Mike Mittler gets hit up all the time for sponsorship. Like most businessmen, the owner of MB Motorsports and Tanner Racing Products seldom says yes.

He has a trio of reasons.

Mittler owns his own NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team, where he can control exactly how his sponsorship money is spent. And he already helps a couple of racers who run tracks near his shop in Wright City, Missouri, west of St. Louis. Lastly, few racers ever come in with a proposal solid enough to convince him to write a check.

"You just can't come into a business and tell the owner that you race at a local track and want him to write a check to you to help pay your bills," Mittler says.

"Why should I make a donation to that charity?" Mittler asks with a smile. "I don't even consider a request like that unless the driver can come in with a plan that makes sense to me as a business owner."

Then he gets to the essence of the hunt for sponsorship money, something that's often ignored by racers.

"I'm not making a donation," Mittler says. "I'm buying a product.

"That statement carries even more weight when you consider it comes from a man who sees both sides of racing.

Even the smallest Nextel Cup teams have someone on the payroll whose job is to shake the money tree and cut a better deal than the team down the street. They study the business world and find one or more companies that can benefit from having its name on the side of a race car. NASCAR's national television audience and the broad demographics have attracted sponsors to Nextel Cup that would have been considered a very unlikely fit 20 years ago.

In that sense, the "driving for dollars" effort is no different from that of amateur racers everywhere looking for a way to pay the bills. It is just on a larger scale.

"A lot of racers think sponsorship has to be in the form of a check," says Steve Fisher, a Vermont driver who races in the American-Canadian Touring (ACT) Series.

Fisher's cars and hauler carry the Days Inn logo. In return, his team gets free lodging at participating Days Inn motels near tracks on the series schedule.

"It isn't like getting a check to buy tires," he says. "But the money I don't have to spend on motels is money I can use for the car, so it works out the same way."

Trade-out sponsorships are often overlooked by local racers, says Tracy Fischer, who parlayed her interest in auto racing into Advantage Motorsports, a cottage industry that helps racers market themselves to sponsors and the public.

"There is a huge advantage for the sponsor in that they don't have to write a check," she says. "And for the racer, they also get more in value-let's say tools and supplies or engine oil-than what they could buy with the same amount of money from a sponsor."

But Steve Fisher says the trade-out concept often involves more negotiations than just asking for a check.

"We had a hard time getting Days Inn to commit the first year," he says. "The company had been burned by a driver who took their money and then ran only four races. They were pretty cautious about getting involved again.

"But Fisher did his homework.

Because his main sponsor is a lodging business, Fisher studied traffic flow along the highways he uses to get from track to track. He can tell his sponsor how many cars will pass the Days Inn sign on the trailer each hour it is on the road.

"There are more people who see the trailer than see the car," he says. "So it is important to have the logo on it large enough that it can be easily seen. It also is important to make sure the trailer and our equipment looks good, because we are representing the business."

That's important to a businessman like Mittler.

"If I sponsor a car, it is representing my business," he says. "I want the operation to be clean and have a good reputation. I want the driver to be someone I can trust to represent it to the public.

"I want it to be an operation I can take pride in. That, to me, means a driver who can shake your hand with confidence and look you in the eye when you talk business".

Fisher talks to his sponsors all the time. He calls his Days Inn contact after every race weekend to let the company know how he did in the race, how many people were in the grandstands, and if there was anything special that went on to have him and his team meet the public.

Once a year, he sits down with the corporate types to go over the business plan he has created. Fisher says the plan details where and when he'll be racing and when he and the car can be available for car shows or grand openings.

"We do a lot of stuff that's not on the schedule," he says. "If the D.A.R.E. drug program has an activity, I'll bring the car by. We do the same thing for the Boys and Girls Clubs.

"Last year, I was invited by a local baseball team to bring out the car, and I even tossed out the first ball. I do everything I can to get the sponsor's name before the public."

He also documents each appearance with photos, which he includes in his annual report and proposal.

"There is no performance criteria in the contract," he says. "All it says is that I show up at the races, we look good, we act professional, and we represent Days Inn in an appropriate manner."

Fisher and Tracy Fischer, the marketer, agree that the care and feeding of a sponsor involves giving them more than they expect.

"It doesn't cost much to bring your car to the local high school for a safety program," she says, "or put it on display for Scouts to look at during a Pinewood Derby. It's all small-town promotion, but in a small town, those are the type of events that get a sponsor's name out in front of potential customers."

Fischer knows all about small-town racing. She grew up as a track brat at Viking Speedway in Alexandria, Minnesota. Her dad owned a salvage yard, helped out local drivers, and sponsored a few cars. Both her brothers raced, and the family became involved in racetrack management. When one brother decided to retire, Fischer and her husband, an engine builder, bought the team.

She worked in racetrack marketing and promotions and soon began taking on teams and series as clients. She works with drivers to prepare rsums, design hero cards, write sponsorship proposals, and create and maintain Web sites.

"Drivers often think they have to spend a lot of money to present a professional-looking proposal to a sponsor," she says. "That really isn't the case. All it has to do is look good, contain the information a sponsor needs, and be easy to understand."

Her company can work up a one-sheet, basic proposal for between $100 and $300, giving a driver a document that can be used repeatedly to approach different sponsors.

"One of the most important things to realize is there is no reason not to start small with a sponsor," she says. "If you can get a business interested in racing, [then] get their name on the car and get them involved in the team, even if it is for only a couple hundred dollars worth of products or service.

"If you perform for them on and off the track, they'll realize it is a good investment and be back again the next year."

Steve Fisher says there is a second, often-overlooked advantage to putting a local business' name on the side of a race car.

"It gives a team credibility," he says. "It tells fans and other businesses that someone in business has faith and confidence in the driver and considers racing a good investment. In that sense, sponsorship is good advertising for the team, because it can attract other businesses who figure if Days Inn sees a positive return, maybe they should give it a try.

"The most important thing for racers to realize is that just putting a company's name on the car isn't good enough," he says. "You are making a commitment to that sponsor to represent his or her company.

"But if every racer did his job, there would never be a shortage of sponsors.

"Jerry F. Boone can be reached at Jfboone@aol.com.

Know your target: Ask yourself, "why would I sponsor this team?"

If you can't come up with a good reason, maybe you should take up golf.

Know your audience: Talk to track promoters about how many people show up on an average night.

What is their average income? How many are women? Where do they come from?

What can a sponsor do? Sure, money is nice, but there are lots of other ways to cut the cost of racing.

Free tire mounting? Gas for the tow rig? Dinner for the team? Think of all the things you spend money on just to go racing, and then find ways to get someone else to pay the bills.

Have a plan: Before you sit down with a sponsor, determine where and how often you will race.

Will you put the sponsorship on just the car or on the trailer? How about uniforms? When will you be available for car shows or displays at the store?

What's in it for the sponsor? Does the business already draw heavily from the race crowd?

Maybe the owner doesn't need you. Is it a new business just trying to break into the market or an established one that has new competition? What can you offer that an ad in the newspaper won't?

Get it in writing: A handshake is still an honorable way to seal a deal, but it is even better if each party knows what they are shaking on.

Get down on paper exactly what the sponsor expects you to do for his help and exactly what you will get in return. Be realistic about how much time you can commit during the race season so you don't end up in the shop when you are supposed to be at a show.

SOURCE
Steve Fisher Racing MB Motorsports
Advantage Motorsports
#7 Krenkel Ct.
Flemington
NJ  08822
Data Acquisition
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