Thursday, August 7, 2014

National Guard ending sponsorship of Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wears his National Guard firesuit as he celebrates winning the
GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday. Credit: Beth Reinke for Skirts and Scuffs
After a seven-year partnership and its driver's career resurgence, the National Guard will end its sponsorship of NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., after this season, the military branch announced Wednesday.

In the press release on its website, the National Guard said it would cease funding to Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team and Graham Rahal's IndyCar team due to cuts in its marketing budget.

"Significantly constrained resources and the likelihood of further reductions in the future call for more innovative and cost-effective ways of doing business," Maj. Gen. Judd H. Lyons, acting director of the Army National Guard, said in the release.

The National Guard spent $32 million to sponsor Earnhardt and $12 million to sponsor Rahal for 2014, according to the release. Both contracts are set to expire at the end of this year, Lyons said.

However, Hendrick Motorsports told USA Today that the organization "has a contract in place to continue the National Guard program at its current level in 2015. We have not been approached by the Guard about potential changes and plan to honor our current agreement."

The National Guard has sponsored Earnhardt Jr. since 2008 when he joined Hendrick Motorsports. The military branch is serving as a primary sponsor for 20 races this season.

In the release, the National Guard said its marketing budget in 2015 is expected to be half of what it was in 2012. The branch whittled its sports sponsorships from six in 2012 to two: the NASCAR and IndyCar sponsorships.

The National Guard's spending has come under fire from Congress. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the branch was “wasting a bunch of money on a very expensive sports sponsorship.”

The National Guard said in the release it has utilized its motorsports sponsorships to foster brand awareness and boost recruitment. But according to a USA Today report, the National Guard spent $26.5 million on its NASCAR sponsorship in 2012 and did not sign up one new soldier that year.

"As part of a broad recruitment marketing strategy, motorsports partnerships — including NASCAR — played an important role in helping the National Guard build strong brand awareness and in turn helped us achieve extraordinary recruiting and end-strength objectives over the past decade," said Lt. Col. Christian Johnson, head of National Guard marketing.

"Our NASCAR sponsorship was principally a marketing program, intended primarily to build awareness of the National Guard as a career option," Johnson said. "The NASCAR sponsorship allowed the National Guard to leverage a 77 million fan base and the sport's most popular driver."

The National Guard's announcement comes as Earnhardt Jr. is riding a wave of success in his career. Last weekend, Earnhardt Jr. won the Sprint Cup race at Pocono, his third victory of the season. Earnhardt Jr. sits second in the points standings and first atop the Chase driver grid.

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