NASCAR U.S. Military makes perfect sponsor
Joe Nemechek is the most visible driver, with the No. 1 Chevrolet.
Sr. Master Sgt. Thomas Kichline sees "a tremendous amount of similarities" between NASCAR and the Air Force. Both have high-powered vehicles run by highly efficient teams who can pack up and relocate in a hurry.
But that's not why the Air Force sponsors Ricky Rudd's Nextel Cup team.
"It's our target market," said Kichline, the Air Force's superintendent of motorsports.
Yes, the Air Force does have a superintendent of motorsports.
Hugely popular among young men, NASCAR has become a recruiting tool used by all the military services. The Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army all sponsor either Nextel Cup or Busch racing teams, blending in with the racing world's corporate staples of laundry detergents, cereals and beers. Ditto for the Coast Guard and Army National Guard.
They set up booths to reach and educate potential recruits and their "influencers," or parents and guardians, and often bring newcomers to the ranks to races.
"NASCAR, in general, is highly popular, and that's why all the miltary brands are involved," said Joe Nemechek, who drives the Army's No. 1 Chevrolet. "NASCAR fits their demographics."
The Army is the biggest spender, while the Marines have the longest stint as primary sponsor of a NASCAR team among the military services at six years. The Army spends $16 million a year on everything from its sponsorship of NASCAR and Nemechek's team to running an interactive area at races that draws 35,000-40,000 leads per year, according to Col. Thomas Nickerson, the Army's national advertising director.
He said that price tag, while hefty, accounts for just over 6 percent of the Army's total advertising budget.
"It makes good business sense for the Army to help the Army reach our recruiting goals," Nickerson said.
It's not just business to Martha Nemechek, Joe's mother. The 65-year-old comes to his races decked out in Army combat fatigues adorned with "That's my boy, GI Joe" signs, patches given her by soldiers and a drill sergeant's hat.
Military pen pals
Martha Nemechek said she is currently communicating with 12 soldiers stationed in the Middle East.
"They always ask me what's going on at home and how's Joe doing," she said. "I e-mail them back. Some of them ask me about (Dale) Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon. They'll ask for something of Joe's.
"I buy whatever they want and mail it to them."
At the track, she takes soldiers or future soldiers to her son's hauler and they often get a chance to visit with Nemechek, too.
"They're very good to Joe and Joe loves to go to their hospitals or to visit people who have come back from the war," Martha Nemechek said of the Army. "He's had people in wheelchairs, who lost a leg, who lost an arm and he brings them to the race.
"Joe's a big asset to the Army."
The Navy sponsors David Stremme's Busch team, and has been increasing its NASCAR presence.
"We were running a campaign about three years ago as a retention tool, keeping sailors in the Navy," said Sr. Chief Jeff Priest, the Navy's on-site track coordinator. "It kind of morphed into a Busch sponsorship in 2003 for 10 races and then we went all in last year."
Pride at stake
The military rivalries on the track don't exactly measure up to the Army-Navy football game, but Stremme said there is some pride at stake.
"If I do good and especially if I beat the other military cars out there, it's bragging rights for them," he said. "So I always try to do my best and represent them well on the track. It's not like I'm representing some little company or something.
"This is something that thousands and thousands of men and women watch. One of the things I like is I feel like I kind of get to give something back to them."
Nemechek said driving for the Army has been an educational experience. He's met not only front-line soldiers, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and President Bush.
"I know a lot of soldiers that are watching how their car performs, and I want to give them something to be proud of, something to pull for," Nemechek said.
Need for speed
Rudd, meanwhile, gets another chance to exercise his need for speed. An amateur pilot for 22 years, he's been able to ride in an F-15 and in a refueling plane among other high-flying experiences.
"We have had a lot of opportunities that we probably would have never had," Rudd said.
For the military, a track presence affords a chance for "belly-to-belly selling, where we get to talk to the recruit face to face," Kichline said.
He also gets plenty of requests for NASCAR paraphernalia.
"Anything to give them a sense of hometown USA," Kichline said.