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Bank of America offers NASCAR accounts

/ Source: The Associated Press

Hoping to build on its newfound expertise in credit cards and on NASCAR fans' loyalty, Bank of America Corp. has begun offering a NASCAR checking account to try to drive more retail business to its automated teller machines and branches.

The new account will feature NASCAR designs on checks and statements and even special interest rates on some certificates of deposit and other investments.

The bank also will offer affinity banking products linked to alumni associations, special interest groups and nonprofit causes, such as Habitat for Humanity International.

Steve Phelps, NASCAR's chief marketing officer, said racing fans "are always looking for new ways to support NASCAR and show their passion for the sport and drivers." He added: "NASCAR, through its arrangement with Bank of America, continues to generate beneficial opportunities for our dedicated fan base all throughout the country."

The debut comes as NASCAR wraps up two weeks of racing in Charlotte at Lowe's Motor Speedway with Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, and furthers the bank's efforts to draw customers from within the booming sport. Last year, the company signed a five-year deal to become the "Official Bank of NASCAR," and the series will return to Lowe's in October to race the Bank of America 500.

Bank of America began work on expanding its existing affinity banking program last year after buying MBNA Corp., the credit card giant that pioneered the idea. After testing some of the products in select markets last fall, the bank began offering customers in Charlotte the NASCAR-related banking products this month.

Tony Plath, an associate professor of finance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said the affinity programs could draw new customers to the bank.

"I'm not certainly going to change banks because they are going to put the checkered flag on my checks," Plath said. "But if you plaster that brand name on a checking account, it's a way to stand out in a crowded market."

Customers who sign up will be able to add the NASCAR logo — or that of their favorite driver — to their checks, debit and credit cards, and account statements.

The expansion also includes professional groups, university alumni associations and charities. Bank of America said it will make an initial donation to such a group when the account is opened and annually on the account's anniversary date. In most cases, a percentage of debit card purchases is given back to the organization.

"You don't walk into a bank and expect them give back to a cause or something you believe in," said Cathy Kenworthy, deposits executive at Bank of America. "But that's what we'll do."

The affinity banking idea is hardly new or exclusive to Bank of America. New York's Citigroup Inc. has its ThankYou Network, a program that rewards customers with points for their Citi checking and debit card transactions.

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. and New York's JPMorgan Chase & Co. offer consumer credit cards that allow customers to rack-up points that transfer to such causes as the American Red Cross or the World Wildlife Fund.

At Wachovia Corp., also based in Charlotte, customers can show off their alumni pride with a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill check card.

"The consumer gets a creative way to show their team or school spirit, and the bank gets the opportunity to attract new customers and deepen relationships with a special debit card the customer can't find anywhere else," said Chris Roberts, consumer debit card product manager at Wachovia.

The main difference is Bank of America's move to add outside brands to things other than credit and debit cards. Industry observers said the affinity program's offering of special rates on CDs, Individual Retirement Accounts and money market accounts was especially unique.

"The whole affinity push in itself is a tactic to attract more customers," said Carl Carande, lead southeast financial services partner for KPMG LLP. "It creates customer intimacy."