Recruiting drive Military spends $38 million on NASCAR. Is it money well-spent?
Sunday, September 18, 2005

WASHINGTON The military, battling enlistment shortfalls, spends more than $38 million annually to sponsor six NASCAR racers.

Recruiters say the nation's 75 million NASCAR fans, a TV sports-audience base second only to pro football, are a perfect match for the military. Fans are loyal to drivers and sponsors, they're extremely patriotic, and they like speed.

But officials concede they don't know how many race fans enlist. And critics say NASCAR is a poor way to attract recruits -- it costs too much for a dubious return on investment.

During the past five years, the Pentagon has developed a burgeoning relationship with stock-car racing. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, National Guard and Coast Guard each sponsor cars in NASCAR's two top racing circuits: the premier Nextel Cup and the second-tier Busch Series.

Race cars, hoods emblazoned with the services' names, speed around tracks while sometimes hundreds of thousands watch from the stands and millions more via TV. Every few seconds, the logos of the Army, National Guard or Air Force whoosh before the audience's eyes.

The primary goal of auto racing sponsorships, recruiters said, is to heighten awareness of the military among young people and so-called "influencers" -- parents, teachers, friends and others who might encourage a potential recruit to join the military.

Sponsoring a driver creates public interest in the Air Force and provides a vehicle for recruiters to interact with potential recruits, said Tim Talbert, deputy marketing director of the Air Force. Other recruiting officials echoed his comment.

"NASCAR is all about speed, teamwork, technology and patriotism -- those are all attributes of the Air Force," Talbert said.

Although recruiters attend most races, signing up potential recruits for interviews and visits is not a primary goal of the sponsorships. None of the services maintains records of how many recruits sign up because of racing sponsorships.

"It's an awareness tool, a branding tool," Talbert said. "We don't measure our NASCAR effort by the [recruiting] leads it generates. If we reach a large number of people, then we're a success."

With two weeks remaining in the fiscal year, the Army and National Guard will fall short of their recruiting goals. The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force expect to meet their goals.

To garner awareness, the armed services have made full-or part-time sponsorship deals with several racing teams. Depending on the number of races and the circuit (Nextel Cup or Busch Series), the cost can run from about $3 million to $16 million for each of the services.

Each military service, through an advertising agency, has joined with a race team and driver. Military logos are displayed on the cars, and drivers visit with troops, recruits and others.

To gauge how well these millions of tax dollars are spent, the Pentagon hires Michigan-based Joyce Julius and Associates for market research.

The firm monitors all NASCAR races, adding up the on-air time each sponsor's logo can be seen and any mentions by drivers or broadcasters, said Eric Wright, research and development vice president. The firm multiplies the time by TV advertising rates to fix a dollar value to the exposure.

For example, the National Guard car, driven by Greg Biffle, received $25.4 million worth of TV exposure during the first half of the current Nextel Cup season.

But those numbers are only estimates, and Wright said they should be used only for comparison purposes.

"It's really hard to show a hard return on monies invested in general media and awareness-type advertising," said Capt. Tom Buterbaugh, advertising and marketing director at the Navy Recruiting Command.

That's the problem, critics say.

Among the loudest is Drew Johnson, president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research in Nashville.

"NASCAR does a great job selling cell phones, laundry detergent, power tools, beer, jeans, markers and nearly every other product under the sun, but it simply falls short at selling the armed forces to young Americans," he said.

Johnson, the son of a former stock-car driver, said teenagers and young adults make up only 10 percent of NASCAR fans.

"Sponsoring a NASCAR team is a terribly ineffective way for the military to reach the 17-to 24-year-old male population," Johnson said.

While the $38 million spent on NASCAR is a fraction of the military's estimated $600 million advertising budget, an analyst who has studied Pentagon advertising efforts said the NASCAR dollar amount is substantial.

"It's not small because that amount of money could be spent effectively in other ways that we know will produce results," said senior economist James Dertouzos of the Rand Corp. "I would think you'd want to have some decent evidence that it's effective."

James W. Crawley reports from Washington for Media General News Service. E-mail