LOUDON, N.H. – For sale: Prime real estate on the hood of cars driven by former Cup champions Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.
All it takes to fill the prime made-for-TV locale is a deep-pocketed sponsor looking to jump into NASCAR or bolster its profile by forming a partnership with one of the sports marquee stars. Gordon and Stewart — who have six championships between them — are chasing corporate America's dollars just as much they're driving for a title over the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
They're not alone.
Corporate sponsors have dried up to the point that Kyle Busch says he may have to fold his truck team next season. Busch could be one-and-done in the low-budget series if a full-time sponsor can't be signed to keep it afloat.
"The people that have the money to do it, can't or don't want to do it," Busch said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "The guys that want to do it, don't have the money to do it."
Busch has run into circumstances in the Trucks Series where other teams are slicing rates and practically giving away sponsorship, leaving him scrambling to find a company willing to pay a higher price that a driver like Busch commands.
"I think it's going to be pretty detrimental to not have myself in the series," Busch said.
In a troubling sign that NASCAR and corporate America have not emerged unscathed from the economic swoon, Stewart and Gordon have done everything short of putting out a want ad to stir sponsorship interest. Gordon is nearing the end of a nearly 20-year relationship with DuPont and Stewart needs a primary sponsor for 14 races next season. Old Spice announced earlier this year it would withdraw Stewart's sponsorship based on a change in marketing strategies. Gordon recently saw a potential deal with Wal-Mart collapse at the bargaining table.
"The Wal-Mart thing was a little disappointing because I feel like everybody was wanting to see that company in this sport for a long time and we would have loved to have represented them," Gordon said.
NASCAR, easily America's top racing series, has seen TV ratings and attendance slide this season. Plenty of teams have felt the economic pinch as sponsors look elsewhere to spend their dollars, or just not spend big bucks on sports at all.
"It's not a drivers market right now and corporate America understands that," said David Carter, who specializes in sports business and marketing as executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.
Stewart's teammate, Ryan Newman, is looking for additional sponsors for 2011. Sam Hornish Jr., who drives for Penske Racing, has nothing in place for next season because sponsor ExxonMobil is leaving his car at the end of this season. Rick Hendrick, who owns Gordon's team, has paid out of pocket by slapping Hendrickcars.com on the side of Mark Martin's No. 5 car.
It takes more than winning these days to drive lucrative sponsorship deals.
"It's going to be difficult for us race teams to stay in business without being able to have sponsors on our trucks or our cars," Busch said.
It's not all doom and gloom at the track. Budweiser has teamed with Kevin Harvick as a primary sponsor for most of the 2011 season. The beer company's familiar red paint scheme will be on Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet for 20 races next season, as well as the non-points events at Daytona and the annual All-Star race. The beer company will be an associate sponsor on the remaining 16 Sprint Cup races.
Harvick is also an owner and fields teams in the Nationwide and Trucks Series. He secured sponsorship for Saturday's trucks race from a company that usually only advertised with drag racing. Harvick said he expects to have sponsorship deals completed for next season in about a month and his teams may possibly add races to the schedule in 2011.
"We've been very fortunate to have a lot of success on the sponsorship side and things are going great," he said.
Harvick's Budweiser deal is believed to be worth about $10 million. It's a steep dropoff from Carl Edwards' deal with Afflac — a reported $26 million per year over three years. It's been worth it in more robust times.
"NASCAR historically has done a very, very strong job at making their sponsors whole, at making their sponsors feel that their money's well invested," Carter said.
Busch said drivers are hampered by NASCAR's policy of locking out several potential sponsors. Sprint's exclusive naming rights deal for the Cup series eliminates other communications companies like AT&T from consideration, and big tobacco sponsorship money is no longer welcome in NASCAR.
Even in the bleakest of economic times, it would be impossible to think Stewart and Gordon would drive without A-list companies wanting their paint scheme on the stock car. Gordon said he's only focused on winning a fifth championship and leaving negotiations to Hendrick and team management. Stewart doesn't have it that easy as owner of his own team. He makes personal pitches to potential sponsors and does all he can to make the organization stand out from the clutter of cars.
Stewart, who last won a championship in 2005, knows better days are ahead.
"If you look in the garage area, it's still a thriving sport and it's still represented by a lot of Fortune 500 companies," he said. "I wouldn't stand here and say that we're all in bad shape because the sport is very healthy right now. All you've got to do is walk through the garage area and see that."