CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Automakers and NASCAR would seem to have a natural affiliation, but their half-century old marriage has been a rocky one. "In the last 50 years, the auto companies have been consistent only in being erratic," says Humpy Wheeler, a longtime NASCAR icon who recently retired as president of Speedway Motorsports and now runs a Charlotte-based management consulting company. "It's not like they have grabbed hold of this thing and stayed with it." In fact, Wheeler says, the current level of automaker involvement in NASCAR is relatively low. Wheeler says the high points for automaker involvement in NASCAR were the late 1960s and again in the 1990s.
Today, the balance has shifted so that brewers, consumer products companies like General Mills ( GIS) and Procter & Gamble ( PG) and package deliverers such as UPS ( UPS) and FedEx ( FDX) are often better represented and more visible. UPS, for instance, not only sponsors a team but is NASCAR's official delivery company, making it the sole provider of deliveries inside the tracks. NASCAR is a "backdrop for marketing and sales" as well as a venue to reward employees and customers, the company says. Founded in 1947, NASCAR lured Hudson Motor Co. as a team sponsor in 1951. In 1955, Ford ( F) formed a factory-backed team while General Motors ( GM) introduced a high-performance Chevrolet engine; Chrysler quietly helped selected teams. Around 1957, the automakers briefly lost interest in stock-car racing. Wheeler says the sport's regional image was a factor, as were automotive safety concerns. In 1959, however, the companies returned, partially due to the popularization of muscle cars and because, "Detroit began to see they were selling a lot of these cars in the South," he says. Pontiac even created a car honoring racing pioneer Fireball Roberts.
In the 1960s, tire companies Firestone and Goodyear ( GT) emerged as major backers, and automakers began to sponsor individual drivers. Then interest cycled down again, as racing entered a troubled period in which "speed outran safety, drivers were killed and maimed, there was a pall on the racing industry and the auto manufacturers didn't want to be involved," Wheeler said. Those concerns were enhanced by rising costs for NASCAR teams, which had begun spending heavily to improve automotive performance. In the 1970s, R.J. Reynolds' move to become a sponsor marked the start of a revitalization. Other companies followed, including P&G's Tide, brewers and Coca-Cola ( KO). But soon automakers entered a draining battle with Congress over environmental issues. Catalytic converters became a requirement, and automotive performance lost its priority. "From a performance standpoint, cars from 1972 to 1990 were pretty sorry," Wheeler said. The interest in NASCAR diminished too, and Chrysler bowed out of racing entirely in the late 1970s. In the 1990s, automakers returned as the sport began to flourish. The nature of their involvement changed: Instead of cars, they provided parts and technical support for NASCAR's improving automotive skills. "It morphed into making your own chassis and having the auto companies provide engineering and parts," Wheeler said. The cultural conflict also evolved, he said. "Detroit's upper-crust boys, who haunted Grosse Pointe country clubs and played gin rummy and drank Glenlivet, decided it was really good 'to combine our engineering guys with the good old boys down South,' " Wheeler said. "I've been up there. There was a certain arrogance of the feudal princes who once ran the car companies and felt like it was a good thing for their Princeton and MIT and Stanford engineers to rub elbows with the genius of mechanics like Smokey Yunick and Junior Johnson."
Auto analyst John Wolkonowicz of IHS Global Automotive says class differences have clearly played a role in the automakers' relationship with NASCAR and in a seeming inability to connect with U.S. consumers. "The U.S. car companies won't acknowledge that their brands are largely blue- collar brands because their executives are white-collar people," he says. "They have master's degrees, live in white-collar neighborhoods, eat white-collar foods and hang around with white-collar people. And from a cultural point of view, they are far away from the blue-collar people who buy their cars." Still, Wheeler says the automakers did manage to learn some things from NASCAR. Johnson taught them about carburetors and air flow; Yunick taught Buick engineers about engine efficiency; and NASCAR body men helped Detroit to see that contouring could enhance fuel efficiency, he says. Nevertheless, concerns about fuel conservation led Detroit to begin scaling back on NASCAR spending in the late 1990s. "They haven't come back at the level they were at before," Wheeler said. "This has been a declining thing that has reached a low ebb in the industry conditions of today."