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.