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Army National Guard’s expensive love affair with NASCAR comes to an end

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., in August. The National Guard has dropped its multimillion-dollar sponsorship of him under congressional pressure as it failed to produce recruits for the service. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

For years, the Army National Guard has defended its cozy relationship with NASCAR, saying that its sponsorship of professional stock car racing would help it land recruits. The Guard’s target audience included racing fans, and the tens of millions of dollars spent each year actually were a good deal, top Guard officials said.

“When they watch sports on television, they see the Army National Guard,” Lt. Gen. William Ingram Jr., then the director of the National Guard, said in a congressional hearing two years ago. “It’s a national branding opportunity that is of great value.”

Now, the the Guard has swerved away from the partnership, cutting ties with both NASCAR and the Indy Racing League, Guard officials said. Specifically, they’ve cut ties with NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Indy racer Graham Rahal, saving $32 million and $12 million, respectively, the Guard said.

“Significantly constrained resources and the likelihood of further reductions in the future call for more innovative and cost-effective ways of doing business,” said Maj. Gen. Judd H. Lyons, acting director of the Army National Guard. “We believe industry and open competition can help us identify effective and efficient solutions to help us meet our marketing and recruiting objectives within budget constraints.”

The program has been under fire for months. In May, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Senate financial and contracting oversight subcommittee, ripped the Guard for “wasting a bunch of money on a very expensive sports sponsorship” and said that the organization spent $26.5 million to sponsor NASCAR in 2012 but did not add any soldiers as a result of it.

Documents provided to USA Today and other media organizations at the time suggested the Guard received 24,800 recruiting prospects from the program in 2012. Of those, only 20 met the Guard’s qualifications and none joined the service.

McCaskill greeted the decision to drop NASCAR as a positive move in a statement Thursday.

“I’m a NASCAR fan, and I love the National Guard — but spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a recruitment program that signed up zero recruits, and that has been abandoned by other service branches as ineffective, just makes no sense,” she said.

The National Guard spent more than $56 million each year on sports marketing with NASCAR and IndyCar, 37 percent of its overall marketing and advertising budget, McCaskill’s office said.

The Sporting News noted Thursday that the decision comes at a time when the Guard’s sponsor, Earnhardt, has been voted the most popular driver in NASCAR for 11 straight years. Nevertheless, the Guard was never able to turn that exposure into recruits.

Said Lyons, the acting director of the Guard: “To make best use of limited marketing dollars, future programs will have to sustain the Army National Guard brand with the American public, and also generate quality leads that will fill our ranks with the best Soldiers that America has to offer.”