By Rebecca Autrey
(Aug. 12) Adjutants general are not happy that the Army National Guard is severing ties with NASCAR and Indy Racing League.
“My initial reaction would be that I was disappointed that we’re not able to continue it,” says Maj. Gen. Wesley Craig, the adjutant general of Pennsylvania.
“Shock” is how Maj. Gen. Terry Haston, the adjutant general of Tennessee, described his reaction to the news.
“I understand that we live in a time of diminishing resources, and we have to use every cent we have wisely,” he says. “But I believe just saying we’re not going to be involved with motorsports was the absolute wrong answer.”
NGAUS spoke with four adjutants general in the wake of last week’s announcement that the Army Guard would no longer sponsor motorsports of any kind.
“From the TAGs, it runs from being very disappointed to, I won’t say happy, but people have accepted it,” says Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, the adjutant general of Delaware.
Last week, the Army Guard announced its sponsorship of NASCAR and the Indy Racing League would end at the conclusion of this season. The NASCAR contract with Hendrick Motorsports, pegged at $32 million for 2014, puts the Guard logo on the car and driving suit of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s been named NASCAR’s most popular driver 11 years running.
The Guard spent $12 million to sponsor the IRL car driven by Graham Rahal and owned by RLL Racing.
In a statement announcing the decision, Army Guard officials said an intensive internal review led to the change in course.
"We share a common commitment to the American people to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," said Maj. Gen. Judd Lyons, the acting director of the Army Guard. "We will continue to assess and refine our programs to ensure we get the best return on investment.”
In recent years, the program has been scrutinized by members of Congress who have questioned whether the Guard gets its bang for the taxpayer’s buck. USA Today reported earlier this year that the Guard received thousands of prospects from the program in 2012, but many didn’t meet Guard entry requirements and those that did didn’t sign up.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, the adjutants general say.
Craig says evidence of a direct payoff is tough to measure with a decision as personal as signing on the dotted line.
“They haven’t been able to get the answer to that and probably never will because, really, that’s a local decision made between the recruiter and the recruit,” he says.
Vavala agrees, saying, “It’s a tough thing to quantify if you’re looking for actual recruits as a result of this.”
The payoff, they say, is in the association of the Guard with a driver of Earnhardt’s stature.
“We did not have a brand before,” says Haston.
Vavala says the proof is in the pudding.
“I can tell you from my visit at my local facility, Dover Downs, just about every t-shirt you see has number 88 on it,” he says. That is Earnhardt’s number.
Maj. Gen. Gregory Lusk, the adjutant general of North Carolina, recalls a recent trip to the Coca Cola 600 race in Charlotte, N.C. He was amazed by the incidental marketing that occurred because of the Army Guard’s formal contract with the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
“Thousands of avid race fans donned t-shirts, hats, coolers and other paraphernalia advertising the National Guard logo by purchasing, with their own money, the gear of NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” he writes in an email response to questions.
After Earnhardt’s recent Pocono 400 victory in Pennsylvania, Craig noticed a picture of the winner wearing a Guard t-shirt in the front section of USA Today. And he vividly recalls seeing Earnhardt in the winner’s circle after the Daytona 500, surrounded by confetti in a Guard racing suit.
Those types of impressions, Craig says, “mean a lot.”
Haston calls the partnership an “allure” and “a great assistance tool” that benefits recruiters trying to connect with a target audience.
“A fish don’t bite a hook just because it’s a hook,” Haston says. “There’s some bait on it.”
Maj. Gen. Gregory Lusk, the adjutant general of North Carolina, talks with Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports. The 2013 meeting was to discuss, among other things, a program between the North Carolina National Guard and the racing company to create job opportunities for the state's Guardsmen. Photo: Maj. Gen. Lusk's Facebook page
Hendrick Motorsports seemed blindsided by the announcement, releasing a statement to USA Today Sports saying the team had a "contract in place" through 2015.
"We have not been approached by the Guard about potential changes and plan to honor our current agreement,” the company said.
What is clear, however, from the Guard’s statement is that it is moving on from formal motorsports sponsorships. Vavala thinks states will have more control over how they recruit and retain potential citizen-soldiers in the future.
“What works in New England might not work in the Southwest,” he says.
Lusk agrees. “We know what’s best for our market and what we’re trying to do,” he says in a phone interview.
Although he’s disappointed the NASCAR sponsorship is over, Lusk says he’s sure Guardsmen will be innovative and effective moving forward.
“It’s just like anything else,” he says. “Whatever challenge we have, whatever opportunity is presented, we’ll make the most of it.”