NASCAR has played an unlikely matchmaker between fans and corporate America. When a NASCAR fan thinks of Wrangler, they don’t just think of pants, they think of Dale Earnhardt tooling around in a yellow and blue race car. When they think of DuPont, they don’t just think of adhesives and the like, the brand is also linked to the Rainbow Warrior, Jeff Gordon. The relationship between STP and Richard Petty was such that the sky blue that adorned his car became known as “Petty Blue.”
Over the course of the decades, sponsors have gladly forked over big bucks to put their logos on hoods and firesuits because they knew they would somehow become bonded to the fans who supported their driver, and that in turn forged a new relationship. The next thing you know, fans are wearing jackets, caps and all manner of accessories out of loyalty to the driver, and that driver’s sponsor. It’s a unique marriage if you think about it. Industry found its way into the hearts of a generally individualistic group known for their fierce independence and suspicion of those wielding great money and power.
This week we learned that a brand long associated with NASCAR, Joe Gibbs Racing, and the early career of Tony Stewart, Home Depot, is pulling out at season’s end. There was no dramatic conflict between sponsor and team; heck, Matt Kenseth is about as sponsor friendly as a driver can be. There’s nothing that suggests outwardly that the building supply giant is in any way hurting financially. Sometimes- a relationship just runs is course; and when money’s involved, there’s always a curiosity about what emerging markets and untried avenues of reaching new customers. Sometimes, a love just dies; a relationship just runs its course.
Like many other uncouplings, both parties will be alright. There are innumerable ways to bring customers to your door, and no doubt, Home Depot can probably do a great deal with the money they had been spending with JGR. Fortunately for Kenseth and his fans, he already his a strong, and quite frankly, more visible relationship with Dollar General, and his organization has had no difficulty winning over new corporate partners.
When a sponsor goes away, or a driver changes teams, the fan finds himself in curious spot. Do you still continue to wear that Home Depot cap, or does he or she find themselves feeling behind the curve. Generally, the greater loyalty is actually to the driver, so in the case of Home Depot and the 20 car, perhaps this cow already left the barn five years ago. Just like they say on those Facebook relationship statuses, “it’s complicated.”
In the long run, the real winner is the merchandiser. Matt Kenseth fans will snap up the gear bearing his name, his number and his current/future sponsors. For the longtime fan- and the Tony Stewart fan in particular- when they think of Home Depot, somewhere in their minds will flash an image of a stocky, dark-haired Hoosier who ruled the road courses and ovals of the early 21st Century. Even if that marriage is long over, there’s still the memories.