Sponsorship announcements in Nascar happen all the time, especially in the off-season, a time for an organization to herald a new sponsor for its car for the coming season. Sponsors are of course important, giving teams the money they need to keep their cars on the track. The sponsors can promote their product or brand to a multitude of Nascar fans while also reaping the rewards of at-the-track “activations,” where they host customers and VIPs during a race weekend and hawk their products or create brand awareness for the thousands of fans in attendance.
This sponsorship model is as old as Nascar itself. However, that sponsorship model may be about to change—dramatically.
The newly formed Nascar team 23XI Racing, founded by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, announced five “founding” sponsors Monday. The signing of DoorDash, McDonald’s MCD , Columbia Sportswear COLM , Dr Pepper and Root Insurance means the team has full funding and will fill up the inventory on the No. 23 Toyota for all of 2021.
Apart from Dr Pepper, the sponsors followed driver Bubba Wallace, who had previously signed personal services contracts with them.
Unlike past sponsor announcements, this announcement did not feature the usual “PR speak” from the brands. Instead, there were comments such as this one from the VP of marketing for DoorDash: “As a company that values diversity, openness, and empowering local communities, we are proud to partner with 23XI Racing to build upon our shared foundation of creating a more inclusive environment for Nascar fans.” The president of McDonald’s USA added, “We couldn’t be more proud to witness him (Wallace) succeed on and off the track, while breaking barriers and becoming one of the sport’s truest change agents.”
Different quotes because in 2020 Bubba Wallace showed he is a different sort of driver.
In addition to dealing with all the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Nascar made inroads on another front in 2020: diversity and inclusion.
Wallace is the sport’s lone Black driver in the top-tier Nascar Cup Series. In late May, protests erupted across the country after George Floyd, an African-American man, died while in police custody in Minneapolis. The incident and the protests got the attention of many, and in Nascar, Wallace became the face of the sport’s diversity efforts. Only a few weeks later, as protests were erupting across the country, Wallace stood on pit road before a race in Atlanta wearing a T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe,” a reference to the words Floyd spoke before he died as a police officer kneeled on his neck.
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Wallace stepped up and spoke out. After Atlanta, Wallace was interviewed on national TV and said it was time Nascar banned the display of Confederate flags at its events and properties. The sport did just that shortly after.
Wallace’s efforts came to a head a few weeks later when the sport came to Talladega, in Alabama. The Cup race was postponed because of weather, and news emerged overnight that a rope pull on a garage door near the stall being used by the No. 43 team of Wallace appeared to have been fashioned into a noose. The FBI was called in to investigate.
That investigation would find nothing more than a misunderstanding, but Wallace and Nascar showed that day that racism would not be tolerated. Prior to the start of the race, every driver in attendance—along with Wallace’s boss at the time, Nascar legend Richard Petty, who flew in Monday morning just to support his driver—pushed the No. 43 car to the front of pit road. All gathered there during the invocation and the singing of the national anthem. The movement carried over to social media, where the hashtag #IStandWithBubba began to trend. The track painted the hashtag on the infield grass prior to the race. It was a powerful display that became one of the most memorable images of 2020.
In the aftermath, Wallace became the face of NASCAR’s diversity efforts, and he picked up a few sponsors, new to the sport, along the way. Those same sponsors will be adorning the No. 23 Toyota next season. But their efforts will go far beyond the racetrack.
“All these conversations were started because (of) ‘How can we make this bigger off the racetrack?’” Wallace said Monday shortly after the announcement. “It’s: ‘Okay, yeah, we’ll sponsor the racecar. But this is about off-track stuff for us.’ Every conversation, every partner.”
And Wallace is still leading the diversity efforts that started during the season and will continue into next season, and go beyond the racetrack.
“I can speak on, you know, real instances that I’ve gone through and that my family’s gone through,” Wallace said. “You know that pushes me and motivates me to want to do the right thing and be the right person for the younger generation to look up to and that attracts the sponsors. The sponsors want a leader, they want somebody that is a mentor to the kids coming up and can help guide each other in the right way.
“So as much as we always call it sponsorships and whatnot, these are relationships that you build off of and grow together with so from the manufacturer to the race team to the sponsors everybody, we’re in a partnership where we all work together to push the right message.”
Wallace’s efforts are supported by his new boss, team owner Denny Hamlin.
“For the record, Bubba didn’t ask for any of this,” Hamlin said. “He really got vaulted there accidentally. When I think about it, it’s almost like Dale Jr. when his dad passed away. (Wallace) didn’t ask for all the popularity and the eyes to be put on him, but it was because he’s broken a lot of barriers within Nascar racing.
“He feels like this is something he’s passionate about and he wants to continue to break barriers within our sport. It’s up to me as the car owner to be supportive of that.”
For Hamlin, having the sponsorship done for the 2021 season takes a great deal of pressure off his shoulders.
“A lot of these partners have stepped up, bigger than what’s maybe anticipated to fill the season up,” Hamlin said, “I can’t tell you the load it takes off of the management side to now start to work on 2022, 2023, not just more cars but also an extended partnership with Bubba as well. It allows us to start those conversations early, and it’s certainly a gasp of fresh air for us, knowing that we know when we’re starting the season, we know what we’ve got and certainly can plan out our future now.”
It’s a sponsorship model that is perhaps unlike any Nascar has ever seen. It goes beyond simply hawking a product or using the racecar as a rolling billboard.
“What they want to do off the racetrack is bigger than what they want to do on the racetrack,” Wallace said. “That’s important. With everything that’s going on right now, we’re basically just being a billboard for the races, but we’re doing the — I wouldn’t necessarily call it dirty work — but doing the hands-on work to making sure we’re making this a better impact and a better place for the next generation coming up through, and just making it a better place for all of us right now because we know there’s so much division going on in the world.
“Talking with DoorDash, talking with McDonald’s, Root, we’ve seen how powerful those companies are of advertising me and getting their name out there. So it’s going to be a lot of fun to see, it’s going to be a lot of work, too, off the race track, but I think that’s what we all need. We need to be pushed and motivated to do the right thing and live by that.”
With that sponsorship now in place, Wallace can look forward to next season.
“It’s definitely a breath of fresh air for sure, having the opportunity in front of me,” Wallace said, adding: “It’s December 14th right now, so 17 more days until January 1, and that’s when my new motto of ‘no more excuses’ starts. So for 17 days, I’m going to have every excuse in the book, but after that, there’s no more excuses why we can’t run up front and compete for wins and show the true talents that I believe I have and this team moving forward.”
And 2021 will be a season when Wallace will not be just a racecar driver, but an agent of change. In many ways Wallace has broken the mold of the traditional Nascar driver whose quotes are all about a sponsor’s product and the “boys back at the shop.” It’s a new way of doing business, one that goes far beyond where you finish on Sunday.
“I’m excited for what we can do on the track,” Wallace said. “But at the end of the day, these partnerships and relationships are so much more than that. It’s about how we use our platforms to be better humans and help create a positive change. It’s about what we do Monday through Friday outside of the firesuit and that’s a really special thing for me. Knowing I have their support and this team behind me makes me really excited for this season to see what we can accomplish together.”