So in turn, the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and National Guard joined the parade of Fortune 500 companies advertising on the hoods of stock cars that doubled as high-octane, hair-raising billboards. And their presence extended onto racetracks’ souvenir midways, as well, where various branches of the service erected elaborate information booths to woo prospective recruits.
But the military displays in the Fan Zone of Dover International Speedway have been shrinking of late, with the National Guard the only prominent player remaining. And several branches of the service have canceled or scaled back their NASCAR sponsorships.
The Army this season dropped its $8.4 million sponsorship of Ryan Newman’s No. 39 Chevrolet, ending a 10-year relationship with the sport. The Marine Corps and Navy also have bowed out of stock-car racing, while the Air Force this year renewed its deal to be Richard Petty Racing’s primary sponsor on two strategic races: those run on the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends.
The National Guard remains bullish about its $30 million backing of NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., although it’s pulling out of motorcycle racing (a $4 million annual expense) next season.
For the most part, the military drawdowns in sports-sponsorship are the result of belt-tightening in the face of the nation’s trillion-dollar deficit. In the case of the Army, they also reflect a shift in thinking about the most cost-effective way of reaching young adults 17 to 24, the target demographic for military recruiters.
And if some in Congress have their way, the military will be barred from spending money on sports sponsorships altogether. A move to do just that was narrowly rejected by the House of Representatives last July, which voted 216-202 against an amendment that would have banned military spending on NASCAR, NHRA drag racing , Ultimate Fighting, professional wrestling and bass fishing.
“We’re in a fiscal crisis here,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) argued at the time. “Bass fishing is not national security.”
A member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on defense and co-sponsor of the amendment, McCollum is expected to introduce the amendment again in the coming weeks, when the House takes up the 2014 defense bill.
On the other hand, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), whose district includes Lowe’s Motor Speedway and the headquarters of many of NASCAR’s top race teams, believes stock-car racing is fertile and logical ground for military recruiters.
“Who is our best target audience? NASCAR fans, who are some of the most patriotic sports fans,” Hudson said, citing a survey commissioned by Hendrick Motorsports that found 90 percent of Army National Guard soldiers who enlisted or re-enlisted from 2007 to 2013 said they had been exposed to the Guard through recruiting or retention materials that incorporated NASCAR. “When you’ve got a star like Dale Jr. who’s wearing ‘National Guard’ on his jumpsuit on TV, you can’t put a price on the return for your investment dollars.”