Could 21st Century sponsorship freeze out small teams

By Joe Dunn

    If the new Shell-Pennzoil sponsorship contract with Penske Racing has a single big message, it is that sponsorship now extends way beyond a race team.
    For years, smaller teams have struggled to acquire and keep good sponsors, and with the current economic situation, even larger organizations have been forced to take a new approach. The big guns, Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing began a number of years back selling primary sponsorships in race packages.  The initial reaction was that the sport was in trouble, but what they showed was that they could keep their sponsor dollars up by spreading the sponsors name around the entire fleet. The primary sponsor was no longer prominent for every race.
    The rock solid DuPont sponsorship on Jeff Gordon’s #24 Chevy would occasionally give way to Pepsi and then to some of DuPont’s product lines. When AMP Energy and the National Guard were signed to co-sponsor Dale Earnhardt Jr it was clear that a single sponsor was not available to take on the task. This year, as AMP Energy is adorning the 88, we are seeing more incidents of the National Guard on the 24.
    But the new Shell-Pennzoil/Penske deal is a step into the next generation. This time, not only will the sponsorship of Sprint Cup Champion Kurt Bush include the #22 car, but will include coverage on the other two Penske NSCS teams as well as the NNS teams. This deal also moves over to the IZOD Indycar series where Penske has three top level entries. This ‘all over racing’ part of the deal is not really new, Penske has had a long relationship with Mobil Oil that spanned the two series.
    The new twist to this deal, what we have not seen before in NASCAR is that the sponsorship is also part of a package that includes Penske’s 306 retail automotive locations worldwide. The global business alliance provides an opportunity for Shell and Pennzoil to expand their presence not only within motorsports, but also as a preferred supplier of fuels, lubricants and related products to the Penske organization. Beginning in 2011, Shell and Pennzoil will be the “Official Fuel and Motor Oil Supplier” to the Penske organization in the U.S. and the organizations will look to extend their alliance with business development opportunities in several other countries.
    The Shell-Pennzoil deal is not a new relationship for Penske or Kurt Busch. For Pennzoil, returning to Penske is a homecoming of sorts as Pennzoil first aligned with Penske as part of its IndyCar teams in 1983 and won the 1984 and 1988 Indianapolis 500 Mile Races with driver Rick Mears. In addition, Kurt Busch won his 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship driving a Pennzoil-supported car for another team.
    The loss of Shell-Pennzoil is a major blow to Richard Childress Racing, but not an unexpected one. The fact that Kevin Harvick has yet to be signed to a new contract beyond the 2011 season may have contributed to the loss, but the expanse of the deal with Penske appears to be something that could never have occurred with RCR.
    This brings up the next big question about available sponsorships.  The Kasey Kahne deal with HMS clearly has put the lucrative Budweiser sponsorship up for a bidding war. Based on the history of Budweiser’s departure from HMS in 1999 and the Pepsi contracts, there is virtually no chance of Bud going there. In recent discussions about the future of Bud, the RCR organization seems to have been forgotten, but could the exodus of Shell put Childress in the spotlight? That equation would most likely require a signed Harvick contract extension. Ty Norris of Michael Waltrip Racing was seen courting the Budweiser folks at Texas Motor Speedway, but MWR is off to a horrible start this year. David Reutimann, the premier driver for the organization, who flirted with making the Chase last year, sit 30th in points after 8 races.  Michael Waltrip’s replacement Martin Truex Jr. is 16th, but he has a solid sponsor in NAPA Auto parts, so the prospects of Bud jumping to MWR appear to be slim at best.