Race Weekend Central

The Nature of NASCAR

Last week’s announcement that Danica Patrick would have Nature’s Bakery as a sponsor for 28 races during the 2016 Sprint Cup season garnered a great deal of media attention. The new paint scheme, new graphics, and the addition of a non-Fortune 500 company in NASCAR seemed to give new hope to Patrick’s No. 10 Chevrolet and the fortunes of Stewart-Haas Racing for next year.

And this for a team desperately in need of new hope.

While the success of Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 team and Kurt Busch’s No. 41 team have made headlines in 2015, the dismal efforts of Patrick’s No. 10 and Tony Stewart’s No. 14 teams have been difficult to ignore. Patrick and Stewart have compiled nearly equal results thus far after 24 events.

Danica Patrick has a fairly balanced record for performance with an average start of 22.4 and an average finish of 22.2 after 24 races this season. Tony Stewart, on the other hand, has qualified better than he’s finished with an average start of 16.3 and an average finish of 24.7 for the year. Neither SHR driver has cracked the top 5, nor have either scored more than two finishes each in the top 10. Smoke has led twice as many laps as Danica (his 14 to her seven), while Danica has one-quarter of the DNF’s so far (her one to Tony’s four).

Something needed to change, so perhaps bringing a new sponsor into NASCAR is a step in a necessary direction for SHR.

The Nature’s Bakery announcement last week got me thinking about the energy that often comes with a change of routine; a new approach leads to new motivation and new opportunities. That much is good.

Last week’s SHR announcement also got me thinking about other, somewhat similar sponsorships in NASCAR.

Suddenly my mind flashed back to New Smyrna Speedway on a cold Saturday night in February.

It was 1979: the night before the infamous Daytona 500 when Cale Yarborough tangled with Donnie Allison on the last lap of “The Great American Race” and mainstream America discovered this thing called NASCAR. I was a teenager sitting in the chilly grandstands with my mother and father watching a full slate of local racing, including a slam-bang lineup of street stocks.

The one car, however, that caught the most of the crowd’s attention that night was a battered Chevrolet painted flat black and sponsored by a local place called “Granny’s Donuts”. Adding to the theme, the dented street stock carried the number double-zero – painted to resemble two glazed doughnuts. Across the rear of the car, on what you might today call the TV panel (the area located between the taillights), someone painted the words “Granny’s Fanny”. The car became comic relief for its heat race as it was lapped by pretty much every entry in the field; the No. 00 playing the role of a car anyone could pass at any point.

I remember someone sitting near us saying that the Chevrolet was driven by a woman who never did more than circle the track and stay clear of the other cars. As such, the car seemed to have a loyal following. Maybe it was because Granny’s Donuts were so good with a cup of coffee. Maybe it was because “Granny” stayed out of trouble and humored fans by turning laps and being a presence every Saturday night. The passing of nearly four decades have blurred the details, but I can still clearly recall that little flat black Chevrolet with the double-zero doughnuts on its doors.

Why this memory popped into my head last week I’ll never likely know. Maybe it was because of the press conference at Stewart-Haas Racing and the unveiling of Danica Patrick’s new sponsor for 28 of the 36 races in 2016. Maybe I sensed a connection between the little local business near New Smyrna Beach back then and the father-son operation that began baking gluten-free, dairy-free, and non-GMO/kosher snacks designed for healthy lifestyles back in 2010.

Maybe it was the sense that NASCAR was facing a paradigm shift like we saw back in 1979, when mainstream America embraced the sport of stock car racing and turned it into an internationally-recognized professional sport. Might the appearance of a health-conscious company like Nature’s Bakery on a Sprint Cup car usher in a new era of other such sponsors?

If NASCAR is looking to become environmentally greener, might the sport also look to encourage more socially-focused good? Will a modern era infusion of sponsorship like that from Nature’s Bakery result in a more modern approach to a sport bred from the post-war period of cars, carbon emissions, and carnage? Will this “energy for life’s great journeys” (as the company motto goes) lead to energy that revitalizes NASCAR as a great globally-recognized sport?

Above all, will this energy revitalize the No. 10 operation? Danica Patrick and the folks at Stewart-Haas Racing sure seem to hope so. For now, my guess is that they’d be happy with a few more top ten runs.

I’d bet Granny’s fanny on that….

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