NEW YORK (CNNfn) - The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, America's most popular auto racing circuit, has just crossed the finish line of another successful season. (906K QuickTime movie)
More and more fans are attending NASCAR races and watching them on television, and drivers like Jeff Gordon are becoming celebrities.
However, it's the sponsors who are really driving this sport. Ask any NASCAR buff which car the fan-favorite Gordon drives and the answer will be very specific: the DuPont Chevrolet.
"NASCAR is more of a, for lack of a better word, like a religion or something where people really follow it," said driver John Andretti.
And fans follow it in huge numbers.
NASCAR has three major circuits, the most popular being the Winston Cup. The final race in that series drew an estimated 150,000 to the Atlanta Motor Speedway in addition to the television audience of 2.8 million.
Multiply that number by the 33 Winston Cup races and it's easy to understand why companies spend between $3 million and $7 million a year sponsoring NASCAR teams and millions more in related promotions.
NASCAR Communications Manager Kevin Triplett said team sponsorship is actually cost effective. (120K WAV) or (120K AIFF)
Exposure and success on the track are the keys to sponsorship. For the sponsor to justify its hefty investment, its corporate logo has to be seen again and again. The only way that happens is if the driver, and the team, are competitive.
"If you're running 20th, they hardly ever mention (you)," said team owner and driver Darrell Waltrip. "If Darrell Waltrip's leading the race or up fighting for the lead, then they're talking about you and that's what the majority of the marketing people look at." he explained.
Bill Elliott, who is sponsored by McDonald's, said the competition is heated both on and off the track.
"Each year it gets a little tougher, and the more you keep them happy, the more exposure you get for them, the better it is for you," said Elliot.
McDonald's won't say how much it spends or reaps from its sponsorship, though spokesman David Paro did admit that "in the case of NASCAR, the consumer is very, very good to McDonald's Corporation and the restaurants around the country."
A 1994 survey by Performance Research found that 72 percent of NASCAR fans are more likely to buy a sponsor's product than another brand. So in the race for consumer dollars, sponsors have the pole position.