Moving Billboards: A Brief History of NASCAR Advertising

Robert Laberge, Getty Images
Robert Laberge, Getty Images

When Bill France Sr. founded NASCAR in 1948, the sport's handful of sponsors were almost exclusively local businesses. Today, organizations and companies from Aaron's Inc. to Zaxby's pay millions of dollars a year to put their logos on the hoods of cars and trucks in NASCAR's top divisions. In honor of this weekend's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway, here's a closer look at the history of stock car racing's moving billboards.

Cigarette Companies Light the Fire

In late 1970, NASCAR great Junior Johnson asked the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to sponsor his car for the upcoming season. Johnson, who Tom Wolfe once described as the "last American hero" in a piece for Esquire, had lost his auto parts-dealing sponsor in a plane crash, and, like most drivers at the time, faced financial uncertainty during the offseason. R.J. Reynolds, which was looking for creative ways to spend its enormous advertising budget after the federal government's ban on cigarette advertising on television took effect in 1971, had a better idea. Just as former sponsors Ford, Chevy, and Dodge withdrew from stock car racing, R.J. Reynolds stepped in and agreed to sponsor a $100,000 championship series to be known as the Winston Cup. The Winston Cup survived through 2003, after which it became the Nextel Cup (and later the Sprint Cup), while R.J. Reynolds' investment paved the way for other sponsors to enter the sport.

The Man Who Launched a Thousand Logos

Andy Granatelli was a Texas-born racing junkie who made a name and a nickname—Mister 500—for himself in open-wheel racing. Granatelli would rise to prominence as the spokesman and CEO of STP, sponsoring cars in the Indianapolis 500 for more than three decades. After Mario Andretti became the first STP-sponsored driver to take the checkered flag in Indianapolis in 1969, Granatelli planted a huge kiss on him in Victory Lane. Granatelli first greeted stock car racing legend Richard Petty with a handshake 2 years later, but the duo's relationship would soon blossom. According to Ryan McGee's fascinating story for ESPN The Magazine last month, Granatelli offered Petty $250,000 for the upcoming season and a $50,000 bonus for winning the championship if he partnered with STP. Petty, whose father, Lee, created the signature blue hue that decorated his car, balked at the idea of painting his car red, but eventually agreed to a half-and-half paint scheme featuring an STP decal on the hood. "I'll never forget the reaction on people's faces in the garage," Dale Inman, Petty's crew chief and cousin, told McGee. "In that instant, the whole way that people thought about sponsorship in NASCAR changed."

Iconic Partnerships

In addition to Petty and STP, there have been a number of other famous sponsor-driver pairings in NASCAR history. Harry Gant became known as "The Skoal Bandit" after his sponsor of more than 20 years. Dale Earnhardt won two of his first three Winston Cup Series titles in the yellow-and-blue Wrangler Jeans Machine. GM Goodwrench replaced Wrangler as the primary sponsor of Earnhardt's No. 3 car from the start of the 1988 season until Earnhardt's death at the 2001 Daytona 500. Jeff Gordon, "The Rainbow Warrior," has driven the DuPont car for his entire career, while many race fans will forever associate Tony Stewart with his former orange and black Home Depot car.

Location, Location, Location

Primary sponsorships generally cost between $10 and $25 million a year. That generally includes a spot on the hood and a prominent presence on the driver's and his pit crew's uniforms. The cost of being a major associate sponsor, which might earn your company a spot on the trunk lid, is roughly $1 to $5 million per year. Parts of the car, including the area to the left of the number on the side door, are reserved for official NASCAR sponsors and may not be sold by the team. Prime locations in addition to the hood include the dashboard and headrest, thanks to the heavy use of in-car cameras.

Roll Tide

For years, beer, tobacco, and motor oil companies ruled the track. Procter & Gamble began to change that trend when it sponsored cars bearing the logos of Crisco, Tide, and Folgers in the mid-1980s. Other non-traditional NASCAR sponsors lined up for a piece of the pie after P&G's products enjoyed an increase in sales. In the two decades since, Cheerios, Hooters, The Cartoon Network, TaxSlayer.com, Wave Energy Drink, Spam, and L'eggs, among hundreds of other companies, have been major NASCAR sponsors.

It's becoming increasingly common for cars to feature several different paint schemes throughout the season, with sponsors unwilling to pay the cost for a full season. Sports Business Journal recently reported that only 10 Sprint Cup teams use the same paint scheme for the entire season. In recent years, cars have featured the logos of professional and college sports teams. Carl Edwards' No. 99 sported the Boston Red Sox logo on its hood after Fenway Sports Group bought half of Roush Racing in 2007. Aaron's Inc. unveiled a special paint scheme honoring Alabama's BCS Championship during a race at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

Making a Religious Statement

NASCAR's sanctioning body has the final say over what logos and images can appear on its cars. Occasionally, the paint schemes create controversy. In the week leading up to the 2004 Daytona 500, Interstate Batteries Chairman Norm Miller replaced his company's logo on the hood of Bobby Labonte's No. 18 car with an advertisement for Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ. "It's a chance to get the word out," Labonte told reporters. "Someone who is curious about Jesus and has never been saved sees the race and says, 'Hmmm, I'd like to see what that's about.' ... Maybe we can change their minds."

It wasn't the first time NASCAR was forced to make a religious ruling. In 2002, Morgan Shepherd put an image of Jesus on the hood of his truck. NASCAR officials asked him to remove it after receiving complaints, but changed their minds a few weeks later and told Shepherd the logo could stay.

Comparatively Cheap Exposure

In 2006, Eric Wright of Joyce Julius Associates, a research firm dedicated to sponsorship impact measurement, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the average screen time for a race car's primary sponsor during a typical race is 12.5 minutes and the average number of times the announcers mention the sponsor is 2.6 times per race. The comparable value to the sponsor for the time on screen, according to Wright, is $1.7 million. A sponsor's exposure goes up if its driver takes the checkered flag or is involved in a wreck, especially if the wreck occurs in the later stages of the race and the company name is still visible when the car comes to a stop. "If you crash, crash fabulously, and make sure your logo is not wrinkled up,'" Dave Hart of Richard Childress Racing once told a reporter.

Drinking and Driving

While the sport began its long-time partnership with beer companies when Miller High Life became a sponsor in 1972, NASCAR prohibited distilled spirits companies from sponsoring teams until 2004. The decision to repeal the self-imposed ban drew some criticism, but NASCAR President Mike Helton defended the call, in part, by arguing that NASCAR fans view distilled spirits as a part of everyday life. While several hard liquor brands became primary sponsors after the ban was lifted, Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's opted not to renew their contracts after the 2009 season.

NASCAR Politickin'

Given the sport's enormous popularity and the interest in appealing to the "NASCAR Dads" demographic, a race track would seem like a decent place for a presidential hopeful to campaign. NASCAR's BAM Racing Team made sponsorship proposals to Barack Obama and John McCain during the summer of 2008, but both candidates declined. The team's No. 49 car was a Toyota, the only foreign automaker that participates in the sport, and driver Ken Schrader was a documented Republican donor. A Sprint Cup Series car carried a George W. Bush logo in 2004, but was not officially affiliated with the Bush campaign, while Democratic presidential hopeful Bob Graham sponsored a truck in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2003.

In April, Texas Gov. Rick Perry paid $225,000 to have his name and campaign logo featured on the front, back, and both sides of Bobby Labonte's car at the Samsung Mobile 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway.

7 Tips for Winning an Arm Wrestling Match

iStock
iStock

Geoff Hale was playing Division II college baseball in Kansas City, Missouri, when he sat down and started flipping through the channels on his TV. There—probably on TBS—was Over the Top, the 1987 arm wrestling melodrama starring Sylvester Stallone as Lincoln Hawke, a truck driver who aspires to win his estranged son’s affections. And to do that, he has to win a national arm wrestling tournament. Obviously.

Neither the worst nor the best of Stallone’s efforts, Over the Top made Hale recall his high school years and how the fringe sport had satisfied his athletic interests, which weren't being met by baseball. “I had never lost a match,” Hale tells Mental Floss of his arm wrestling prowess. “The movie reminded me that I was good at it.”

That was 13 years ago. Now a professional competitor known as the Haleraiser, the full-time petroleum geologist has won several major titles. While you may not have the constitution for the surprisingly traumatic sport (more on that later), you might still want to handle yourself in the event of a spontaneous match breaking out. We asked Hale for some tips on what to do when you’re confronted with the opportunity to achieve a modest amount of glory while arm-grappling on a beer-stained table. This is what he told us.

1. KNOW THAT SIZE DOESN'T MATTER.

A child uses books to help in arm-wrestling an adult
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Well, it does. But really only if your opponent knows what they’re doing. Otherwise, having a bowling pin for a forearm isn’t anything to be wary about. If anything, your densely-built foe may have a false sense of confidence. “Everyone has arm-wrestled since they were a kid and thinks they know what it is,” Hale says. “It looks easy, but there’s actually a very complex set of movements. It’s good to check your ego at the door.”

2. PRETEND YOU’RE PART OF THE TABLE.

A man offers to arm wrestle from behind a table
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When you square up with your opposition to lock hands—thumb digging into the fleshy part, fingers wrapped around the back—don’t lean over the table with your butt in the air. And don’t make the common mistake of sitting down for a match, either. “It limits you from a technique standpoint,” Hale says, and could even open you up to injury.

Instead, you want to plant the foot that matches your dominant hand under the table with your hip touching the edge. With your free hand, grip the edge or push down on the top for stability. “Pretend like you’re part of the table,” Hale says. That way, you’ll be able to recruit your shoulders, triceps, and biceps into the competition.

3. REMEMBER TO BREATHE.

Two men engage in an arm wrestling match
iStock

If you’re turning the color of a lobster, you’re probably holding in your breath. “Don’t,” Hale says. Remember to continue taking in air through your nose. There’s no benefit to treating the match like a diving expedition. The lack of oxygen will just tire your muscles out faster.

4. BEAT THE HAND, NOT THE ARM.

Two hands appear in close-up during an arm wrestling contest
iStock

There are three basic techniques in arm wrestling, according to Hale: the shoulder press, the hook, and the top roll. The shoulder press recruits the shoulder right behind the arm, pushing the opposing appendage down as if you were performing a triceps pressdown. The hook is more complex, varying pressure from all sides and incorporating pulling motions to bend the wrist backward. For the best chance of winning, opt for the top roll, which involves sliding your hand up your opponent’s so your grip is attacking the top portion nearest the fingers. That way, he or she is recruiting fewer major muscle groups to resist. “When you beat the hand, the arm follows,” Hale says. Because this is more strategy than strength, you might wind up toppling some formidable-looking opponents.

5. IN A STALEMATE, WAIT FOR AN OPENING.

A man and woman engage in an arm wrestling contest
iStock

While lots of arm wrestling matches end quickly, others become a battle of attrition. When you find yourself locked up in the middle of the table, wait for your opponent to relax. They almost always will. “In a neutral position, it’s good to stay static, keeping your body and arm locked up,” Hale says. “You’re just waiting for your opponent to make a mistake.” The moment you feel their arm lose tension, attack.

6. TRY SCREAMING.

A woman screams while winning an arm wrestling contest
iStock

Arm wrestlers play all kinds of psychological games, and while some might be immune to trash talk, it’s likely your rival will be influenced by some selective insults. “You can make someone lose their focus easily,” Hale says. “In a stalemate, you can give them a hard time, tell them they’re not strong. It’s intimidating to be out of breath and to see someone just talking.”

7. WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, GO SECOND.

A man struggles while losing an arm wrestling contest
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Arm wrestling exacts a heavy toll on winners and losers alike: The prolonged muscle contractions can easily fatigue people not used to the exertion. If you fear a loss from a bigger, stronger opponent, conspire to have them wrestle someone else first, then take advantage of their fatigue.

If all goes well, you might want to consider pursuing the sport on more competitive levels—but you probably shouldn’t. “It takes a toll on the body,” Hale says. “I’ve got tendonitis and don’t compete as much as I used to. On the amateur level, it’s common to see arm breaks, usually the humerus [upper arm] bone. The body was not really made for arm wrestling.”

Does the University of Florida Still Make Money Off Gatorade?

George Frey, Getty Images
George Frey, Getty Images

In September 1965, 10 freshmen players on the University of Florida's Gators football team agreed to let the school's kidney disease specialist, Robert Cade, assess their hydration levels during practices. He took urine samples. He interviewed athletes. He asked to take their rectal temperature during games.

The players agreed to all but the last request. In analyzing his results, Cade discovered that the wilting heat, coupled with a lack of hydration, resulted in subjects who were very low on electrolytes like sodium and potassium, sometimes losing six to nine pounds of water per practice session—with some footballers having anecdotes of 15 to 20 pounds lost during games. Cade felt that players suffered from low blood volume and low blood sugar. Many, in fact, were being hospitalized after overexerting themselves without drinking enough water, traditionally seen as a way of building toughness in players. Those who remained on field were surely not playing up to their potential.

Cade mixed water, sugar, salt, and lemon juice, then ordered them to drink the solution to keep their bodies in balance. By 1967, the Gators were all consuming "Gatorade," and incidences of heat stroke fell sharply. The Gators secured a 9-2 record in 1966; the team became renowned for their renewed energy during the second half, and ignited a transformation in sports science. Decades later and backed by a massive promotional machine, Gatorade has permeated both professional sports and amateur athletics alike, replenishing electrolytes lost during physical activity. Roughly 632 million cases were sold in 2013 alone.

With the sports drink having been born on the Gators's playing field and invented by a University of Florida employee, it's not hard to see why both Cade's estate (he died in 2007) and the school get a percentage of royalties from sales, an agreement that's still in place today. But if they had their way, the university would be getting all of it.

A University of Florida coach is soaked in Gatorade by his players after a win
Donald Miralle, Getty Images

After Cade and his co-researchers finalized Gatorade’s formula, Cade approached the school's head of sponsored research to see if they wanted to come to an arrangement over the rights to the drink (Cade wanted $10,000) and determine if they wanted to try and sell it to a national distributor. According to Cade, University of Florida (UF) officials weren't interested, so he struck a deal with beverage maker Stokely Van-Camp in 1967.

Stokely's offer was for Cade and his cohorts—now known as the Gatorade Trust—to receive a $25,000 cash payment, a $5000 bonus, and a five-cent royalty on each gallon of Gatorade sold. When UF realized that they had been shortsighted in assessing the brand's mass market appeal—and that they were missing out on profits—they allegedly told Cade that the drink belonged to them.

"Go to hell," Cade responded, a statement that kicked off several years of litigation.

While Cade was a university employee, funds for his work actually came from the government—specifically, the Department of Health. He also managed to avoid signing an agreement solidifying his inventions as school property. For these reasons, and because both sides anticipated an endless and costly legal jiu-jitsu match in their futures, the two accepted a federal ruling in 1972. The Gatorade Trust would continue to receive their royalties, and the school would take 20 percent of the disbursement.

Initially, that meant one cent for every gallon of Gatorade sold, a fraction of the five cents owed to the Trust. In September 1973, following the first full year of the agreement, UF made $115,296 in royalties and earmarked the funds for kidney research and marine science.

Gatorade cups are shown stacked in a locker room
J. Meric, Getty Images

That's a considerable sum, but it's nothing compared to what poured out in the decades to come. When Stokely Van-Camp was purchased by Quaker Oats in 1983, they kicked off a heavy promotional campaign that highlighted Gatorade in commercials and sponsored teams. Coaches began getting doused with jugs full of Gatorade following big victories. When PepsiCo bought Quaker for $13.4 billion in 2000, they leveraged their marketing muscle to further engender the brand.

Consequently, both the Gatorade Trust and UF have profited immensely. As of 2015, the Trust had earned well over $1 billion in royalties, with 20 percent, or about $281 million, going to UF. The five-cent per gallon formula has been replaced by a percentage: between 1.9 percent and 3.6 percent depending on how much Gatorade is sold annually, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell, with the University taking a fifth of that. The funds have been invested in the school's Genetics Institute, the Whitney Marine Laboratory in St. Augustine, and to help disperse seed money for grants.

The school naturally has an affinity for the stuff, but that can occasionally come into conflict with other marketing deals. In 2016, the University of Florida’s women's basketball team played in the NCAA Tournament, which was sponsored by Powerade, a competing sports drink made by Coca-Cola. As a compromise, the players dumped their Gatorade into Powerade bottles and cups. The beverage born on campus—one that's netted them nearly $300 million to date—always comes first.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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