- John Schwarb
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The sponsorship side of racing is a necessary evil to most drivers. Over a season they will make countless meet-and-greet appearances, stand for advertising shoots and commercials and, of course, dutifully thank sponsors whenever a microphone or television camera appears. Every driver knows the cars don't run on fuel: They run on money.
But it is often more of a chore than a mission, especially with the tendency of sponsors to turn over multiple times during a driver's career.
There are exceptions, including two notables in NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing. There's Jeg Coughlin Jr., driver of the familiar bright yellow Chevy Pro Stocker sponsored by Jegs.com, his family's mail-order performance parts business. And there's Bob Tasca III, a third-generation Ford man whose second-year Funny Car is funded by Ford affiliates Motorcraft and Quick Lane.
On the track, four-time champion Coughlin is a drag-racing household name. Tasca isn't there yet, but he took a big first step recently in Gainesville, Fla. The 33-year-old scored his first FC pole and win at the Gatornationals, beating longtime friend Tony Pedregon in the final round (not to mention mentor John Force and teammate Tim Wilkerson in earlier rounds), to validate not only the work that went into starting a new team from scratch but the commitment of a sponsor who took a flyer on a then-rookie less than a year and a half ago.
"The greatest gift you can give somebody is to believe in them. On Nov. 1, 2007, I didn't own a race car, didn't have an employee, nothing," said Tasca, who travels to Houston this week second in points. "Ford Motor Co., Motorcraft and Quick Lane believed in me and my family that we could build a program on and off the racetrack."
That's not just a script delivered by rote for the media. Wilkerson said his new teammate has "blue-oval blood running through his veins," a pretty spot-on description of the ties that bind the Tasca name and Ford.
In the 1960s, Bob Tasca Sr. was one of the first proponents of the "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" slogan that is more frequently associated with NASCAR. The Rhode Island car dealer had two of his mechanics prepare new Ford Galaxies for drag racing in 1962, kicking off an eight-year period in which Tasca Fords were regular winners in NHRA Super Stock competition.
When the famous Mustangs hit showrooms in the mid-60s, Tasca took them to the track. In 1968 he helped develop the Cobra Jet Mustang, a powerhouse on the track and iconic among muscle-car aficionados (Ford brought back a 40-year anniversary Cobra Jet this season to the NHRA sportsman ranks). All the while, business thrived at his dealerships.
Tasca left drag racing in 1969 but continued to play a role in the sport, later introducing Force to Ford executives. Today, it's impossible to imagine the 14-time Funny Car champion with any other nameplate.
That's even more so the case with Bob Tasca's grandson, who grew up working at the family dealerships with his father (Bob Jr.) and several other Tascas.
"It's our unfair competitive advantage. I grew up, literally, with these brands," Tasca said. "These are brands I've been around, and when I speak to fans and consumers, distributors and dealers, the credibility factor is pretty hard to argue."
That credibility lured the sponsors, and two years ago at Gainesville they became sold on the sport. Tasca, then driving a Top Alcohol Funny Car, set a national record from the same right lane where he won as a pro two weeks ago.
"That's when the executives came out and saw the people, the magnitude of that race," Tasca said. "They started to walk through the midways and it started to click, to see how we can use this as a tool. They got real, real excited about the opportunity."
Unlike some drivers who pull a program together and then chase funding to keep it alive, Tasca had the funding first but not the program. As he said, there wasn't a car, an employee or even a hauler when he called veteran crew chief Chris Cunningham.
Cunningham was a co-crew chief for five years on the Checker Schuck's Kragen blue car driven by Del Worsham, and found out at the U.S. Nationals in 2007 that the car was in its final year.
"It was a matter of being in the right spot at the right time when you look at it now," Cunningham said. "As much as I did not want to build a team from the ground up, because I just know what kind of undertaking it is, I said, 'All right, let's roll with it. We're going to do it.' So I jumped on board with him and he's been fantastic ever since. I couldn't ask for anything more from an owner/driver standpoint."
Last year Tasca struggled as a rookie driver, finishing the year 12th in points with an 8-22 round record and no final-round appearances. He graded his team at "A" for the season but said his "C-minus" driving held it back.
Not this year. With NHRA testing regulations eased from a year ago, Tasca Racing logged about a quarter-season worth of runs in the offseason from Las Vegas to Florida. Tasca also formed an alliance with 2008 runner-up Tim Wilkerson, forming a multicar dynamic that seems to be the only way to championships in today's NHRA.
"It's a very interesting chemistry because we're so early in our association that we really don't have a baseline on our two cars. Wilkerson kind of chuckles a little bit, [and] he said, 'Tasca, they think I waved the magic wand,'" Tasca said. " The truth is, he's helped us tremendously in the clutch department."
Wilkerson is trying to help as a driving mentor, keeping Tasca's focus in his lane.
"I think he gets a little too nervous about who he's racing when he's racing them. That really helped them in the finals because he and Tony [Pedregon] are such good friends. That's what I'm trying to help him with. Tony's even helping him with this, too," Wilkerson said. "It doesn't matter who you race; not like we're racing NASCAR where they're going to bump you and take you out."
In what Tasca calls the other championship, the battle to make a sponsor's involvement worthwhile, his operation is off to a fast start. In an era in which a seemingly forever-entrenched brand like Budweiser can walk away, as it did last week from the NHRA and a 30-year affiliation with Kenny Bernstein Racing, that's not a part of the story to overlook.
"When you look at our program and peel the onion back, this isn't a two- or three-year deal. This is a multiyear investment and long-term vision that both Ford and Tasca Racing has laid out," Tasca said. "We have established a championship-caliber program in a short period of time."
He's referring to on the track and off, and it's not just lip service.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.