FORT RILEY, Kan. – Joe Nemechek is "G.I. Joe" to many NASCAR (search) fans, a nickname stemming from the GoArmy.com logo on the hood and bumper of his Chevy Monte Carlo.
Every lap he leads and every pole he wins puts the Army in millions of living rooms nationwide.
Sponsoring Nemechek is part of a military recruiting strategy, which includes advertising at football games and rodeos, aimed at maintaining the all-volunteer force during the war in Iraq (search) and the hunt for Usama bin Laden (search).
"We have to get the best young men and women in the Army to continue," said Tom Tiernan, a 22-year Army veteran who is now a civilian employee leading the marketing program.
The program's success is open to debate. A federal General Accounting Office report concluded last year that the military — even though its advertising spending rose from $299 million in 1998 to $598 million in 2003 — couldn't truly evaluate such campaigns because "joining the military is a profound life decision."
That was true for Pvt. Shannon Cooke, 19, of Newport News, Va., who joined the Army to follow a family tradition.
"My mother was in the Army; I always knew I wanted to come," said Cooke, with Fort Riley's 24th Infantry Division.
But the logos on Nemechek's car helped coax Pvt. Terrence Bartholomew, also with the 24th Infantry, to enlist in February. The 22-year-old from New Orleans acknowledged he's not really a NASCAR fan but, "I saw the car two times on TV."
Nemechek said he tells the recruits he meets they are doing a great honor for their country.
"I'm trying to do the best job I can on the track to give them something to pull for," said Nemechek, who put the Army car in the winner's circle in October at the Banquet 400 at Kansas Speedway.
After missing recruiting goals, the Army launched a program in 2000 to transform its image. The branch wants to be seen as an attractive career, Tiernan said, and "not just for those who have no other viable option in life."
The program began with the National Hot Rod Association, sponsoring Tony "The Sarge" Schumacher. The Army sponsors a national high school football all-star game each January in Texas, a contest broadcast on NBC-TV. This year, the Army started pouring dollars into professional rodeo and bull riding events, as well as a bull-riding team.
Sports marketing now consumes $40 million of the Army's $212 million annual advertising budget in an era when finding new soldiers can be tough.
"As the economy gets better, there will be more competition for the kids," Tiernan said.
Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the sponsorships are "absolutely" appropriate for the military."
"It's a matter of striking a responsive chord," Skelton said. "You will not find them at golf tournaments."
The Army met its 2004 goal of recruiting 77,000 new soldiers in the 12 months ending Sept. 30. Other branches fell short, including a fellow NASCAR Nextel Cup sponsor, the Army National Guard.
Richard Stark, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the military has to be flexible in recruiting and offering benefits to reflect the times.
He views the military as competing successfully for recruits but added frequent deployments by the Army and its reserves are likely to affect retention and recruiting in coming years.
Each branch is involved with NASCAR. The Marine Corps has a $46 million advertising budget and spends $3.5 million to sponsor a car in NASCAR's Busch Series. The Air Force has a $2 million deal with Nextel Cup driver Ricky Rudd and invests $100,000 in a professional snowmobile team.
Tiernan declined to disclose exactly how much Nemechek's sponsorship cost the Army but said it was less than $10 million.
Maj. Dave Geiesmer, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in Quantico, Va., estimated that its NASCAR sponsorship provides the same exposure as $15 million in television advertising.
"We get value every time the car is mentioned," he said.
The Army has a traveling exhibition for NASCAR events, filling four semitrailers and covering 12,000 square feet, giving recruits a version of shock and awe.
Visitors can view the latest Army equipment, including uniforms and weapons, said Guy Morgan, Army account director. Other activities include laser target shooting and a challenge involving changing tires on a stock car.
Everyone who enters the exhibition area must sign a liability form, which also generates some leads for the Army, Morgan said.
At all events, the Army also hopes to meet parents who may be reluctant about their children enlisting.
"When senior officers are out there, they can talk to parents and tell them that the Army will do everything possible to protect their sons and daughters," Tiernan said.