This time a year ago, Ask.com was preparing to make the splash of the season at Daytona. It had a custom-made motor coach, pretty girls dressed in red and white to act as Ask Ambassadors throughout the speedway, and up to 30 new 15-second ad spots.
The eager search engine had seemingly thought of everything for its first year of an official partnership with NASCAR and a team sponsorship at Hall of Fame Racing.
But as the industry rolls into Daytona this week for the start of the 2010 season, the major question will be: What happened to Ask.com?
Despite trumpeting successful results from its sponsorships and advertising in NASCAR last year, the Barry Diller-owned company opted not to return this year, allowing its NASCAR partnership and team deal to expire after one year. A change in leadership -- CEO Jim Safka did the NASCAR deals last year but was replaced by president Doug Leeds in October -- led to changes in marketing.
Ask spent about $15 million on its NASCAR sponsorships and activation last year, industry insiders said. Its official deal with NASCAR was in the low seven figures, while the team sponsorship cost Ask $4 million.
"We had a great year last year, but for 2010, we've undergone a strategy change," said Jared Cluff, senior vice president of marketing. "We're working pretty heavily on the website right now, so our marketing this year will be toward the latter half of the year."
The majority of NASCAR sponsors whose deals were up last year renewed, including Dodge, Unilever, DuPont, DirecTV, Kraft, and Procter & Gamble brands Gillette, Old Spice and Prilosec OTC.
NASCAR also added Screenvision and Drive4COPD as new partners, with Screenvision being the official cinema ad agency and Drive4COPD, a group that drives awareness and screening for lung disease, serving as the official health initiative.
DirecTV's renewal is accompanied by a new HotPass product for 2010 that is expected to remain free but come with a new consumer promotion that will be announced this week in Daytona.
Among the sponsors that didn't renew for this year: P&G brand Duracell, Best Western, Yardman/Cub Cadet, and Kellogg's, along with Ask.
"We're happy with a 75 percent renewal rate, especially given the economy," said NASCAR's Jim O'Connell, vice president of corporate marketing. "The important thing about the sponsors that renewed is that most of them are fully integrated into the sport with teams and drivers and they're activating nationally, which helps NASCAR reach new fans."
The Ask.com departure, though, was tough to swallow because it held a prominent place on NASCAR.com as the official search engine, it advertised heavily, and the business results were good.
"We saw double-digit increases in usage among NASCAR fans," Cluff said. "With the fan cards that our Ask Ambassadors passed out at the track, we saw a 27 percent conversion rate to the site, so fans were coming back from the track and going to the site. That's a remarkable stat."
Cluff didn't rule out the possibility of an advertising play in NASCAR during the back half of the season, but those plans have not been finalized, he said.
O'Connell said NASCAR is pressing forward in several categories such as consumer electronics, a larger technology partner and a quick-service restaurant.
Sony was formerly the electronics partner but left last year, and in-depth talks with Panasonic didn't produce a deal. AMD was formerly the technology partner but vacated in 2007, while the quick-service restaurant category has been open since Checkers/Rally's left in 2008.
NASCAR's official partner count stands at 36.
Michael Smith is a reporter with SportsBusiness Journal.