Race Car Track Death: Sponsors Unlikely to Dump NASCAR's Stewart

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/ Source: CNBC.com

It will take more than involvement in a fatal car crash to make sponsors think about dropping one of NASCAR's best pitch men.

Unless Tony Stewart is convicted of a felony, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion probably will not suffer commercially from Saturday's race in upstate New York in which his car struck and killed another driver who was walking on the track, experts told CNBC.The incident highlighted some racers' habit of getting out their cars and onto the track in anger, as apparently happened on Saturday.

"I don't think that there are people out there who would stop supporting [a company] because of its relationship with Tony Stewart," said Ramsey Poston, a former NASCAR executive and president of public relations company Tuckahoe Strategies. "I just don't see it rising to that level at all."

Investigators say Stewart, one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, is cooperating with an investigation into the death of Kevin Ward Jr.

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Poston said Stewart is so valuable to his primary sponsors, which include Bass Pro Shops and Mobil 1, that they will be very careful before breaking from the lucrative partnership.

"Sponsors depend on drivers who can carry the message, help develop a brand, and sell a product. And there are few drivers who do that better than Tony Stewart because of his passion and because he is genuine," Poston said.

Stewart's sponsors should take a wait-and-see approach, said Bill Glenn, president of The Breakout Group, a consulting firm specializing in sponsorships. Without any legal trouble for Stewart, the companies attached to him cannot immediately know the public relations effects, he said.

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Somewhat paradoxically, the crash could even be spun as a positive for the sponsors if they could become involved in any subsequent efforts to make racing safer, Glenn said. Stewart has had accidents while driving sprint cars—which differ significantly from NASCAR stock cars and are often raced on short, dirt courses. He broke his leg during a race last year, forcing him to miss the remainder of the NASCAR season.

"Very visible in the sport"

There were no public consequences for Stewart after that crash. "Even though he was not on the track, he was still very visible in the sport," Poston said.

As independent contractors, drivers and teams are not required to disclose how much they make from sponsorships, Poston said. But some estimates have put deals with primary sponsors, which get prime branding locations on the cars and uniforms, at $20 million for year-long contracts.

A spokeswoman from Bass Pro Shops noted a statement on the company's Facebook site, declining to comment further. In part, that statement said: "We send our thoughts and prayers to the family and friends of sprint car competitor Kevin Ward Jr. and also to Tony Stewart and everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing."

In an email, an ExxonMobil spokesman wrote: "Regarding the tragic event that occurred this past weekend at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, our thoughts and prayers go out to all involved and to the loved ones of Kevin Ward, Jr."

"There aren't words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.," Stewart said in a statement.