Tuesday
Oct052010

Q&A: Michael Waltrip On Nascar, Sponsors, Nascar Sponsors And Twitter

Having earned more than $41.4 million in winnings and as the man whose name is on the banner of Michael Waltrip Racing, Michael Waltrip is an unabashed believer in Nascar and the plethora of sponsors and marketing partners that keep the sport moving. The younger brother of Nascar icon Darrell Waltrip started racing in 1981 at the age of 18, and began his Nascar career in the then Winston Cup circuit four years later. So when it comes to racing and marketing partners, the native of Kentucky takes the state motto to heart: "United we stand, divided we fall."

By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted October 5, 2010)


Since joining the circuit in 1985, race car driver Michael Waltrip has earned more than $41.4 million in winnings career winnings in 759 starts prior to 2010, according to Nascar. His best run was between 2003-05, when he averaged more than $4 million a year in winnings. Arguably, Waltrip's two most memorable victories came at the Daytona 500, in the 2001 and 2003, racing for Dale Earnhardt Inc. However, the race on Feb. 18, 2001 will always be remembered at the event when racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a crash during the final lap.

Waltrip's primary marketing sponsors include Aarons, Best Western, Napa Auto Parts, Toyota and Tums; associate partners include Coca-Cola, Oakley, New Balance, Bass Pro Shops and Sherwin Williams. Among other marketing endeavors, Waltrip has  filmed a series of humorous TV spots for Napa in which he poked fun at himself. One featured a talking parrot that repeated to Waltrip what his owner yelled at the TV during races ("The gas pedal is on your right, Michael . . . 55 is your number, not the speed limit"); another centered around a dedicated fan whose hobby was to build miniature versions of Waltrip's race cars after crashes.

Michael Waltrip Racing was established 2004 with co-owner with Robert Kaufman. (Michael Waltrip Racing is at Exit 28 on I-77 in Cornelius, about 15 miles north of Charlotte, N.C. ) Drivers include Ryan Truex, Martin Truex Jr., Trevor Bayne and David Reutimann. Waltrip was in the news following the Oct. 3 race at the Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway, not as a driver but as the man at the head of MWR. During lap 52 of the race, Kyle Busch, who is part of the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, bumped the back of MWR's David Reutimann, causing Reutimann's Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota to spin out. During lap 155, the car being driven by Reutimann, who is not among the Sprint Cup playoff drivers, popped into Busch's, forcing him into a wall.

“There are 43 drivers on the race track each Sunday and there is no delineation between Chase participants and non-Chase participants when it comes to respect," Waltrip said in a statement. "Everyone at Michael Waltrip Racing is working hard to deliver great results to our owners, employees and sponsors. All organizations have a lot at stake each week as we are all measured by our performance and finishing position. When David Reutimann’s chance to compete for a win at Kansas was taken away, it set off a series of events that have been well documented. I stand behind David because his record of sportsmanship is flawless. It is the duty of MWR’s drivers to deliver for Toyota and our other partners, and I expect them to be treated fairly while doing so.”

Off-track endeavors include running the Boston Marathon and helping to oversee the Waltrip Brothers Charitable Fund with brother Darrell. But on or off the track, Michael Waltrip spends a lot of time talking about his sponsors, as he did when he fielded a series of questions during a panel discussion about Nascar that was held in New York recently as part of Advertising Week.

Waltrip in one of several humorous spots for Napa.How would you describe your relationship with your sponsors?
Michael Waltrip: I have a great deal of gratitude to anyone who wants to be on the side of my car. They are not just sponsors, they are my partners. I do everything I can to maximize the partnerships. I'm willing to do 24/7 what sponsors ask.

Do people understand the importance of having numerous sponsors in Nascar?
MW: The budget for a season is about $87 million, so you certainly have to have a lot of sponsors. What you get from winnings no where covers costs. Cars cost about $150,000 each, and we have a garage full of them. Toyota and Napa — two of the biggest, most iconic names in Nascar — have chosen to spend marketing dollars with me. Napa is a long-time partner and I'm sure they like me, but after ten years they [stick with me] because they want to reach Nascar fans. Every week I make sure that my sponsors are taken care of.

What are you doing to keep your sponsorship deals in the public eye?
MW: People need to know who you are. I have embraced social media to engage fans: Twitter, Facebook. It used to be you had a sponsor deal, maybe you got $1-2 million a year. Now you [need] $10 million. It's more difficult to make sure those companies stand out. But for me, if they spend $100 or $10 million, they all get my attention. I overdeliver for them. I take care of them all. You have to be innovative, spread your message around. Of course the best way to do that is to win. But even in the years I didn't win, they still got coverage and exposure. Winning is a bonus, and of course they want me to win.

Waltrip holds an annual Fan Fest as part of his efforts to honor fans and put a focus on sponsors.What do you do to facilitate relationships among your marketing partners?
MW: Business-to-business is very important. Every six months I get my sponsors together — Toyota, Tums, Best Western — I like to mention my sponsors a lot. [Laughs.] I get them together to discuss ideas. Best Western and Domino's, for example, they sat together and they figured a way to work together — getting Domino's on key cards in Best Western rooms. Sponsors [also] want to use the opportunity to enhance relationships with business partners and to [reward] their employees.

How important is traditional media?
MW: My sponsors like to do TV ads. I have done them for Napa, Aarons . . .  did I mention I like to name my sponsors a lot. [Laughs.] It works. I was in Las Vegas and a guy was cutting my hair. He couldn't speak English very well, but he recognized me and said, "Nascar driver!" Usually people who can speak English very well say to me, "You haven't won many races!!" [Laughs.]

What is Nascar doing to expand its reach among consumers?
MW: Reaching urban fans is important. It's important to be innovative. Social networking is a great way to reach people. Also it's a great way to turn up the focus on team marketing dollars, to put them in places they haven't been. If I'm in a place with a Napa store I'll walk in and say hi. I wouldn't compare myself to Dale Earnhardt  Jr. [in popularity]. It was not an not overnight thing for me. I've been doing this a long time.

What do you think about Ricky Carmichael, who won 15 championship titles in motocross and supermotorcross, now being part of Nascar?
MW: There is a lot of innovation and a lot of young competitors in action sports. Ricky Carmichael, who is now with Nascar [competing in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series] brings us more attention. You want to build teams and individual drivers, but you also want to build Nascar.

Motocross legend Ricky Carmichael is attracting new and younger fans to Mascar.What are some of the major changes you've seen in how Nascar and sponsors are reaching consumers?
MW: It's a different world from when I was growing up. Kids now can get Nascar 24/7. The Internet, Speed TV, they can get it from daylight to dark. People talk about Nascar as if it is in decline. I tell sponsors, "Six million people will watch us [race] in Kansas this weekend on TV. Get on a car. Buy an ad." During a race, even under caution, TV guys will get into the truck to interview drivers. You don't see that in any other sport.

How do you maintain your focus?
MW: You get used to it. We are property of the sponsors, not just of the sport. You love it, even if you don't. It's like paying a toll.

Where do you see sponsorship and marketing dollars coming from in the future?
MW: Everyone is challenged with changes. You have to figure out how to make the business model work. There are fewer sponsors and fewer dollars. You look to trim your budget, but there's just not enough money out there. I'm glad to hear that the TV ratings are improving. A majority of our events are huge. We have to fight through this tough time like everyone else. Fans have to make a choice, what to do with their [entertainment] dollars.

The WNBA has followed Nascar with brand logos (such as Bing with the Seattle Storm) on jerseys.Other sports are allowing brands to put their logos on conspicuous places on jerseys — which Nascar fans are used to: WNBA, MLS. Do you see more of this 'Nascarization' of sports?
MW: I love that we are 'Nascarizing' sports. Like Nascar, they need dollars and more exposure, and they are getting more exposure. This is a [relatively] young sport but there is a lot of room for growth, for potential [to reach new fans and sponsors] . We have to be all about reaching more people. People are asking what's wrong with the sport. Nothing is wrong with it. We are in a little lull right now. and we are taking abuse for it. But I look at the stands and TV and I just don't get it. They travel hours to see us, pay money, just like I would do if I wasn't part of Nascar.

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