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Sponsor shilling goes off the scale in NASCAR

NASCAR fans expect to see logos and brands waved in their faces but Ryan Newman went too far.

Published March 19, 2010
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NASCAR is the most commercial racing business on the face of the Earth.

Despite having to scramble during last year’s recession, NASCAR has started 2010 with most of the 43-plus cars that show up for each race boasting solid sponsorship.

As author Mark Yost wrote in his book, The 200-MPH Billboard (a great read, by the way), “since the day Darrell Waltrip thanked God, Gatorade and Goodyear, NASCAR and corporate America have been partners.”

And we, the fans, get that. We really get it.

In fact, we participate. We are willing partners. We, collectively, spend millions of dollars each year on hats and clothing and other paraphernalia decorated with the corporate logos worn by our favourite drivers and then we parade around, whether it be at the track or on the subway back home, showing it all off.

It becomes part of our identity. Your clothing tells the word what kind of person you are (“I’m a NASCAR fan, fella”) and who your favourite driver is by way of the corporate logo on your chest.

The drivers, of course, are paid serious money to promote those corporations. We do it for free after we shell out for the gear. Hey, we’re paying to promote.

Since the 1990s — which was the beginning of the Fortune 500 era in NASCAR — it’s been nuts. Jackets and T-shirts that look exactly like the top half of your favourite driver’s uniform — Dale Earnhardt Jr. (National Guard/AMP Energy), Joey Logano (Home Depot), David Regan (UPS); Tony Stewart (Office Depot/Old Spice), Carl Edwards (Scotts/Aflac — both of whom, by the way, made it very clear to Edwards after the Atlanta incident that they were not pleased with him at all) — can be purchased and worn.

It is a race fan’s badge of honour to be a reflection of their hero.

So we know all this, and we accept it, and we welcome it and participate in it. We’re like the fans of professional wrestling: we’re in on what’s going on and are delighted to be a part of the show.

I mean, it doesn’t bother us at all when a winning driver gets out of his car (after first taking off his helmet and putting on the obligatory sponsor ball cap), jumps up on the roof and starts spraying bottles full of PowerAde energy drink all over everybody before thanking every major and associate sponsor plus the tire and fuel suppliers and his owner and his crew for “makin’ all this possible.”

PowerAde is a Coca-Cola property and Coca-Cola pays NASCAR hundreds of thousands of dollars for Victory Lane to be called the PowerAde Victory Lane.

Fair enough. That’s what NASCAR is all about.

But every now and again, somebody crosses the line and this commercialization becomes not only annoying but sufficiently irritating that a TV viewer (in this case, me) seriously thinks about not having anything to do with a particular product ever again.

Such was the case two weeks ago on the Speed TV program Trackside at …. It was the Friday night before the Atlanta race and one of the guests on the show was Ryan Newman.

Now, when drivers appear on this program, they all — to a man or woman — walk onto the set wearing clothing that advertises their sponsor or sponsors. That is a normal state of affairs. It’s usually pretty subtle — a pocket patch, or a cap or some such — but it’s there, and that’s okay. We expect that.

But when Newman walked onto the set, he also carried with him a bottle of Coca-Cola that he carefully placed on the table in front of him and then made very sure that the label was pointing directly at the camera.

They started the interview with that bottle just to the right of Ryan Newman’s right elbow.

Now, that show has sponsors. Companies pay a lot of money to sponsor those shows and, I think, can be resentful (and maybe even refuse to pay) if some other corporation blatantly tries to steal their thunder.

So, after a few moments, the director had the camera move in closer on Newman so as to see him, but not the bottle.

Newman moved the bottle closer to him so that it was back in the camera shot.

Next, the director moved the camera right up into Ryan Newman’s face, eliminating the bottle of Coke yet again. So what did Newman do? He picked up the bottle and started to wave it around in front of his face to emphasize points he was making during the interview.

It was all very cat-and-mouse and I’m sure Ryan Newman thought he was being hilarious (as do all multimillion-dollar athletes, at one time or another, when they’re hazing the little people).

But it was also so in your face that by the end of the program, I’d sworn off Coca-Cola forever. I bet I’m not alone.

There is a time and a place for everything. That was not one of them.

Time for new F1 voice?

If reports from Britain are correct, that Martin Brundle may soon take over as Lewis Hamilton’s manager, then the BBC will have to ask him to make a choice: he can be an F1 commentator on race broadcasts or he can be a driver’s manager, but he can’t be both.

Same goes for the venerable Times of London, for which Brundle writes the occasional article.

The reason? Martin Brundle has a conflict of interest. He’s actually had one for years, because he’s been David Coulthard’s manager at the same time he’s been paid to perform as an objective, impartial, F1 race commentator by the U.K.’s national broadcaster.

Because Coulthard is now retired, the conflict isn’t there at the moment. But it will be front-and-centre if and when Brundle takes over the Hamilton file.

This has nothing to do with Brundle’s skill and expertise as a commentator, which is pretty good. He’s entertaining — sometimes — and has some excellent observations.

But he can’t be taking money from a driver and commenting on his performance, or lack of performance, on the BBC — and, by extension, TSN, where we watch the races. Even when he’s slagging Hamilton, how do we know that he’s not holding something back?

And when it comes to commenting on the performance of Hamilton’s teammate, Jenson Button, as Brundle did in the Times at the weekend — in a less-than-flattering way, incidentally — how do we know if it’s fair comment or if Brundle’s sticking it to Button?

Martin Brundle has a choice. So does the BBC.

nmcdonald@thestar.ca Read Norris McDonald’s Auto Racing blog at Wheels.ca.