It is not easy for NASCAR drivers to get sponsors. Sponsorships in any major endeavor like NASCAR can cost companies eight figures with no guarantee they will earn a sound return on investment. Therefore, NASCAR drivers must be willing to sell themselves to get sponsors.
NASCAR drivers get sponsors by selling themselves to national and multinational companies. Since these companies fork out so much money, often between $500,000 and $1 million, they need to be sure that their investment will turn them a profit when they sign a sponsorship deal with a driver.
Below, we will outline why NASCAR drivers need sponsors, and the commitment that is required from the sponsorship, the driver, the organization the driver works for, and even NASCAR itself. We will also explore the process of how drivers attain sponsors and how much they earn from them.
Why NASCAR Drivers Need Sponsors
NASCAR is one of the most expensive endeavors in professional sports, especially in the Cup Series, where even an engine costs six figures. Teams use 13 engines in 36 points-paying races. Multiply 13 by about $100,000, and that costs $1.3 million.
This doesn’t include how much money it costs to haul a primary and a backup car across the country 36 times per year (38 if you add in the non-points-paying events). Then there are other car components, salaries to the drivers, crew members, and builders, plus airfare and hotel bills.
As you can guess, the total costs of running just one NASCAR team within a larger organization like Hendrick Motorsports sit at over $15 million per season. If all things remain equal, then such teams will pass the $100 million mark in just seven years.
Rarely will you see a NASCAR team sponsor its own car, though it does happen on occasion. But Hendrick Motorsports would probably go bankrupt if they sponsored all four rides without anyone else backing them. Ditto for Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. To help pay the massive bills required to run these operations, NASCAR drivers and their teams need sponsors.
What Happens With No Sponsors
In the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series, it’s rare to see blank cars on the race track. But in the 2000s and early 2010s, you saw a number of drivers running without sponsors, or they drove with limited sponsorship. Some referred to these drivers as start-and-park, while others called them field fillers.
While it was true that some of these teams started races before parking just a few laps later, others intended to run as long as they could with the equipment they had. Unfortunately, these teams often had no full-time pit crew and often just part-time employees. Their cars were never fast because they could not afford to use the best engines, and most car components were second-hand.
Kirk Shelmerdine Racing served as a good example. While the team occasionally had local sponsors grace the hood of the car, the race team never had enough backing to consistently qualify for races or even finish them. His best finish came in the 2006 Daytona 500, where he finished 20th.
However, Shelmerdine borrowed an engine from Richard Childress, had a patchwork pit crew, and raced on donated tires. If you look closely at some of his paint schemes, especially his patriotic stars and stripes scheme, they were used car bodies from NASCAR’s past. The patriotic scheme once belonged to Greg Biffle’s National Guard-sponsored car from a few seasons before.
Enter Big-Time Sponsorship
It’s true that to not only finish races consistently but to complete an entire season, NASCAR drivers need major sponsorship, but not just any major sponsorship. Even large companies can’t always afford to fork the bill that comes with helping pay for a race team, but a Fortune 500 company can, or at the absolute least, a national or multinational corporation.
Just look at some of the sponsors NASCAR teams landed both in the Next Gen era and in the past. Napa, Mars Incorporated, UPS, Lowe’s, Ally, Axalta, Pennzoil, and Valvoline are just a handful of many big-time sponsors from both today and yesterday. We can list hundreds of big-time, longtime sponsorships in NASCAR, but you get the point.
No matter how much money a driver earns and no matter how valuable their organizations are, it is not possible for them to run a full-time schedule without corporate sponsors. But, a driver cannot just go out and get sponsorships. If it were that easy, every driver in NASCAR history would have had eight-figure backing. Instead, it takes convincing for NASCAR teams and drivers to attain sponsors.
KEY POINTS• NASCAR is an expensive sport for teams
• They rely on sponsors to help pay the bills
• Getting sponsors in NASCAR isn’t easy
How Much Does It Cost To Sponsor A NASCAR Car?
NASCAR sponsorships can cost anywhere from $350,000 to $500,000+ per race to get a spot on the respective cars, with the exact prices being negotiable and varying by team and driver. Sponsors often pay upwards of $5 million to $40 million for a NASCAR sponsorship for a year.
Primary NASCAR sponsorships are what you find on the hood and often on the sides and rear of the cars. Being a primary sponsor costs $350,000 per race on the low end, but it is not uncommon to see these sponsors dish out over $500,000 on the high end.
When you multiply these numbers by 36 points-paying events, you get between $12.6 million and $18 million per season, but they can be more than double that for big teams and big sponsors.
But sponsorships are betting that the cameras will be focusing on their car multiple times during the race. This will raise brand identity and awareness for those sponsors, with the endgame being to convert spectators into paying customers for their respective products and services.
The total costs, however, can be negotiable. Sponsors can sign on for an entire season, or they can even sign a multi-season deal to fund a specific driver. They also have the power to choose the car’s colors and paint scheme so it stands out as unique against the other cars.
A Brief History Of NASCAR Sponsorships
Sponsorships have been around NASCAR since the sport began as Strictly Stock. However, these were not multinational corporations but often businesses in the automotive industry since the theory was that car enthusiasts would attend these early NASCAR events.
If you look back at the old Generation 1 cars, you may notice that they didn’t always carry sponsorship logos or any particular color schemes reflecting the brands they drove for. Often, the sponsors were written on the sides of the cars against a solid-colored background.
This was even somewhat the case during the early stages of Generation 2. If you look at Richard Petty’s famed Plymouth Superbird, you will see the sponsors on the side of the hood and the back sides of the car. However, come 1972, the familiar STP logo found its place on the hood of Petty’s car, and other NASCAR teams soon followed suit.
NASCAR Has Turned Down Sponsors
There have been times when NASCAR turned down would-be sponsors. While there are no true criteria for who can and who cannot be a sponsor, some, like Playboy, have been turned down. You may have also noticed that you don’t see tobacco sponsorships on the hoods of these cars anymore because of the federal tobacco settlement deal.
This further explains why the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company stepped down as a sponsor for NASCAR following the 2003 season (when the Winston Cup became the Nextel Cup Series). Given the number of lawsuits the company faced along with anti-tobacco policymaking, they decided to part ways with NASCAR, which would be a win-win situation for both parties.
Why NASCAR Turns Down Certain Sponsors
One of the reasons NASCAR may turn down certain sponsorships is because of public relations. They also cannot use adult-oriented sponsorships in their merchandising campaigns, so you never saw Winston Cup on any kid-friendly merchandise like die-cast cars or video games.
To date, alcohol sponsors are the only adult-oriented sponsors in NASCAR, but even they do not appear on the merchandise mentioned above. However, this may have to do with advertising itself, as alcohol companies are still allowed to run television ads, unlike their tobacco counterparts.
What Sponsors Expect From Drivers
Because they are dishing out so much money to pay for what is essentially a billboard on wheels, sponsors are going to be picky about which driver they trust to represent their brand. That driver must consistently perform well, they must conduct themselves professionally in public, and they must also continually mention the company when they are talking to the media.
You probably hear drivers mention their car number, manufacturer, and sponsor during an interview. This is because the sponsor and their respective manufacturer and race team demand it. If a driver does not conduct themselves well during an interview, in public, or if they don’t follow their sponsor’s values, it is common to see the sponsor drop the driver.
KEY POINTS• Sponsoring a NASCAR car can cost tens of millions of dollars per year
• Sponsorships have been around in NASCAR for decades, but they weren’t always as prevalent as they are now
• Some sponsorships, like those from tobacco companies, are not allowed in NASCAR
How Do NASCAR Drivers Get Sponsorships?
NASCAR drivers primarily have to reach out to corporations to do sponsorships for them, with there being rare circumstances of a corporation reaching out to NASCAR drivers for a sponsorship. Drivers will often have teams of people to help them do this, like agents.
As you can see from the above section, sponsors expect everything out of their drivers. So, they are not just going to forge a relationship with a driver because they want to be part of NASCAR. Sponsors must be selective because they are seeking to maximize their return on investment.
Potential NASCAR sponsors further realize that they don’t need to sponsor a NASCAR driver to get into the limelight. There are other motorsports that they can invest their money into. They don’t even really need to invest millions into any motorsport if they don’t feel it is worth it.
Therefore, drivers and their teams must be able to seek out sponsors. Rarely will a potential sponsor come to them and offer to sponsor their Cup Series car. Instead, NASCAR drivers and their teams must show their would-be sponsor what is in it for them. They need to show that the sponsor is better off financially signing with the driver than anyone else. Unfortunately, this is not easy.
No Easy Endeavor
In 2018, Lowe’s announced it would not sponsor Jimmie Johnson’s car for the following 2019 NASCAR season, ending a decade-and-a-half relationship with one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. Hendrick Motorsports, one of the most valuable teams in NASCAR history, ironically had a tough time finding a replacement sponsor for Johnson.
Let’s stop right here and analyze this for a moment. Johnson, a seven-time champion driving for one of NASCAR’s most championed organizations, had a tough time finding a replacement for Lowe’s. This alone should show you that if Johnson had a tough break following the divorce from Lowe’s that it doesn’t matter who you are as a driver – finding a sponsor is a tough outing.
NASCAR To The Rescue
Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports reached out to NASCAR in hopes the sanctioning body could help them find a suitable sponsor. This tells us that drivers can sign sponsors through NASCAR’s help, but the driver and team must willingly seek that help.
If teams outsource to NASCAR, the sanctioning body will use a process of elimination to find potential sponsors that best fit the needs of the driver. But they will also focus on specific needs for the potential sponsor to create the best possible match.
KEY FACT: NASCAR granted 90 research requests from teams in 2017, the year before Lowe’s announced its departure from NASCAR
NASCAR also created an entire department to help both drivers and teams market and make themselves look attractive to potential sponsors. But as NASCAR vice president Steve Phelps said in 2018, not all organizations were willing to use the resources NASCAR provided. In that case, organizations and drivers turn to other means to attract sponsors.
Not All NASCAR Resources
There are times when organizations like Hendrick Motorsports will reach out for collaboration with NASCAR on a specific level when they hunt for sponsorships, such as for information to use during a sales pitch to a would-be sponsor. However, they may not end up having such a tough time finding sponsors once they get some information in their corner.
Therefore, it is common to see these organizations reach out to NASCAR to help them provide the best pitch to shortlisted sponsors. Organizations may already have potential sponsors they want to target. But they only need to acquire the best approach regarding how to sell the sport to their prospects.
How Drivers Acquire Sponsors
NASCAR is a data-driven sport. Drivers and teams will use data to try to sway a sponsor to them instead of a competitor or even another professional sports organization. They will deliver data on the success and credentials of their teams and drivers, data on the financial situation of NASCAR, and hire staffers to create pitches to potential sponsors derived from that data.
The staffer, often someone in public relations, will set up a meeting or conference call with potential sponsors or sponsors, and deliver their sales pitch. The potential sponsor may want to see more, such as overall attendance and TV ratings, since the more people tuning into NASCAR, the higher the likelihood that sponsors will attain new customers from them.
If the attendance and TV ratings are not there, then NASCAR drivers and teams must use other means to show sponsors that the sport is still relevant. If the driver, their team, and public relations staff sell both the driver and the sport to these potential sponsors, they may just have a new deal in place.
Not Always On The Drivers Or NASCAR
Very few people know how business cycles work. Depending on consumer demand and tastes, plus who is running a national or multinational company within a corporate office setting, they might not have the means to sponsor a NASCAR driver.
When Lowe’s announced its departure from NASCAR in 2018, Phelps believed it wasn’t because of anything that had to do with NASCAR as much as it had everything to do with their business model. Phelps further cited how much pressure retail chains were under at the time. Such pressure they remain under even four years later in 2022, if not to a greater degree.
Sticking to the Lowe’s example, the type of business model they were under no longer pertained to a target audience in NASCAR spheres. You saw this with their lack of NASCAR-themed ads or even in-store promos. The same can be said for other companies.
A NASCAR sponsorship must be a win-win situation for both the driver and the sponsor itself. Potential sponsors need to know if a sizable number in the target audience available in their business model is watching NASCAR. If this is not the case, they likely will not invest in a sponsorship, even if TV ratings and attendance are high.
KEY POINTS• Getting NASCAR sponsorships is far from easy
• Even the best teams and drivers can struggle to find the right sponsors
• NASCAR as an organization can help teams and drivers find suitable sponsors
• It often just doesn’t make financial sense for sponsors to invest in NASCAR
How Much Do NASCAR Drivers Make From Sponsorships?
NASCAR drivers can make between $1 million to $2.2 million for any given endorsement or sponsorship, but many drivers will make less than $1 million. NASCAR drivers can earn between 10-30% of their total income from their sponsorships, with the rest usually coming from their salary.
NASCAR Driver Sponsorships And Salaries
|Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||$16.9 million||$1.7 million|
|Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||$13.1 million||$1.5 million|
|Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||$10.9 million||$1.5 million|
|Martin Truex Jr||Joe Gibbs Racing||$10.4 million||$1.1 million|
|Brad Keselowski||RFK Racing||$9.4 million||$1 million|
|Joey Logano||Team Penske||$9 million||$1 million|
|Chase Elliot||Hendrick Motorsports||$8 million||$2.2 million|
|Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||$8 million||$1 million|
Just as an NFL player earns money from their respective salaries that could include much higher numbers than NASCAR drivers, endorsements are an entirely different story. You can say the same about NASCAR drivers and the money they earn from their respective sponsors.
Take Chase Elliott, whose sponsors in 2022 included NAPA, Untuckit, Hooters, Chevrolet, and Valvoline. These endorsements collectively paid Elliott $2.2 million on top of his $8 million salary. Kyle Larson, whose salary is also reported to clock in at $8 million in 2022, earned an additional $1 million from his sponsors like Hendrick Plus, Oakley, Durst, and Pristine Auction.
Kyle Busch reportedly earns an annual salary of about $16.9 million from Joe Gibbs Racing. He also earns an additional $1.7 million from endorsements that include M&M’s, Interstate Batteries, Toyota, and Skittles.
The Average Salary From Endorsements
Looking at the eight highest-paid drivers in NASCAR, the average salary from endorsements sits between $1 million at the low end and $2.2 million at the high end. Of course, this average number among top paid drivers would sit at around $1.4 million, but most drivers earn closer to the low end. So, the average salary from endorsements for most drivers likely sits closer to the $1 million mark.
NASCAR drivers get sponsorships by pitching themselves to large corporations. They need to help their sponsors feel comfortable with endorsing NASCAR and exposing their brand to its audience. NASCAR drivers can have sponsorships worth $1 million or more, making them very lucrative.