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NASCAR fueled by power of corn

At today’s race in N.H., ethanol boosters tap the circuit’s marketing clout

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / July 17, 2011

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NASCAR has long been a marketing powerhouse, tapping the loyalty of stock car racing fans to boost sales of whatever brands adorned drivers’ vehicles - be it soda, laundry detergent, or cars - and earning the unofficial slogan: Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.

Now, US ethanol makers are hoping that NASCAR’s promotional muscle can do for the alternative - and, in some quarters, controversial - fuel what it has done to make household names of companies such as Office Depot, Sprint, and Coors.

Today, at NASCAR’s 301-mile race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Dale Earn hardt Jr., and more than 40 other drivers will fill up with a gasoline blend containing 15 percent ethanol and get a green flag, which starts and restarts racing, emblazoned with the words: “American Ethanol.’’

“We view NASCAR as this sort of forum to help us get the message out,’’ said Tom Buis, chief executive officer of Growth Energy, an advocacy group spearheading an “American Ethanol ’’ marketing campaign. “If it’s good enough to drive out there on the track for multiple hours at high speed, it’s good enough for you on the road.’’

The goal of the sponsorship, of course, is to increase the use of gasoline blends with higher concentrations of ethanol - and hence ethanol itself - which has been held back by several factors, including concerns about how it affects the performance of older passenger cars. Ethanol content has been limited to 10 percent, but earlier this year, federal regulators permitted the sale of 15 percent blends for cars made since 2001.

The NASCAR promotion, the cost of which Growth Energy declined to disclose, also comes as lawmakers and policy makers consider slashing federal ethanol subsidies, expected to cost $6 billion this year, and lowering trade barriers to cheaper ethanol produced in countries such as Brazil.

While the alternative fuel is touted as a way to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, it has long been controversial, not only for those subsidies, but also because American ethanol is largely made from corn, creating added demand for the crop and putting upward pressure on food prices.

Because ethanol can also be made with nonfood materials, “the problems with corn ethanol have more to do with corn than they do with ethanol,’’ said Jeremy Martin, with the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“We don’t think you can use more corn. We don’t think that’s a promising solution,’’ he said.

But if any organization can boost the acceptance of ethanol, it’s NASCAR, marketing specialists said. NASCAR fans, estimated at up to 80 million nationwide, are famously known for buying the brands endorsed by their favorite drivers.

Jon Ackley, who teaches the business of NASCAR at Virginia Commonwealth University, said racing fans have been known to buy a pail at Home Depot just because it has a NASCAR driver on it, or to purchase a Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS because it’s the Dale Earnhardt edition.

“If you were to say ‘Home Depot’ to any NASCAR fan, they know immediately who you are talking about,’’ Ackley said. “The relationship between sponsor and driver is a phenomenal marketing tool.’’

Sprint, in it’s eighth year of NASCAR sponsorship, can attest to that. Tim Considine, Sprint’s director of sports marketing, said the company has found that NASCAR fans not only stick with the wireless carrier in the face of intense competition, but on average spend more than Sprint’s overall customer base.

“Race fans are significantly more loyal,’’ Considine said. Nextel, which Sprint later acquired, reportedly paid up to $750 million for its 10-year deal with NASCAR.

Janelle Clachar, a 20-year-old stock car racing fan from Mattapan, said she has come to favor soda products from NASCAR’s sponsor, Coca-Cola, over other brands. She added that she’s thinking about buying a car that can burn fuels with higher concentrations of ethanol.

“NASCAR has an influence on everybody, “said Clachar, a student at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. “You might not even notice it, but it will get you.’’

Since the Daytona 500 in February, NASCAR has required all cars on its three national touring series to use the ethanol blend - about 450,000 gallons a year - made by Sunoco, Inc. and marketed as Green E15. The requirement is part of a broader effort by NASCAR to educate its fans about environmental issues.

Mike Lynch, managing director of green innovation at NASCAR, said the racing association‘s recycling program - sponsored by Coca-Cola - recycled 6.5 million bottles and cans last year. He said the association is ready to move to so-called cellulosic ethanol - made from grasses, plant waste, and other nonfood sources - if it becomes more widely produced.

“Doing green initiatives that are in the competition, in the car, is something that is meaningful, is visceral to the fans,’’ Lynch said.

Clint Bowyer, driver of the No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet, said awareness already seems to be building - especially after a race in Kansas where his car was branded with the green American Ethanol logo.

“It’s a proven fact that our fans go out and buy the products they see on our race cars,’’ said Bowyer, and fans are now asking “What do we need to do to use this in our cars?’’

Joe Gravellese of Boston’s North End, a casual NASCAR fan who routinely travels to Loudon for races, said he believes NASCAR’s popularity can increase the use of alternative fuels better than any government legislation.

“The connection between ethanol and middle America and NASCAR can put a real American face on going green,’’ he said. “Dale Earnhardt Jr. definitely has a better ability to push that message than Barack Obama does.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com or on Twitter @ailworth.