Will NAPA return to NASCAR?
Since announcing it would not return as the primary sponsor for Martin Truex Jr., NAPA Auto Parts has said little about its future NASCAR sponsorship plans. As a full year sponsor for over a decade, the company would certainly be in demand with almost every team in the garage. But as the weeks go by and news remains hard to find, the question has gone from where NAPA will go to whether they plan on returning to NASCAR at all.
NAPA has been part of the NASCAR family of sponsors for well over a decade. The company spent several years with Ron Hornaday at the truck series level before partnering with DEI and driver Michael Waltrip in the 2001 season. They followed Waltrip after he left to form his own team and stayed with MWR when Martin Truex Jr. came aboard. NAPA was on the side of the car when Truex won at Sonoma earlier this year. Despite signing a multi-year contract extension with MWR in 2012, the company announced it was terminating the relationship shortly after the events at Richmond earlier this year.
Given NAPA's failure to make any sort of sponsorship agreement in the months since, it's worth wondering how much Richmond really did contribute to NAPA's decision. The steadily rising costs associated with a full year Sprint Cup sponsorship now represent a sizable part of NAPA's annual advertising budget. Between the actual spending on a team ($16-18 million based on the most recent contract) and ad buys activating the sponsorship, NAPA generally hasn't spent much money on radio and television advertising outside of the NHRA and NASCAR markets, where the company spent $20 million in 2011 (the most recent direct spending figures available).
But the company appears to believe they're reaching the point of diminishing returns with their current marketing strategy. Their most recent commercials focus more on the NAPA brand and less on the drivers they're sponsoring. They've also branched out into other areas, spending real dollars on sponsorship agreements with Mexico's national soccer team and on Spanish-speaking soccer broadcasts. A similar attempt was made with Major League Soccer but dropped due to lack of results.
As a company, NAPA is centered on the secondary auto parts market. 70% of their revenue comes from sales to dealerships and garages who then mark up the part price when performing auto maintenance services for consumers. So it's natural that they're looking to reach a market that makes up much of the mechanic workforce; 17% of mechanics identify themselves as Hispanic vs a little over 11% of the general population doing likewise. That population base is far more likely to be watching a soccer match than a NASCAR race and it's growing on an annual basis. Ignoring that market and focusing solely on NASCAR spending (as the company has done over the last decade) is foolish given both their business model and customer base.
NAPA is organized along a franchise model similar to that of McDonalds. Individuals own the NAPA retail shops that you see all over the country. They sell replacement parts to repair shops and dealerships in their local area. They receive those parts from one of the many corporate part distribution centers that rapidly deliver parts to the individual retail stores. It's a smooth running operation that is extremely profitable for parent company Genuine Parts Company. The company's stock value is up over $20 per share in the last year (and $40 per share over the last five years), closing at nearly $80 as of yesterday. Their last quarterly report over the summer showed over $360 million in net profit at the half year mark. So a NASCAR sponsorship is clearly within their financial means.
What NAPA might be waiting for is a driver that combines something old with something new. With Montoya's departure, there are no Hispanic drivers at the Sprint Cup level and none are anticipated for 2014. But that may change in 2015. Like Montoya, Nelson Piquet Jr. is a former Formula 1 driver trying to make the transition to stock car racing. He's currently in his first full Nationwide season with Turner Scott Motorsports. He's already won one Nationwide event (a 2012 one-off at Road America) to go with a pair of Camping World truck series wins last year with the team. He had six top ten finishes in a year and a half with Renault's F1 team but left under a cloud of controversy surrounding team orders in 2009. Sound familiar?
NAPA isn't the kind of company that jumps teams every few years looking for a better driver. They stuck with Waltrip as their driver long after he was no longer competitive on a weekly basis. In fact, NAPA was a founding sponsor for Waltrip's team and stayed despite poor performance on the track and controversy off of it after MWR's use of fuel additives prior to the Daytona 500. They may have cited MWR's inappropriate team orders as the reason for leaving the team but the truth is they've had plenty of reasons over the years to break ties. Yet before Richmond, they hadn't. They valued the long term partnership over any temporary setbacks.
Moving down to sponsor a lower level is likely not an option either. While their entry into NASCAR began with Ron Hornaday at a lower level, they've been associated with Sprint Cup-level teams and races only since 2001. Moving to the Nationwide or Camping World truck series would be perceived as a step down. And as noted before, NAPA isn't a company that's hurting for dollars; the minor financial savings would be outweighed by the perception of decline associated with joining a lower racing series.
So if NAPA is to return to NASCAR sponsorship, it's likely only to be at the Sprint Cup level and only to be in a long term partnership. Many speculated that they might follow Martin Truex Jr. to another team- including to Furniture Row, where Truex is now signed to drive in 2014. But after ejecting on Truex just a few months ago there would be little to gain in attempting to re-build and re-brand that partnership in the future. When asked about the possibility this past week, Truex sounded more wistful than hopeful that the company would sponsor him again.
"I think that really at this point anything is possible. We have got a lot of great partners that we have worked with over the years... I'm not sure, but they have been great supporters of mine the last four years. Hopefully we will be able to do something together. We have got a lot of great partners that are interested in the program.” (Team Chevy press conference, 11-1-2013)
Team Chevy gear from Amazon
Right now it seems far more likely that instead of becoming a last-second addition to a team that already has its 2014 plans in place, NAPA will sit the upcoming year out. They still have plenty of non-driver commercials to use (“Sweep the leg” needed John Kreese more than it needed Truex) while waiting for the driver that best fits both the marketing of their past and of their future. Piquet Jr. may well be the driver the company has its eye on right now. In addition to being Hispanic, Piquet has been a Team Chevy driver since joining Kevin Harvick Inc. in 2011. If Piquet continues to improve over the next 14+ months he may well have a sponsor waiting to join him at the Sprint Cup level in 2015. Harry Scott, co-owner of TSM and sole owner of Phoenix Racing, may well have NAPA on speed dial for just that possibility. I know I would.