You're driving down an interstate highway when a truck pulling an enclosed trailer passes your vehicle. It's the type of trailer you might see at short tracks all across the country, but this one is nondescript, with nothing on the truck or trailer to indicate what's inside.

"You wonder if there's a race car in there or equipment for a landscaper," says Ernie Saxton, owner of a motorsports marketing and communications firm based in Pennsylvania.

What Saxton sees on the side of that trailer is lost opportunity. A trailer used to pull a race car to the track each week is a prime location to gain exposure for a race team's sponsor. Saxton maintains that having the name and logo of a sponsor on the side of a team's hauler will generate more interest than having them on the side of the race car itself. Exposure, of course, is the driving force behind sponsorship. Joe Businessman sponsors a race team primarily because he expects his business to gain attention--and ultimately customers--by aligning with that team. And whenever a racer is searching for a sponsor, he or she must realize that exposure lies at the heart of all sponsorship decisions. Everything included in a sponsorship proposal must recognize and respect that precept.

Still, the search for a sponsor can be a racer's biggest challenge. Like the adjustments made on a chassis or the steps taken to tune an engine for more horsepower, though, the search for a sponsor has basic rules to live by.

A Good Start
Knowing where to look is one of the most basic parts of securing sponsorship, and it's an area where racers sometimes put themselves at a disadvantage. A racer who lives 50 miles from the track where he competes each week should focus his search in the area around the track, not around his home. Businesses within a 25-mile radius around the track are good places to begin your search. Most small to medium-sized towns have a good mix of businesses that should fall within your guidelines. Saxton says local banks are in a very competitive business climate and many of them are eager to get involved in promotions and marketing. "Car dealers who are used to spending money on advertising are also good target areas for sponsorship," says Saxton.

Also, many mom-and-pop operations grow into regional chains. This is especially true of tire stores, grocery stores, convenience stores, and so on, and all are excellent prospects for sponsorship.

Don't overlook that local McDonald's or Burger King, however. Saxton says many people wrongly assume that national or international companies aren't potential sponsors for Saturday night racers. "The large chains have franchised dealer associations throughout the different areas," says Saxton. "Where I live, in the Philadelphia area, there might be 30, 40, or 50 McDonald's that belong to a franchise dealers' association and would be interested in looking at something like that on a local or regional level. Don't be afraid of going after somebody just because they're a major corporate name."

One way to get to know local business owners and managers is by joining a local charity or a civic or business organization. The networking opportunities found in organizations of this type can be extremely valuable in a search for sponsorship, and the positive PR benefits gained from such an alignment are priceless.

The Right Look
In today's multimedia world, a racer has numerous ways to market his team. Maintaining a Web site, for example, can offer advantages for a local racer out to catch the eye of a sponsor--if the site is done in a professional manner. Misspelled words, images of poor quality, or an overall amateurish design can do more harm than good, so proceed with caution. If you have someone offering to establish and maintain a site for your team, make sure you view examples of his or her work, and don't hesitate to seek the opinion of others.

The need to maintain a professional image extends to all areas of a racer's public and private life. Never walk into the business office of a potential sponsor while wearing a greasy shirt and blue jeans with holes the size of lug nuts. Remember, you could be representing the business you are seeking for sponsorship, and it's a safe bet the owner wouldn't want a slob representing his company. The same goes for personal appearances at sponsor functions and at special events hosted by the track.

When it's time to present your proposal to a potential sponsor, dress accordingly. A sponsorship agreement, after all, is a business transaction. Treat it as such. "It doesn't mean you have to wear a jacket and tie all the time," says Saxton, "but you certainly don't have to wear a shirt that looks like it's been to 26 straight weeks of Saturday night dirt track racing. I think you should go in a jacket and tie for a presentation."

Pay attention to what you take along for a presentation as well. Papers bound up with a rubber band, for example, would not put forth the image you need to secure sponsorship. Saxton recommends using a folder or portfolio, at the very least, to carry documents needed for your proposal.

The Proposal
Now that you have a feel for where to look and how to look, the next step involves the actual presentation and what materials should be included. Before you develop a proposal for sponsorship or arrange any meetings with potential sponsors, however, Saxton offers advice that will help you throughout the process.

"Racers, before they go to a meeting of any kind, should go out to a library and get a marketing and sales book and sit down and spend some time with it," Saxton says. "Take the book home with you and study some of the key terminology used in marketing and used in business and used in sales. Make sure if somebody says something to you about marketing, you might have a good understanding of what they're talking about."

When you're developing the proposal, or even a Web site, make sure your information is geared toward the potential sponsor and what they will get in return. Too often, the focus of the entire concept is on the racer and what he or she has done in the past or will do in the future. "Ten percent, maybe 20 or 25 at most, should be about the racing, and the majority of the proposal or Web site should be patterned toward sponsorship, showing what the sponsor is going to get in return for their sponsorship dollars or sponsorship support," says Saxton.

"We're long past the days when sponsorship meant painting the name of the side of the race car with a broom. You've got to be willing to give something that will give the sponsor 110 to 150-percent return on their investment. It's not good enough that the guy sitting in the stands watches the sponsor's name go by on a race car--and that's only if they're going slow enough where you can actually read what's on the side of the car."

So what do you offer in a sponsorship package? There are obvious expenses--engine work, transportation, tires, repairs for your car, wear and tear on chassis components, etc.--that you want to include. Develop a ballpark figure for a full season based on previous experience, or if you're a rookie, talk to other racers, then add 10 percent to the figure you come up with.

Next, go beyond the actual car expenses and include marketing items geared specifically toward gaining exposure (remember that key term?) for your potential sponsor. There's a long list of perks you can include: billboards, trackside signage, a sponsored night at the track, event sponsorships, contingency awards, race program ads, personal appearances, decal packages for your hauler, media kits, caps, T shirts, and so on. Remember, any benefit with the potential to earn positive exposure for your sponsor will increase your chances of securing sponsorship. By including some of these benefits you gain a "cushion" of expenses you can eliminate if the business owner feels the need to negotiate the cost of sponsorship.

Don't undervalue the deal, however. If you put together a nice package to present to a potential sponsor, one with perks and clear benefits, you're better off than you would be pursuing several small sponsors in the $200-$400 range. If you're shopping a cheap package, then that potential sponsor will view your operation as cheap.

Never give the sponsor a breakdown of expenses unless it's absolutely necessary to close the deal. "Once you start giving them information about where you're spending the money, pretty soon they're going to be telling you to stay in a cheap motel and they're going to be telling you to use cheaper oil or how you can get a better deal on tires," says Saxton. "It just gets out of hand, so you're better off never, never, never letting them look at your budget and see what you're spending the money on when you're racing. As long as you're going to give them what they're asking for, or even better than what they're asking for, then they shouldn't have any complaints or any say on what you're spending your money on."If you lack the time, or if you lack the knowledge and self-confidence required to put together a proposal, a local community college or university could be an excellent source of help. Professors, particularly in marketing and communication departments, regularly assign projects for students to gain real world experience, or at least something simulating the real world. Even if it's not part of a class project, upper level students could be available for marketing work at a very reasonable cost. The experience and knowledge gained will be beneficial to your effort and their education.

Closing The Deal
There exists no clear-cut method of getting a prospective sponsor to sign on the dotted line of a sponsorship package. Saxton cautions against hanging on too long and offering too much in the initial proposal. "Then when they come down to the final meeting, the meeting where everything is supposed to happen, there are no perks to offer," he says. "You haven't given them anything new and you have no incentives to offer to a sponsor to get him to sign on the dotted line at that time."

Saxton suggests taking the potential sponsor out to lunch or dinner whenever the timing appears right to close the deal. Although you've carefully planned your proposal and feel you've done a credible job with the actual presentation, you must now rely on your gut instincts to know when to make the final move. "I don't think there is anybody out there--and this is only my opinion based on the years I've been involved in this--who can't feel inside of them that the timing is right to move on a deal," says Saxton. "If that potential sponsor is still balking, though, then it's time to walk away because you're just beating a dead horse."

Finders, Keepers
Keeping a sponsor can often be as challenging as finding one, so it's important to be aware of the many things that can bring exposure to a team. Below are three often-overlooked ways to do that.

·Give information about the driver, team, sponsor, etc., to the track announcer. "I've announced races at 174 tracks around the country and don't understand why more racers don't provide information to an announcer about their racing, about their team, and about their sponsors," says sponsorship expert Ernie Saxton. "Because almost every night when you announce a racing show there's going to be some dead time when you're looking for filler. This can be perfect filler and it gives you additional opportunity to gain some exposure for your sponsor."

·Submit stories to be published in the track program. "I've published race programs for years for racetracks and I'm always looking to fill space," says Saxton. "It's amazing to me that more teams don't make stories about their team available and send over some pictures that can be included with the story. It costs absolutely nothing to do that and generates additional exposure in front of the people who buy the program. Then the book is taken home and read by maybe three or four other people at home."

·Be mindful of the sponsor's name and logo in photographs. "Probably the most exposure you get is when you win a race and you're in Victory Lane with all your crew and all your friends and they look like they've just been through an earthquake or disaster or something," says Saxton. "They're all standing in front of the race car and you can't see who's sponsoring what on that race car. Here's lost opportunity for the sponsor to get the exposure they pay for, plus you turn the sponsor off by looking like a bunch of hobos."