Commentary

Don't look for Chevy to leave, just do things a little differently

The wobbling economy has people wondering how long GM, and Chevy, specifically, will stay in NASCAR. Fear not, writes Marty Smith.

Originally Published: October 15, 2008
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

GM Assembly LineScott Olson/Getty ImagesWorkers at GM plants across the country, including this one in Janesville, Wisc., have felt the pinch. So, what does that mean to NASCAR?

As most of you know, General Motors stock last week plummeted to $4.65 per share, its lowest value since 1950.

Read that again. I hope it sticks in your craw. It burns me like Clorox on a paper cut.

And I have no allegiances to GM other than being an American and the owner of a Chevy Silverado. I'm not a shareholder. None of my family or friends were laid off. But, as the microcosm of a greater problem, it disappoints me so badly I could lose my lunch.

(Word of advice: avoid like the plague the urge to peek at your 401(k), and do not contact your financial adviser.)

I feel the same way about Ford, whose shares are currently valued at roughly the same price as a half-sipped can of Red Bull. And Chrysler … well, you know.

But GM, likely as a result of its position as an American institution and former status symbol, to me, is the poster child for the American automaker meltdown.

Facing the 58-year low, GM executives continue to reassess most every portion of the company budget, including marketing strategies. Which means NASCAR.

It's hard not to wonder how GM can report a $15.5 billion net loss in the second quarter alone and back Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Richard Childress each year.

Does it make sense? And will it continue?

If you ask Chevy, the answer is yes. And yes.

The key question for them moving forward: How, exactly?

Terry Dolan, Chevrolet's racing manager, said Tuesday that NASCAR remains a key portion of Chevy's marketing strategy. But changes to the current investment portfolio are already under way, and a continuation of that trend in 2009 seems almost certain.

"Regardless of the business challenges, we still have to look at ways where we can effectively reach large groups of target buyers that have an interest or need in our products," Dolan said. "When properly managed, NASCAR gives us an opportunity to reach that target audience.

"The key is, where's the right balance point between investment and return? That's the case, whether you're looking at GM or many of the sponsors in the industry. We're all constantly working at trying to come up with that internal assessment that answers that question."

The cost of investing in NASCAR continues to escalate. Explode, really. Team sponsorships have tripled in the past decade. In 1998, a $10 million sponsorship was huge. Now, owners are seeking $26 million and up. Per car. That's why so many cars have multiple primary sponsorships these days.

Chevy invests in NASCAR in many ways, to the tune of an estimated $100 million-plus annually. Dolan chose not to divulge the total annual dollar figure, but when you break down the GM NASCAR portfolio, it's easy to see how quickly it can add up.

Fourteen Sprint Cup teams field Chevy race cars. Through that relationship, teams receive technical and engineering support, wind-tunnel time and marketing assistance. Also included in the deal are passenger cars. And, of course, money.

And many drivers, including Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, have personal-service agreements. Aside from that, Chevy has deals with many racetracks to provide pace cars, trucks for driver introductions and service vehicles.

Trackside, Chevy uses NASCAR as a platform for what amounts to an on-site auto show. The current fear in the company, according to Dolan, is investment oversaturation in some markets due to existing marketing relationships with sports teams, state fairs or other local opportunities in the same places they invest in NASCAR.

GM recently reduced the number of track relationships from 12 to seven, though Dolan, citing confidentiality agreements with the tracks, would not disclose which five tracks they cut. (Among the venues believed to be included are Martinsville and Daytona on the International Speedway Corp. side, and Bristol for Speedway Motorsports.)

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GM is currently evaluating its driver relationships as well. A personal-service agreement gives Chevrolet the right to use a driver's name and likeness in advertising. (Alongside the aforementioned big three drivers, expect Tony Stewart to be in the mix in 2009. Chevrolet did, after all, facilitate his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing.)

"We've been evaluating our role and investment in the PSAs," Dolan said. "Who are the right drivers to have? What benefits do they bring to us by being engaged in a personal services agreement? Do we have the ability to fully exercise the benefits we receive from those contracts? Are you using them the right way to drive the business?"

For Chevrolet, return on investment in NASCAR is measured in two primary ways: vehicle sales generated directly by the NASCAR association in comparison with the national average, and media impressions. Currently, they are comfortable with both.

"The modeling we've done, we're pretty satisfied with where we are historically," Dolan said. "The question is where do you go in the future and keep the right balance? That's where it becomes a challenge.

"The cost of participation has escalated in the past, and had escalated at a pretty rapid rate. That's where you pause and say, all right, where's the fulcrum? Where's the right level of spending for today? If so, where do you recalibrate to bring things into proper perspective?"

Questions abound, and GM will spend less money on NASCAR in 2009.

But Dolan said Chevy is committed to the sport in a tough economy. Chevy spokespeople talked openly this summer about how the company is reassessing its investment strategies. Dolan explained that GM is in NASCAR to engage consumers in the Chevy brand trackside, and to ensure that potential buyers have an opportunity to personally experience the product.

To do that effectively, GM must have credibility among consumers. Enter the teams and drivers. The ol' win-on-Sunday-sell-on-Monday mantra.

"One of the keys to being popular among the fan base is aligning yourself with winning teams and drivers," Dolan said. "You need to be relevant to the fans to have an opportunity to change their consideration and opinion about your product.

"Over the years, we've been fortunate enough to have those associations with key partners that have enabled some phenomenal on-track success. We're proud of what we've done to date. We just have to continue to do the right things to keep the balance in place with our business climate."

Strategies will continue to change as long as the market remains so volatile -- all in the name of balance.

"NASCAR plays a key role in our marketing mix," Dolan said. "What we have to do is ensure we have our financial commitments properly balanced versus the economic realities of the United States' economy."

On to the Six.

Marty,

Three words, jackass: Jeff (expletive) Burton!

-- Jackson Wiley, Sobo

So well said, Jackson. So eloquent. To your point, that win was huge. And it's not just that Burton won, but how he won: great pit strategy based on a previous failure, then the wherewithal to fend off Jimmie Johnson in a dogfight on the final restart.

It was all about clear air. Keep it and win. Lose it and, well, lose.

In a time when drivers are apt to reel off 10 wins in a season, Burton doesn't win often. But it's awfully good for the sport when he does. He's the key voice of reason in the garage. He speaks to pressing issues without mincing words, and shuns any personal bias in that analysis. He's a realist and speaks like one. The more he wins, the more credibility that honesty carries.

Though seasons like Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards are enjoying speak to the contrary, wins are awfully hard to come by in Sprint Cup. Ten years ago, Jeff Gordon won 13 races, and Burton was the man charged with ending the Rainbow dominance. Most thought Burton would be the man to supplant Gordon and challenge him annually for the title.

But after six wins in 1999 and four more in 2000, the victories became fewer and farther between. His time at Roush soured dramatically, and he moved on to Childress.

I couldn't help but wonder Saturday night whether winning means more when you experience mediocrity. Do you respect it more? Appreciate it more?

"I appreciated it then because Mark Martin was my teammate and he taught me to appreciate it," Burton said. "Mark Martin helped raise me as a race car driver at this level. He emphasized to me, over and over and over, that you never know when you're going to win another race. You win a race, it might be your last.

"I used to laugh at him. Not about me winning, but I used to laugh at him thinking he might not ever win again. I thought that was hilarious."

On the grid Saturday before the race, Burton had the very same conversation with Ryan Newman.

"Obviously, they're not having a great year. They're struggling," Burton said. "I said, 'Man, I know it's been hard, but keep digging.' He made the point saying, 'You know, when you come in, and things go well, you just take for granted that's how it is.' Not until it gets taken away do you realize, 'Wow, this is hard.'"

Burton's appreciation is far greater these days. He doesn't forget how fleeting success can be. He recalled leaving Pocono one day in 1999, driving down the interstate and seeing a bumper sticker on the back of a van that spoke to the volatility of the sport, the fine line between excellence and mediocrity.

"It said, 'Earnhardt, time to cash in the 401(k),'" Burton said. "Now, here is a seven-time champion that had won however many races they'd won, [who] the next year went and almost won a championship. So, I hear today about Gordon, 'Jeff Gordon, he can't drive any more.' Guess what? Jeff Gordon can drive. I said in here the other day, it's ludicrous to think he had a baby so now he don't want to win any more. I mean, it's insane."

Back then, Earnhardt tabbed Burton as the right man for the No. 3 car. That's really all you need to know. Very different driving styles, certainly. But optimum respect. And when Burton was down and out in 2004, Childress picked him up, made him a winner again.

"It means a lot to me, Richard believing in me, asking me to be a part of his corporate company," Burton said. "That means a lot to me. I drive every lap with that appreciation. There was a time in my career where everybody wanted me. Then it wasn't long after that there weren't many people that wanted me.

"So, that's a humbling experience to go through. I guess we'll all go through it at some point in our life. But it's a humbling experience. Part of the reason when I win a race I don't get cocky and think everything is going to be great in the world, I know there's a lot of challenges ahead of us."

Settle down, Porkchop. Five to go.

Hey, Marty!

Keep telling it like it is, man. The fans appreciate it! Hey, you'll love this. My sons and I made Valentines for Liam back in February after your story about him (Junior and Jimmie and Tony!), and the other night at dinner they asked me how he was doing, and if we were going to send him Halloween candy. I thought that was amazing. How is the little guy doing?

-- Randy Sutherland, Jackson, Miss.

That's the best e-mail I've received in months, Randy. The response to that column was humbling, to say the least, and quite frankly we need some more help. Little Liam isn't doing so well. He relapsed in July, and is back on chemotherapy treatments, radiation and now painful antibody treatments, too. Breaks my heart.

He doesn't need Halloween candy, but baking cookies on his behalf would be cool. His parents have launched a 501(c3) initiative dedicated to raising awareness and money at www.cookiesforkidscancer.org. Check it out. The hope is to stage bake sales in all 50 states on Election Day, Nov. 4, in the quest to assist families who have children with cancer.

Cambron and I are all over it. Again, thank you for your interest, Randy. Does my heart good, brother.

Marty,

Loved the line from "A Country Boy Can Survive," long live Hank! You should get ESPN to have that song play in the background whenever anyone opens the Door2Door column. What's the inside scoop on the Kenny Wallace-Rusty Wallace saga lately? Is Rusty coming back or staying retired?

-- Dave, Crown Point, Ind.

He told me at Talladega he's staying retired, Dave. He loves his job at ESPN. He's having fun with it and it affords him personal time with his family that he never had before.

Look, with the money being thrown at drivers these days -- it's ridiculous and only escalating -- how could a guy with more than 50 wins and a championship not be enticed to drive again? Rusty feels like he can do it. I asked him about the new car, how long his adaptation to it would take. That, to me, would be a key element if he were truly serious about returning -- he'd have to learn a new car.

As for Hank Jr., I got more e-mails -- and comments at the track, too -- about that response than most any in D2D history. It's just the truth, really. I don't plan to change.

Song of the week: "In Color," Jamey Johnson. Three of my grandparents are still alive, and nothing is cooler than sitting with them and talking about the old days. That's what this song is all about.

Marty,

Clint Bowyer crashed in final practice and ruined the right side of his car; mostly the paint job. They didn't use a backup car, so how in the world did they make it look brand new? Maybe you'll put me in the Six this week, because you haven't yet. Would appreciate it.

-- OBERY2, Emporia, Va.

You're in, Obery. T-shirt's in the mail.

The 07 team worked on the damage for two hours after practice -- until the garage closed -- Friday, then had four hours once the garage opened Saturday to work on the car before they rolled through inspection.

Other than paint, there wasn't much damage. It was mostly cosmetic. You can beat the hell out of the COT, man. (Look at what Jeff Gordon did Saturday night: He knocked the fence down, pitted, lost a lap, and was the leader before the night was over. In the old car, he's going home early.)

And the paint damage was actually more white-paint transfer from the wall, which was removed with a chemical. Any dents were removed by fabricators. In the few spots there was actual damage, a vinyl patch painted the same color as the car was used. Then they slapped on some fresh decals and voila! Bob Barker, new car.

Marty,

I'm in the military stationed in Hawaii, but I still follow my NASCAR (being from North Carolina). I've been watching since I could barely talk. I remember watching the likes of Harry Gant and Davey Allison and Darrell Waltrip battle every week.

I'm a little disturbed at the approach NASCAR is taking to things nowadays, the new car and cookie-cutter tracks being two examples. But one thing that never ceases to amaze me are the fans. So passionate about racing, whether good or bad. What I really want to say here is that I'm a Tony Stewart fan, and I agree with the call NASCAR made (on the yellow-line infraction at Talladega).

It looked to me like Regan Smith went below the line before he was "forced" to. He knew the card he was going to have to play and knew what the two possible outcomes were, it just didn't work out this time. But either way, could you all just leave Tony out of this?

What do you want from him? Is he supposed to say, "You know, guys, Regan clearly won the race. Give it to him and I'll take second."

-- Jonathan, Honolulu

First of all, Jonathan, I appreciate your service. Thank you for defending our freedom. Second, Davey was the man. I saw a guy at the track last Saturday wearing a Davey T-shirt that was so old it was see-through. It was sweet.

As for Stewart, I did leave him out of it. Here are my words, verbatim: "Smith set Stewart up with an outside move, then dove to the bottom. It was Days of Thunder 101. Stewart did his job well; he read Smith's move and blocked him -- admittedly. That's what he's supposed to do. Kudos to him. This argument isn't about him."

That's my time. Heading home to hot dog heaven. Bake some cookies. Help somebody.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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