- Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR
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Imagine baseball without the pinstripes, the NFL without the blue and silver star, the NBA without a shamrock, or college football without golden helmets.
Whether you love or loathe the teams affiliated with those images, logos and colors, you have to admit that sports would feel a bit adrift without them.
That's been the case for 11 years in major American motorsports, which has been largely devoid of its all-time most recognizable sponsor logo. But this summer the red, white and blue oval logo of STP is coming back. Big time.
On Wednesday afternoon, STP will announce its return to big league racing, an aggressive sponsorship plan that will have the old familiar "racer's edge" mantra back in NASCAR's Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series as well as the NHRA, plus multiple racetrack sponsorships.
It begins with NASCAR's split weekend of June 4-5, when the Saturday night Nationwide Series event at Chicagoland Speedway will be the STP 300 and the following Sunday afternoon's Sprint Cup race will be the STP 400. That same weekend, Richard Petty's famous No. 43 car, driven by A.J. Allmendinger, will carry The King's iconic 1972 STP paint scheme, marking the first time that car has carried those colors since a two-race deal in 2006.
In addition, STP has signed track sponsorship deals with International Speedway Corp. properties, including Daytona, Talladega, Richmond, Darlington, Michigan, Chicagoland and Kansas. The company has also inked a multiyear sponsorship of Infineon Raceway, including title sponsorship of its Wednesday night drag racing series.
Two weeks ago, STP, owned by Armored AutoGroup of Danbury, Conn., announced a three-race primary sponsorship and full-time associate sponsorship of two-time NHRA Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon. And it will continue its sponsorship of Tony Stewart's World of Outlaws team.
"It totally makes me feel like I'm a kid again," says Pedregon, who christened the black STP paint job at the NHRA's most recent event in Las Vegas. "You think about watching Richard Petty or Ronnie Peterson in Formula One or seeing it out here at the drag strip when I was a kid. Or watching the Indy 500 on TV and seeing those pit crews in the Indy 500 with their STP gear on. Mario Andretti I mean, it's like, no pressure, right?"
It was at Indianapolis where the STP oval first became part of the American sports landscape. STP CEO Andy Granatelli became nearly as big a star as the drivers he sponsored. From Joe Leonard, to Parnelli Jones in his bright red "Silent Sam" turbine-powered machine, to 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti and '73 500 champion Gordon Johncock. Says Andretti: "As long as I live, people are going to link me to that brand, that logo, and of course Andy kissing me in Victory Lane."
In '72, Granatelli inked the deal with Petty. The $250,000-per-year contract (plus a $50,000 bonus for winning the Winston Cup championship) changed the NASCAR business model overnight. No longer able to rely on manufacturer money, Petty and STP instantly shifted race teams' reliance from Motor City money to a budget based on corporate sponsorship dollars.
Throughout that decade, the STP sticker became a badge of racing honor, from the Bonneville Salt Flats to the drag strips of the NHRA. The logo and the abbreviation became part of American culture. The Rolling Stones' legendary 1972 tour adopted the STP acronym, for Stones Touring Party. Twenty years later, the Stone Temple Pilots changed the band's name (it was Mighty Joe Young) after being inspired by the STP logo.
During the '80s, as Petty marched toward 200 career wins, STP moved the lion's share of its marketing muscle into its NASCAR program. The images of The King, his sponsor and NASCAR became inseparable. But by 2000, the cost of a primary NASCAR Sprint Cup sponsorship had outrun STP's marketing budget. The company has always kept a personal services contract with Petty, but chose to focus on smaller racing series and do-it-yourself "car guys."
Now the company's marketing efforts appear to be shifting back to the future. STP still doesn't have the budget to afford a $15 million-plus primary NASCAR team sponsorship, but has instead taken a more cost-efficient path that is becoming more and more popular with increasingly frugal corporations -- spreading the brand over multiple platforms for shorter periods of time in search of a high-impact splash of exposure.
"Honestly, I don't know if a lot of people even know that STP stepped back from NASCAR for a while," Petty said over the weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. "They became such a part of the world over here that I think a lot of fans just assume they're still out here all the time. It'll be neat to have this comeback and make what people already think become an official deal."
Then he smiled, with a tiny STP logo visible on the lens of his omnipresent black shades.
"I'm talking about STP coming back. Not me. Though I can't promise you that when I get to Kansas and see that '72 paint job on the 43 car I might not try to jump in it and take off. It might be a natural instinct kind of deal."
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.
As iconic a brand and logo as any in sports, STP is about to get back into racing in a big way.