Race Weekend Central

RaceDaySponsor.com the Future of the Nationwide Series?

The story of Tim Viens, President and CEO of RaceDaySponsor.com, begins as so many’s involvement in racing before him. He was a race fan.

“I was friends with Kevin Lepage up in Vermont for many years and just through conversations at the track, I met with him, hung out, jumped over the wall a few times, and just helped him out whenever I could” recalls Viens. “A couple years ago, we had a chat at Daytona, he was looking for sponsorship, asked if I knew anyone that would be interested. I started asking questions about what it would cost, if you could do a single race… I didn’t realize you could do a single race. About a week later, I was thinking how cool would it be if a guy like me that has a small business could get involved in this sport?”

From here, RaceDaySponsor.com was born. A venture that started small, selling 4×6 “micro sponsorships” to Lepage fans and small businesses, the venture grew into something bigger.

Fast forward to 2011, and the company can be seen racing on Saturdays, prominently featured on both Lepage’s new No. 52 ride with Means Racing and Jeremy Clements‘s family-owned No. 51. For now, the story of success has been small; between both providing a marketplace for prospective small business sponsors as well as an active social media outlet for racecar drivers looking for a break, the company has played a vital role in securing just enough money to keep both Lepage and Clements running full races in the big leagues of NASCAR.

But just as the company has grown since its inception from essentially a fan-sponsor vehicle to an established service selling multiple-race primary sponsorships at the Nationwide Series level, they’re looking to get bigger. They’re fighting the same fight that everyone in the back of the Nationwide garage is, one of survival and fierce competition, seeking that edge that’s going to take them from survival to sustenance.

And while success may be a long time coming, this is one venture out there in the business of NASCAR taking a big-time and unique approach to surviving the harshest economic climate the sport has ever seen.

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The loyalty of NASCAR fans is something that is widely known to run as deep as any in any form of sport. For Viens, that one driver is Shelbourne, Vt.’s Lepage, a journeyman veteran that’s driven every form of car the series has to offer. And just as two years ago he started his RaceDay venture seeking sponsorship to keep his driver on the track, the same could be said in 2011.

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“When he started out with Rensi, they had big hopes of picking up a sponsor because they’re a solid team” said Viens, whose company was seen on both Lepage’s No. 24 entry as well as the No. 25 of Kelly Bires for the first few races of the season. “When Rensi started start-and-parking, they did a few races, tried to find a big sponsor and it didn’t work out.”

Viens contacted long-time owner Jimmy Means, who actually fielded cars for Lepage in 2008, 2009 and 2010, asking what it would cost to return the driver to the seat of the No. 52 car. Means was straight in laying his situation out; he was not in a position to pay whoever the driver of his car was going to be.

After a 2010 season that consisted of a part-time campaign that was largely a start-and-park effort, Means had taken a leap of faith to stay involved in the Nationwide Series, building a new CoT car and acquiring a new motor for it. And while that created an opportunity for a driver, be they a rookie or veteran, it didn’t create a salary to go with it.

“For teams without a big sponsor, there are drivers paying their way, their hotels, their rental cars, so they can get seat time and when the right opportunity comes along they’re there” said Viens of the current state of the Nationwide garage.

“So I asked him, if I take care of Kevin’s expenses, will you put him in the seat? He said yes.”

Getting Lepage another seat was one thing. Keeping him in it and racing was, and is, the challenge. And given the current state of NASCAR broadcasting, what’s already a tough sell has gotten even harder.

“You know, every weekend you watch the race you see pretty much the top 10 guys and that’s about all you’re seeing” he observes. “Talking to companies and you say Jeremy Clements and Kevin Lepage, they say who? I don’t see those guys on TV. That is a challenge. So we have to sell a whole package deal. We put them on our website. We use Facebook, Twitter, that whole bit.” The social networking part of his .com is a new development; while the team’s primary drivers are Lepage and Clements, the site has been overwhelmed with drivers from the local dirt tracks to the ARCA Racing Series that are simply looking for help.

“I wanted to create an opportunity, so that’s why we came up with the social networking site” said Viens when I asked him what his company could do for the dearth of talent out there seeking a break. “Drivers can build a profile, get their names out there and with all the traffic coming to the site hopefully they can start finding light at the end of the tunnel.”

Light at the end of the tunnel is what RaceDaySponsor is hoping they’ve found.

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Dr. John R. Dunn is the Vice President for Cooperative Development of the National Cooperative Business Association, a trade association for the 29,000 cooperatives existing worldwide. It’s quite the name and the title, but Memorial Day weekend at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, he was hanging out in the back of the Nationwide Series garage in a t-shirt. His organization’s new website, Co-OpsUSA.com was the primary sponsor on both the No. 51 and No. 52 cars, and both cars had qualified for Saturday’s show (May 28). But there was more going on with this sponsorship than met the eye.

“It started with a basically a cold call,” said Dunn of how his association found both RaceDaySponsor and NASCAR. RaceDaySponsor was looking around for different models to try. They came upon us, I got a call in January. Started talking about the race teams, the co-op model a bit, and they were fortunate to find the one person in our organization that knows something about NASCAR. I got real excited about the possibility of not only proving the model in NASCAR, but to tell a bigger story.”

The story playing out every day in the Nationwide Series garage of small teams, small businesses, fighting tooth and nail to keep the doors open and the dream alive, is one that Dunn was no stranger to. And it’s one that he’s convinced he has a model to handle it with; bringing the cooperative business model to big-time stock car racing.

“It’s a proven model that small businesses use to work together to succeed economically against the big guys,” asserts Dunn of the co-op concept. “That’s exactly the situation we’ve got here. My organization is an association of co-ops across all types of sectors, and we’ve seen that model make it possible for a lot of small businesses to survive throughout America. This is an opportunity for us as an organization to work with the smaller teams here, to see if we can use the same model to help the drivers here.”

The plan; establish a co-op of four race teams, either by this fall or the start of the 2012 race season (2012 is, ironically, a year the United Nations has declared the year of cooperatives). The goal, two-fold; not only to help real race teams stay on the track, but also to spread awareness of the cooperative business model and the opportunities it provides.

Having thousands of businesses represented, and offering them a new marketing platform is just icing on the cake, and where RaceDaySponsor.com comes in; the company has aligned with the trade association to serve as a vehicle to channel sponsorship dollars into the race teams involved.

“The sixth of seven principles of cooperatives is cooperating with cooperatives” says Dunn. “If co-ops can help each other doing business together, sponsorship, whatever, that’s important. We get a co-op team together and we’ve got something that can really push. I’m excited about the possibility.”

“There’s 29,000 co-ops worldwide, worth three-quarters of a trillion dollars in annual revenue, 1.25 million employees, it’s really substantial. Add up the 300 largest coops worldwide, they’d be the 13th largest country in the world. Bigger than Russia, step below Canada. It’s a very significant sector, just not one that’s ever been big in NASCAR. I’m trying to bring the two worlds together. If I can bring the co-op model to NASCAR nation, I’m doing the role that’s on my business card, and that’s cooperative development.”

For Dunn, a NASCAR fan even before his involvement with the Co-OpsUSA sponsorship, his time as a primary sponsor in the Nationwide Series yielded signs that this strategy to both involve co-op companies in racing and spread the business model could bear fruit; Dunn brought a number of CFOs and business officials to the Nationwide Series race at Dover, and was surprised by the level of “stealth support” out there that is both aware and supportive of NASCAR racing. Still, there are skeptics out there.

“[A fellow] board member recognized that there’s a lot of competing interests here for the same media,” admitted Dunn, “and we have to see return.”

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Co-OpsUSA.com is not so much a sponsorship and ad campaign for Dunn’s trade association as much as a market test. “The Co-Ops site we opened the day before Talladega, we’ve done no cross-marketing of it, we haven’t even put out a press release saying that it’s open.”

“Everything we have gotten we attribute to our presence in NASCAR and I’m trying to keep that absolutely as clean as possible. Once we’re done sponsoring our number of races, then I’m going to let it run a couple of weeks, then let the co-op market know this site is out there. That way I will get a clear market test.”

Dunn, for as much as he obviously was enjoying his experiment and being at the track (“My bosses have given me a lot of crap” he joked when I asked him how hard it must be to work weekend after weekend at the racetrack) is well aware that his association and the businesses they represent have to see a viable rate of return for their involvement in the sport to continue.

And even after only a month in the trenches of the garage, Dunn was able to observe first-hand just how challenging and dangerous the current situation facing the Nationwide Series is. Questioned about the difficulty of trying to sell the story of Lepage and Clements, where a top-20 run is a cause for celebration, Dunn pulled no punches.

“If you don’t have a full set of viable teams, your sport is going to slowly erode. It’s a slow erosion, sort of eating away at it. Maybe over the next five years, we won’t see growth, but a continuing decline. They’ve seen some bumps here and there this year, but the overall trend is not good. They’ve got to make an investment, be it of time, money, to make the thing viable.

“We all know the big names, but you get a little tired of hearing about it. The story should be about the racing, not about driving 120 mph down a country road. It’s like People magazine.”

“Nationwide [Insurance] is actually a cooperative and a member of ours. They sit on our board of directors, so we’ve been getting their advice all along. They share a lot of the concerns about the long-term viability of the sport versus the short-term gains the ESPN folks are worrying about.”

“I have no idea what ESPN’s contract looks like, but when it comes time to renew, I hope that NASCAR takes a look at some of those driver development, team development aspects. Get it up front what the expectations are. If a network feels that would reduce the economic returns, that will be reflected in the negotiated deal. But you’ve got to have things in that contract that capture the interests of all parties. And in my view, NASCAR has to consider that.”

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That being said, Dunn has the stars in his eyes that any race fan would hope a major sponsor would get after getting introduced to the sport in all its reality. He wants his organization involved in racing and the co-op business model to succeed in it.

“You look at racing, there’s analogies in racing to so many other sectors where the same economic factors are going on” he observed. “From our standpoint, I’ve come down here and discovered doing business here is a lot like the wild wild west. The challenge of cooperating is a lot tougher.”

“But things aren’t going to go back to the way they were. New business strategies are coming, and what we have here is that if we can make a team cooperative model work… it gives us the opportunity to tell a damn good story.”

It may be piecemeal, but RaceDaySponsor.com has already contributed to two damn good stories; keeping one of the most underrated young talents in the Nationwide Series and his family-owned team on the track, while returning both a wily veteran driver and the epitome of an independent owner to racing full time.

And if nothing else, by bringing figures like Dr. Dunn to the racetrack, they’re getting the names and potential dollars through the door. Whether the sport can deliver for corporate partners the way all involved hope, remains to be seen.

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