacement and compression ratio. There are even regulations for the dimension of the panels used to build the car’s body. In fact, says Warren, what makes a Dodge a Dodge or a Chevy a Chevy is just the engine and the nose. The purpose of these rules is to increase competition.

‘“We try to read between the lines of the rulebook to gain the competitive edge,’” he says. ‘“It’s attention to detail. NASCAR has a long lineage of very creative engineering ‘— cheating, if you will.’”

He grins.

Seconds make the difference between winning and losing. The pit crew must perform as efficiently as any set of pistons.

‘“The driver comes down the pit road and seven guys jump over the wall,’” Warren says. ‘“At Daytona cars travel 300 feet per second. If my team can effect a change in thirteen seconds and the other crew takes fourteen or fourteen and a half seconds, that’s time and distance gained.’”

Pit crew practices take place four times a week, with each team practicing 30 minutes apiece. The next day Chip Wile, the communications manager for the Toyota Craftsman truck teams, drives a low-riding Toyota Tundra with a standard engine for pit crew practice in an asphalt lot on the side of the company’s truck garage.

As crewmembers wait behind a two-foot brick wall, Wile accelerates the vehicle to about 25 mph, aiming for a rectangular painted box demarcated by white paint. Before the truck has even stopped, three crewmembers have dashed across the front of the box and taken their place with jacks and lug nut removers attached to hydraulic hoses as the car skids to a halt just short of the center.

The jack bumps the right side of the vehicle in the air. The lug nut removers go zwoop! zwoop!, and the front tire man scrambles after the old tire bounding away from the wheel well. Then the same maneuver is executed on the left side. All the while the gas man is holding up a prodigious red ’76’ fuel container that for practice purposes is empty.

‘“Boys, you smoked one,’” declares Kevin Sharpe, a former cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation specialist who worked weekends as a tire carrier before accepting the offer of a full-time job from Bill Davis Racing and then becoming pit crew coach.

‘“Fourteen and a half,’” he says. ‘“Not bad.’”

Sharpe, like the others, describes Bill Davis Racing as a family. He exudes the healthy glow, sharp wit and easy friendliness that typify the company’s workforce. It’s a job that demands consummate professionalism.

The professionalism comes with the territory in such a corporate sport. The corporate dominance naturally means that racing, like every other part of the economy, is heading down the path of globalization.

Copen, who leaves Bill Davis Racing in a week ‘— Friday, Feb. 5, to be exact ‘— for the larger shop of Chip Ganassi Racing, had the honor of coordinating the publicity campaign for Toyota’s entry into the Nextel Cup.

This year Toyota has five teams in the NASCAR Truck Series, three of which are owned by Bill Davis Racing. On Jan. 24, Copen and Bill Davis Racing announced the company will run one of three Toyota Camrys entered in the Nextel Cup Series in the 2007 season. A team owned by Davis driver Michael Waltrip and an entity called Team Red Bull will run the two other cars.

‘“I was afraid of a backlash, but when we had our rollout on Tuesday, everybody was pretty supportive,’” Copen says. ‘“It’s a different world.’”

It’s hard to draw the line between American and foreign-made anymore. Camrys have been rolling off the assembly line in Georgetown, Ky. since the late ’80s.

‘“The Dodge Charger is made in Canada,’” Copen says. ‘“The parts are made in Mexico.’”

She adds, ‘“My dad was in the Vietnam war. I can understand if you have a grandparent that experienced Pearl Harbor, but still that was a long time in the past.’”

She shrugs.

NASCAR is eagerly scanning the globalized horizon. Still, some of its players wistfully recall its humble roots.

‘“I knew from a very early age that I would be involved in racing,’” Warren says. ‘“I was fascinated; I read everything about it. I remember Sundays when we’d visit my grandparents. My dad and I would slip into the car and listen to the race on the radio. I hung onto every word.’”

He has no reasons to complain about the 21st century corporate identity of NASCAR.

‘“I make a great living and I’m lucky because I work a great job,’” he says.

It’s not lost on him that NASCAR is now one of North Carolina’s top industries, while old giants like textiles, tobacco and furniture steadily wither away. In fact, he senses an irony in that speedways that sprung up to entertain the mill hands and tobacco farmers in places like Wilkesboro, Rockingham and Darlington are being gradually phased out of the NASCAR circuit.

‘“That’s the cost of growth,’” he says. ‘“While I understand, I grieve a little. If you’re coming into racing I believe you’ve got to appreciate the past to go forward.

‘“The powers that be have abandoned some of those races,’” he continues. ‘“Those textile people and agricultural workers are the back upon which this industry was built. Those were the original fans.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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