Two powerful magnets — passion and performance — provide an irresistible force that pulls together the worlds of auto racing and the building industry.
The attraction is felt by some of the biggest and best-known names in the industry, including DeWalt Tools, Lester Buildings, Leland Industries, Menards, Carhartt, CertainTeed, all of whom shifted into gear for this story, as well as other well-known names like Bosch/Fastenal, Metal Sales, ABC Supply, Lowe’s Caterpillar, Home Depot, USG, Trex and Rinnai.
“It’s about speed, power, performance, reliability and durability,” says DeWalt Tools marketing director Jon Howland. Those words resonate with many other sponsor companies, too. As Howland talks about the synergy created by the excitement of the track, the loyalty of the fans, the dedication of the drivers and the support of the building industry sponsors, you begin to feel the pull.
DeWalt, now a primary sponsor of premier Cup series driver Matt Kenseth, got into racing in the mid to late ’90s with a small series in upstate New York before moving to the Busch Series. They joined forces with Kenseth in 2000.
A ‘no-brainer’ connection
“It’s a no-brainer,” suggests John Mozena, public relations manager for Carhartt, major sponsor with DeWalt on Kenseth’s #17 car and its yellow and black colors. “For us it’s an obvious fit. While the NASCAR fan base is diverse, it’s still a blue collar working people’s sport. That’s where our consumers are.”
But it wasn’t that clear-cut in the beginning for everyone who was ultimately convinced. Taking inroads to the racing world was tentative for some and downright chancy for others.
“We got involved by accident,” says CertainTeed’s Mike Loughery. Well, not an accident in the sense of a crash. But it was a fluke. “(NASCAR driver) Ward Burton called me and said, ‘Give me a free roof for my home and I’ll give you…’ and he rattled off a list of things, including personal appearances, event tickets and merchandise, that he could do for CertainTeed in exchange.
Burton got his roof, but CertainTeed was surprised and pleased by its end of the bargain. “We held an open house at the plant and 300 people came. At a rural plant, that’s a big number,” said Loughery. “Ward was great with our customers, employees, families. We decided to test this and get more involved. So we signed on as a driver sponsor for just a low amount of money and started having events.
Again, CertainTeed was pleased. “What we learned,” Loughery said, “is that NASCAR fans are very brand loyal. Customers want to be involved with a company that is involved with their favorite sport.” Not only Burton, but Joe Nemechek and the Bobby Ginn team found sponsorships with CertainTeed and it’s been a positive experience.
The ‘little company’ that could
For Leland Industries in Ontario, it started with an old friendship between the company president and Ultra Motorsports. “They needed sponsors; we’ve always been interested in racing. It was a way for a little company like us to get some advertising in the form of our name on the car,” says Dave Webster.
So far, the alliance has been good for Leland, which moved from a Sebring SCCA sponsorship back in the ’90s to Canada’s National Stock Car Association (CASCAR) and now to NASCAR. Just a few weeks ago, Leland celebrated its racing connection with an open house on the lawn at its Toronto headquarters to bring together cars, drivers, industry guests and employees. There were speakers, musical entertainers and plenty of media attention. “And we said, ‘Let’s have a barbecue while we’re all together,’” says Webster.
Racing is not as big in Canada as it is on the south side of the border, so Webster says it is more difficult to track the positives of its racing sponsorships. However, all Canadian races rerun on TV during the winter, Webster says, so that secondary audience is huge. “How do I know that the guy who walks into a distributor in Kansas City saw our ad? I don’t.” Webster says.
Brand loyalty, a term that U.S. sponsors of auto/truck racing are very comfortable talking about, will come in Canada, too, Webster predicts. “In NASCAR it’s a huge thing. But in Canada, it’s just too early to tell.” Webster likens the popularity of racing today in Canada to what it was in the U.S. in the early 1950s, and he predicts it will follow the same rise.
For some backers, linking the benefits to their sponsorships is easier.
Carhartt caps like the one that Matt Kenseth and his team wear, for example, used to be giveaways. Eventually, Mozena was spotting them fetching $50 or $100 — more if they were autographed — on e-Bay.
“That was really a great way of showing what the interest was,” Mozena says. “People started asking for them (caps) at the trailer. That’s how Carhartt knew it had a winner.”
Hooked on a lifestyle
Lester Building Systems, on the other hand, got into racing in a very deliberate way. “It wouldn’t have happened without me and our vice president of sales, Larry Lembrich,” says Tom Borgman, marketing manager. “It’s outside the box for the post-frame industry, but it’s my belief that the hook — the emotional tie — is the huge amount of passion, emotion, for what is a lifestyle choice for people.”
This is the fourth straight year Lester is sponsoring Tim Sauter in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Lester also sponsors Green Light Racing’s No.7 Chevy Silverado after getting a taste of the Busch Series in two previous years. Other Lester sponsorships are in the World of Outlaws Dirt Late Model Series (with driver Chub “Chubzilla” Frank) and the National Tractor Pulling Association.
Borgman says consumers who are passionate about a sport, whether it’s racing, golf or baseball, know that sponsors are keys to the continuation and health of the sport, and they embrace the sponsors and their messages. “There’s a tremendous amount of ‘intentioned buys’ — actual purchase loyalty from people who follow NASCAR,” he says.
For the Menard family, with Menards “big box” home improvement stores in 11 midwestern states, racing is also a family business, with Nextel Cup driver Paul Menard, and ASA driver Charlie Menard. Menards also sponsors NASCAR drivers Robby Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., as well as MASAR Truck Series driver Matt Crafton.
There’s a lot of racing in the Eau Claire, Wis.–based Menards history, according to company spokesperson Jeff Abbott. “In the early ’80s, we sponsored several Indy Car drivers plus local racing, ASA and ice racing. In recent years we have sponsored drivers in the ASA, Truck Series, Busch Series, Nextel Cup Series and some local racing.”
In fact, racing is the other Menards family business. “We had a racing division for many years and currently own the Menards Engine Group located in Indianapolis,” Abbott says.
Keeping it in the family
“Family” is a recurring theme among building industry members whose companies sponsor racing. Carhartt, maker of some of the best known lines of work clothing and co-sponsor with DeWalt on Matt Kenseth’s car, sees that connection as a strong positive.
“We are a workwear company,” said Mozena. “It’s not fashion, not high style. It’s work. The added benefit for us is having a relationship with a driver that fits well with our company. Kenseth is a great ambassador for Carhartt. He’s not the flashiest guy, not dating supermodels. He goes to work every day. And he’s consistent, always in the top of the standings, finishing in the top five or 10 every week.”
That’s a great fit with Carhartt, says Mozena. “We’re not a loud, fancy company. We’re family-owned. We’re not into blowing our own horn.”
At the same time, companies like Carhartt, Leland, DeWalt and Lester say supporting drivers who “behave themselves” is important to their image and reputation, too. “We wouldn’t want to be associated with those (drivers) who are in the news for the wrong reasons,” says DeWalt’s Howland.
“Clean reputation, but with a personality,” is the way Loughery describes drivers that CertainTeed considers ideal. “Our reputation is always on the line, too,” Loughery says. “We don’t want to be embarrassed, don’t want to look bad. We want our drivers to represent us well and so far, we’ve been lucky.” Not only that, but CertainTeed’s drivers also have had some degree of involvement in the building industry.
Hands-on all the way
While auto racing cashes in on its share of glamour, industry sponsors seem to relate more to the grassroots, hands-on connection of their products and the people who use them.
While NASCAR is the second largest spectator sport, (football is first), it’s more hands-on, attracting the “gearheads” who are likely to buy post-frame buildings for their own weekend diversions such as ATVs, snowmobiles, boats and other recreational interests. That makes the connection a natural for sponsors like Lester Buildings, toolmakers like DeWalt and Bosch, Carhartt clothing, as well as the myriad sponsors who produce products for people who like to get their hands dirty.
Another “connecting” point with race fans, says DeWalt’s Howland, is that “we all drive.” Not everyone plays golf, for example, he said, so sponsoring the PGA might not work for building industry companies. “But we relate to driving … we’ve all burned somebody off the line, done 85 in a 45 mile-per-hour zone — that’s connectivity.”
Where and how to approach the fans is a creative challenge, too. Sometimes all it takes to cement additional loyalty is bringing a car to the store where a builder buys his tools, giving fans a chance to meet a driver, or getting their photos taken with their track heroes.
Winning is not everything
Tying the roar of the engines to the ringing of the cash registers matters. But does winning at the track matter?
“If it mattered a lot, we’d be very disappointed,” laughs Leland’s Webster. “Two weeks ago we were No. 1 in Canada. Now we’re at No. 6 but we might be at No. 3 next week. It’s not necessarily about winning, but winning is a lot of fun.”
“And then there are times when we go home saying, ‘That’s racing,’” he laments, mentioning a race where the Leland car led for many laps and then lost a wheel.
On the other hand, says Mozena, as he talks about Carhartt’s “golden” driver, “Kenseth has his own fan base and people pay more attention to winners than to those in the bottom of the standings. The fact that he’s in contention — that matters to us.”
“Winning is very important and it is part of a successful sponsorship that includes good sportsmanship, teamwork and the spirit of competition,” is the view taken at Menards Racing. It’s so important that it’s crucial, in their view, to have cars that are easily recognized by the fans.
Menards-sponsored cars are neon yellow and have a very bright appearance on the track, Abbott points out.
Yet, winning’s not everything, says Loughery of CertainTeed’s history as a sponsor. “We been in six years, had two victories. It’s important that they do well, but that’s icing on the cake. If he (the driver) does well, that’s great.”
It’s not always easy to tell whether putting your name on a car is having a great effect on a sponsor’s business, says Loughery. “We just try to move the needle” is the way he puts it, but it’s tough to tell whether seeing the name on a car as it moves around a track encourages a customer to purchase more or to sign on a new customer.
“The real relationship is being built between our reps and contractors and distributors,” Loughery explains. Sometimes taking a client to the track seals the deal. “We had dinner with our driver in Delaware, invited three roofing contractors who had been prospects the year before. It worked.”
Borgman thinks the biggest advantage in Lester’s racing sponsorships is that repeated and satisfying reactions strengthen the emotional connection between the customer and the company. “That’s where marketing is today and has to go,” he says. “It’s that engagement with the customer. I wish we could measure it.”
Measuring is where retailers like Menards have the advantage. In-store displays and tie-ins draw attention and can be tracked. For example, says Abbott, “During July, Menards sponsored a sweepstakes for store guests to register to win an all-inclusive racing rip to the Charlotte, N.C. race on October 13.”
DeWalt and others host hospitality tents and set up demos and displays at race events, drawing plenty of attention from customers and race fans. DeWalt also allows a lot of access to the track, says Howland. “We bring Matt (Kenseth) out to see the fans.”
Racing icon A.J. Foyt and ABC Supply Co. Inc., one of his sponsors, both marked milestone anniversaries this year. To celebrate, ABC gave professional contractors a chance to win items commemorating Foyt’s career.
In a press release earlier in the racing season, ABC founder and chief executive officer Ken Hendricks said, “Being part of the A.J. Foyt Racing team and the Indy Racing League is also a real source of pride for our customers and our associates. Many of them are Indy racing fans and they love the fact that we’re a sponsor. Thousands have had opportunities to join us at the track, and thousands more have attended special racing events at our branches. They really think of the #14 car as their car. It gives them an exciting way to identify with ABC Supply.”
Links and crossovers between sponsor websites and various driver/NASCAR sites are natural tools, too, in the electronic age.
Those links come with no guarantees, of course, but it’s a powerful force. Connecting with a driver and sponsor doesn’t guarantee “that they go out on Monday and spend $300 (on a tool), but next time they do, it’s DeWalt they buy,” says Howland.
Raising future customers
Nurturing future customers is another strong incentive for sponsors. DeWalt, for one, is also a partner with SkillsUSA, a program that supports high school students who are learning the building trades. “We sponsor their program at the state and national level,” says Howland. “Then we bring Matt (Kenseth) to the national finals in Kansas City in June.”
Part of this philosophy, of course, is that Kenseth is a good role model and DeWalt knows the value of that mentorship. When those students graduate they get discounts on the tools they buy in their first jobs and “we hope they buy DeWalt later on,” Howland adds.
Lest all the sponsorship sound testosterone-driven, several of the company spokespersons were adamant about racing as an equal-opportunity sport for fans. “Just as racing has grown in popularity with females, we have seen a strong increase in the number of women who frequent our (Menards) stores,” says Abbott.
“We’re not gender specific,” agrees Howland. “We sell tools to those make their living with them.”
Lester’s spokesperson concurs. “Women are heavily into NASCAR” Borgman says. And when it comes to deciding to purchase a post-frame building, “She might have done the research after seeing us at the track.”
Feeling the love
While companies sponsor racing for the bottom line benefits, it’s also about the love of the sport and having a good time.
Leland sees auto racing in Canada as “a good sport that deserves more recognition,” says Webster.
CertainTeed has held hospitality programs at 16 different tracks and had a full house every time. They invite contractors, dealers, distributors, lumber deals, customers and customers’ customers, roofers, drywallers, insulators, HVAC contractors. “We try to use the sport to thank customers, encourage new ones and gain loyalty,” says Loughery.
“We started small six or seven years ago. We were told that customers love racing and they’d love to come to a race. We tried it to see how it would go.”
So how is it going?
“They love it,” Loughery says.