Image: Jeff Gordon
Rusty Jarrett  /  Getty Images
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont Chevrolet, hauled in roughly $15 million in endorsements in 2007.
By
NBCSports.com contributor
updated 2/13/2008 8:12:26 PM ET 2008-02-14T01:12:26

Around the tracks they speed, drivers hidden by helmets and car roofs. For fans sitting in bleachers from Bristol to Pocono, there is no chance to see their heroes’ faces as they navigate speedways, no way to be captivated by their focus and intensity.

Despite the seeming limitations of the sport as a marketing vehicle for its athletes, U.S. companies have embraced NASCAR drivers as pitchmen. During Sunday’s Daytona 500 — always NASCAR’s first race and biggest race — more than 20 drivers will appear in commercials before at least 17 million viewers on Fox. According to Fortune magazine, two of the top 10 endorsers in U.S. pro sports are NASCAR drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned about $20 million in 2007 and Jeff Gordon hauled in roughly $15 million.

Drivers sign new deals seemingly at every turn. Earnhardt Jr. and adidas recently got together, and his Jr. Nation apparel will go on sale this week. Bank of America puts drivers’ faces on credit cards and checks. Last year, Allstate introduced an ad campaign where KaseyKahne, Elliott Sadler and Scott Riggs were pictured with Allstate agents and others.

What is it about NASCAR drivers that charm corporate America? They are friendly with the fans — who often pay an additional fee at races to get near drivers and their crews — and to the media. They form foundations to give to charities. When was the last scandal you can think of involving a NASCAR driver? Yet take a glance at other pro sports, and player misbehavior abounds. Even former NASCAR drivers, such as Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, remain popular long after retiring.

“Our fans tell us our drivers are accessible and that they’re heroic,” says Steve Phelps, chief marketing officer at NASCAR.

Fans even yearn to see driver commercials. Phelps estimates that at least 95 percent of the viewers during the Daytona 500 will watch the commercials, which Fox sold for more than $500,000 for each 30-second spot this year. Not only that, they will be posted on NASCAR.com for 48 hours after the race finishes. In 2007, with no promotion, those commercials were viewed more than 300,000 times on the site, with fans voting for their favorites. Nearly half of all commercials broadcast during the 200-lap race last year featured NASCAR drivers.

Those drivers and their sponsors are connected in a way that can’t be matched in other sports. Part of it is the unique nature of an automobile race. Drivers promote their sponsors ceaselessly during work, sometimes by the type of cars they drive and by the ads that adorn those vehicles. It’s as if Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, gripping a football in one hand as he gazed downfield to pass, held up a Mastercard in the other hand, or slapped a Sprint Nextel sticker on his helmet (which would draw publicity but also a fine from the NFL).

Take a look at what Home Depot does with Tony Stewart. When a consumer goes to a Home Depot store, he will probably see a vending machine with Tony Stewart’s image on it. He might push a Tony Stewart #20 shopping cart. The Home Depot orange paint that Stewart uses on his car will be for sale.

“The sponsors become synonymous with that driver,” Phelps says. “And the fans understand the importance of the sponsors.”

NASCAR has been busy publicizing its athletes beyond its hard-core base. Back in the early part of the decade, NASCAR opened a Los Angeles office to deal with entertainment marketing. No longer is it a shock to see a driver on Leno, Letterman or a national morning news program.

Internationally, Phelps said NASCAR’s presence is strong in border countries Canada and Mexico, where the association puts on Nationwide Series events. Even though a NASCAR race has never been held in China (“Just getting all the vehicles there would be tough,” Phelps noted), NASCAR has sold tens of millions of dollars worth of merchandise in the country.

The 180,000 or so fans at Daytona International Speedway won’t be able to see Jimmie Johnson’s expression as he glides through a 3,000-foot turn on Sunday, while the look on Dwyane Wade’s face during an All-Star Game shot that same day will enchant onlookers. No matter. Fans will love Johnson just the same, and his sponsors will be high-fiving over the fact they are involved in a sport where the athletes are hard to beat – especially in marketing prowess.

Last, but not least …
As the NBA All-Star Game prepares to tip off again Sunday in New Orleans, one question arises: Why do owners agree to hand players a bonus if they are selected to participate in the exhibition?

If an athlete makes $10 million to begin with, it is amazing owners will shell out another $100,000 or so because that player performed well for half a season. Plus, everyone but ball boys are involved in the NBA selection process: the media chooses 120 players for the ballot, fans pick the five starters for each team (anyone with access to NBA.com can vote) and coaches choose the subs. They all have different criteria for what makes an All-Star.

And how about the All-Star who gets in only because another player is injured? Is that really worth another paycheck?

Msnbc.com contributor David Sweet can be reached at dafsweet@aol.com.

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