BROOKLYN, Mich. - It is a normal Friday afternoon in the labs of the research triangle in North Carolina. A group of guys in long white coats pore over data from computer printouts and study long chains of chemical compounds.
The only sound is the subtle whir of a centrifuge, until a message crawls across the bottom of the television screen and suddenly destroys the silence.
The lab techs jump from their chairs and cheer and high-five each other. The commotion causes a couple of pocket liners to dislodge, sending mechanical pencils and tiny calculators across the floor.
The "18" car has won the pole, and as a result of another unique marriage between NASCAR and the corporate world, these normally stoic scientists at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline have got religion. They, too, are now racing fans.
The tremendous cost of operating a team in the Nextel Cup Series - NASCAR's top racing circuit - has forced the creative pursuit of new sponsorship dollars. It is no longer the exclusive realm of automobile manufacturers, oil companies, beer and smokes.
Today's field in the Gordon Food Service Marketplace 400 at Michigan International Speedway includes cars with principal sponsorship from the likes of Cheerios, Target, UPS and the U.S. Army. There are cars paid for by America's Most Wanted, Schwan's, America Online and M&Ms.
Bobby Labonte's No. 18 Chevrolet, normally under the banner of long-time sponsor Interstate Batteries, will carry the colors for Wellbutrin XL, a prescription medication for depression.
GlaxoSmithKline is sharing the sponsorship costs, so the same guys who a decade ago discovered the molecule that forms the foundation for Wellbutrin, are the latest Labonte fans.
"For a lot of these newer sponsors, this becomes their college football team," said J.D. Gibbs, who runs the Interstate team for his father, Joe, the head coach of the Washington Redskins. "Their name is on the uniform."
When Interstate first got in the game in 1991, company president Norm Miller partnered with Joe Gibbs to start a team and run a racing schedule the following year, the total cost was about $2.5 million, and the racing team staff was 18 or 19 employees. Today, there are close to 80 people on the Joe Gibbs Racing team, and the cost of running the operation for that car for a season is closer to $15 million to $20 million
"We're not Home Depot or UPS or DuPont, so it became a little more than we can handle," Miller said. "But we were able to work these partnerships with other companies, and stay in the hunt."
Wellbutrin XL becomes the latest pharmaceutical to put its face on a stock car hood. It was preceded by Viagra, Enzyte, Advil and Advair as sponsors in the NASCAR ranks. They all snickered when Mark Martin first raced with Viagra plastered on his chest, but millions of sponsorship dollars later, they aren't laughing any longer.
"The basic fact is that it takes a lot of money to race, and these sponsors are really paying a lot to be a part of it," veteran driver Dale Jarrett said. "It takes all of that to make it happen, and when more sponsors from different areas of business become involved, we just get stronger as a sport."
Stan Hull, the senior vice president of U.S. pharmaceuticals for GlaxoSmithKline, said his company seized what it felt was a rare chance to come into the sport with an established, competitive team.
"We wanted to be associated with a high-performing team," Hull said, "and Bobby Labonte is a great representative, not only for NASCAR but also for us. We see NASCAR as a great opportunity to reach the American public. We can use this as a vehicle to reach a huge number of fans."
GlaxoSmithKline entered into a three-year contract to sponsor Labonte's car for a number of races each season. It also brings a large, mobile screening facility to the tracks and performs free health profiles for fans.
"We're all in a race for life, and for better health," Hull said. "We can reach many more Americans if we're out at the race track on the weekends. We're happy to be a part of this experience."
Miller said that although his company is considerably smaller than many of the other major NASCAR sponsors, the focus has always been on running with the big boys, and that takes big bucks.
"We don't want to go out there and just run around and be a billboard," said Miller, who won the season championship with Gibbs and Labonte in 2000. "We want to win. But when you compete against these other teams, you are always looking for that racer's edge, and that takes a lot of money. In order to remain a part of that, we had to be creative and work with these partnerships."
Miller said he expects the sponsorship picture in NASCAR to continue to change as certain segments of the economy fluctuate, and new entities decide to make the move into sponsorship roles. With the exception of Rusty Wallace and Miller beer, and GM Goodwrench on Kevin Harvick's car, most of the traditional sponsors from NASCAR are either in reduced roles or have disappeared from the sport.
"It has been sad to see the old-timers go, but let's face it, most of them just got priced out of the game," Miller said. "We always had the STP car and the Quaker State car, but those are gone as major sponsors. A few years ago we had a number of the techies involved, but none of them stayed in. Now, these drug companies coming on board make sense. They have appropriate cash flow, a more stable product, and they'll be around for a while."
Miller said the affiliation with Nextel Cup racing has paid huge dividends for his company, which has been the beneficiary of the much ballyhooed sponsor loyalty of stock car racing's millions of fans. Whether the name on the car is Interstate or Wellbutrin, the impact should be the same.
"If you are involved in racing, a lot of people know your name and your product," Miller said. "And there is a real sense of unity within the sponsoring company when you have a car out there running every week. Our guy in Portland, Maine, and our guy in Lubbock, Texas, are pulling for the same team during Friday qualifying. That's another terrific benefit of our involvement in NASCAR."
The lab techs at GlaxoSmithKline know just what he is talking about. They are now part of the No. 18 team.
Contact Matt Markey at:
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