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A Dilemma for Earnhardt's Sponsor

Machines Around the Country Portray Earnhardt Enjoying a Coke

By Christopher Stern
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2001; Page E01

Marti Wharton of Ridgley, W. Va, can rattle off the sponsors of the major NASCAR drivers as easily as she can tell you their names and numbers. Rusty Wallace drives for Miller Lite, Terry Labonte for Kellogg's and her favorite, Tony Stewart, for Home Depot.

And Wharton says her 8-year-old son, Dustin, has a more encyclopedic knowledge of drivers and sponsors.

A Coke machine in Washington D.C. with a Dale Earnhardt display. Machines have been damaged by people trying to get Earnhardt's picture, and at least one dispenser was stolen. (Ray Lustig - The Washington Post)

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Dale Earnhardt's family, friends and fellow racers gather at Charlotte's Calvary Church for a memorial service to honor NASCAR's seven-time Winston Cup champion.
The Post's Liz Clarke reports from the memorial service and recalls her memories of Dale Earnhardt.
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In the highly commercial world of professional sports, NASCAR is an advertiser's dream, one in which some fans view a defection from one sponsor to another with the same importance as a basketball player moving from one team to a rival.

Perhaps that's why, all over the country, the fans of Dale Earnhardt, who died Sunday on the final lap of the Daytona 500, feel comfortable turning roadside Coca-Cola machines bearing Earnhardt's likeness into impromptu memorials for the popular driver.

But in the wake of his death, Coke faces some tough decisions. While it was not the main sponsor of Earnhardt's car -- that was GM Goodwrench -- the soft drink company has hundreds of vending machines around the country covered in Earnhardt's craggy likeness and tens of thousands of beverage packages that feature the racer. Earnhardt was the principal of an multimillion-dollar ad campaign.

If Coke immediately began removing Earnhardt's likeness from machines and store shelves, some fans might interpret the move as an insult to the racer's memory. Others might see a decision to continue marketing Earnhardt's name and face as an effort to exploit a tragedy.

"No company would ever want to be accused of trying to profit on the back of someone's death," said Rich Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Choosing celebrities to market products is always a risk. But sports marketing experts say auto racing fans tend to understand the sport's inherent danger -- indeed, the life-threatening aspect of the sport is one of its biggest attractions.

Max Muhleman, president of Muhleman Sports Marketing Inc., said companies like Coke "almost always have crisis plans." Muhleman has served as a consultant for Coke in its dealings with NASCAR. Those plans include pulling material from the marketplace when appropriate and even yanking commercials at the last minute.

Indeed, Coke has already pulled a commercial in which Earnhardt played a small role.

In the coming weeks, Coke will meet with Earnhardt's family to decide what it will do about marketing associated with Earnhardt. "It is totally contingent on the wishes of his family in determining in what use of his name and likeness we will continue to use," said Coke spokesman Scott Williamson.

For now, the company is leaving marketing decisions involving Earnhardt's likeness up to local bottlers. "There really is no rule of thumb," Williamson said.

Curtis Etherly, vice president of public affairs for the Mid Atlantic Coca-Cola bottling company, whose territory includes Maryland, the District and Northern Virginia, says his office already has agreed to several requests to remove Earnhardt's likeness from select vending machines. Several other machines have been damaged by people trying, unsuccessfully, to pull Earnhardt's likeness off the front of the machine, he said.

In Ohio, an entire vending machine featuring a life-sized photo of the seven-time Winston Cup champion was stolen from a towing company days after his death, police there said.

Coke already has had to deal with similar situations. Earnhardt is the third member of what the soft drink company calls the "Coca-Cola's Racing Family" to die in a car crash in the last two years. The other two drivers who died in separate crashes were Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty.

"With each tragedy, we have dealt with the family of the drivers and dealt with their wishes in terms of materials in the marketplace," Williamson said.

Coke is not the only company to cope with race-related deaths. Craftsman Series Truck driver Tony Roper was also killed in a crash last year. And Lowe's, the home improvement store chain, had to decide whether to continue its sponsorship of Lowe's Motor Speedway after three fans were killed when a wheel came loose and bounded into the crowd. Lowe's decided to retain the naming rights.

Coca-Cola officials said the company has no plans to back away from its involvement with NASCAR, said spokesman Williamson. Earnhardt was one of 11 racers used in Coke ads. Several sports marketing consultants said they doubt there will be any lasting impact on the company.

"It's tough but life goes on," said William S. Langhorne, chairman of Washington-based Langhorne Sports Marketing. "Dale Earnhardt wouldn't want, because of an accident, that people shy away from a sport he loved."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company