Call it "vroom-appeal": It's the art of attracting customers by sticking your corporate logo on cars that race around tracks at outrageous speeds.
Companies have used the technique for decades to propel their products into the consciousness of consumers, and now Crown Central Petroleum Corp. is about to take its turn around the track.
The Baltimore-based gasoline refining and marketing company has joined a multimillion-dollar syndicate to cosponsor a team in the famed Winston Cup stock-car races, which are run under the aegis of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) in Daytona Beach, Fla.
NASCAR contests draw 14 million spectators annually, primarily in the mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states, where Crown sells most of its gasolines and lubricants. The races also have a yearly nationwide television audience of 165 million people, according to Crown and NASCAR officials.
"This will be a tremendous marketing opportunity for us," Crown spokeswoman Melissa Scheitler said.
Stock cars are souped-up, high-performance versions of regular passenger cars -- without a few creature comforts, such as air-conditioning, stereos and rear seats. Their purpose is to demonstrate speed and handling, often under trying dirt-track conditions. In addition to their beefy engines and specially designed suspension systems, they are equipped with rollbars and shoulder-harness straps to help protect drivers.
Stock-car racing fans, 48 percent of whom have annual household incomes of $25,000 or more, tend to be loyal to the sponsors of their sport, Scheitler said. As a result, stock-car racing sponsorship has become a favored marketing tool of makers of everything from motor oil to headache remedies. Even Beatrice Cos. Inc. briefly became an auto-racing sponsor a few years ago as a way to promote its corporate name and varied line of food and consumer goods.
It's hard to miss the names of the sponsors. Companies supplying the millions of dollars needed to pay for the tires, gasoline, mechanical equipment and labor needed by NASCAR's 1,400 races every year emblazon their names on the sides and tops of cars, and on anything and everything connected with the contests.
This year, the Crown name will be displayed prominently along with that of North Carolina-based Precision Products, and Skoal tobacco, which is marketed by United States Tobacco Co. of Greenwich, Conn. The three companies are the major sponsors of the Classic Racing Oldsmobile stock car that will be driven in 29 NASCAR/Winston Cup events this season, beginning Sunday and ending Nov. 20.
The syndicate's driver will be Phil Parsons, who won $145,655 in 31 NASCAR races last year.
Auto racing has had corporate connections since its beginnings, when car makers competed to convince potential customers of the quality of their products.
To this day, firms sponsoring the winners of races frequently reap the benefits at the cash register in the form of increased sales.
Crown will supply some lubricants in the races, but not its gasolines. NASCAR requires all race participants to use a specifically blended 105-octane racing gasoline produced by Unocal Corp.
But that matters little, Crown officials said. The company simply wants to sell more of its products, and it hopes to do that by using "exciting racing-related promotions at all our outlets," Crown Chairman Henry A. Rosenberg said.
Crown, which lost $21 million in the first nine months of 1987, operates 250 large gas stations and 470 Fast Fare and Zippy Mart convenience stores in Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Crown last year sold most of its oil and gas exploration and production facilities to Amoco Production Co. and affiliates of Cross Timbers Oil Co. for $166 million. Crown retained its refinery and service station operations, and said it would use the proceeds of the sale to reduce its long-term debt, while concentrating its efforts on the retail gasoline and convenience store businesses.