SBJ/Feb. 17-23, 2014/In Depth

Sponsors rally around return of iconic No. 3

When seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt died in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Austin Dillon was 10 years old.

Now, at the ripe old age of 23, Dillon is a rookie Sprint Cup driver who will not only begin his first year in NASCAR’s top series at the Daytona 500 this month, but will also do it in a car bearing the No. 3 that the late Earnhardt made iconic.

Austin Dillon will carry the number made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt.
Photo by: Getty Images
After Earnhardt’s death, the No. 3 remained on the shelf, save for a few one-off appearances in the lower-tier Nationwide Series by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dillon brought it back on a regular basis in the Camping World Truck Series and then in his own Nationwide circuit car. He won championships in the trucks (2011) and Nationwide series (2013), leading to his latest role, bringing the No. 3 back to the top series in the sport.

Talk about pressure. Beyond the legacy Dillon inherits, his sponsors must consider how the move plays with the fiercely loyal fans of the late Earnhardt. Everyone from sponsors to the race team and Dillon himself takes a respectful stance when asked about Earnhardt, but, at the same time, they said they have yet to encounter much opposition.

Cheerios and Dow Chemical will account for the majority of the 38 races as primary sponsors on Dillon’s car. Ben Schlosser, chief marketing officer at Richard Childress Racing, owner of Dillon’s team, declined to specify how the races will be shared.

“You’re always going to have people that have opinions, and that’s what life is about,” Richard Childress said. “But our opinion rating right now is in the high 90s [in favor of the No. 3 returning]. Our goal is to go out and try to win those people over. We want them to understand the way we’re doing this is exactly the way it was planned years ago.”

Childress said family, as in the connections between generations of drivers at RCR, is the only reason the number is coming back.

Late last year, SportsBusiness Journal reported Dow will pay RCR at least $6.4 million to have the primary rights for 16 races each season. Schlosser said one or two more sponsors with roles as primary backer will be announced soon.

Cheerios and Dow balance each other because one is a major consumer product and the other represents a campaign that emphasizes business-to-business sales.

General Mills, parent company of Cheerios, sponsored Dillon for his first Daytona 500 in 2013. Then, Dillon drove a car with the No. 33 and returned to the No. 3 in his regular Nationwide season.

This season marks the sixth year General Mills has been a sponsor at RCR. The company became a NASCAR sponsor in 1997.

“We were all very impressed with his polish and his professionalism — that sparked a lot of conversation about the 2014 season,” said Gregg Dorazio, General Mills manager of shopper marketing and motorsports. “And then the number was the icing on the cake.”

In December, when the primary sponsorship of Cheerios was announced, the cereal company launched an online
Cheerios used social media to encourage fans to “Cheer the 3.”
campaign called “Cheer the 3.” On Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Vine, among others, photos, posts and other vignettes tell the family story of the No. 3, including Dillon’s life off the track, the Earnhardt legacy and so on.

Fan content — thoughts and photos of their support — as well as behind-the-scenes moments cataloged by Cheerios are also included. Dorazio said questions prompt fans to respond with comments on when they started following the No. 3 car, favorite memories and races, and so on.

The cereal brand likes the generational connections, from Childress, who is Dillon’s grandfather, to the Earnhardts. Childress has said several times that he and Earnhardt discussed keeping the No. 3 active after Earnhardt retired, but likely only with an Earnhardt or Childress family member using it.

Childress said Earnhardt made the number famous, but stressed it has been part of his family for years. And the No. 3 can help emphasize the history of Earnhardt’s career for younger fans, he added.

“The history that was created with that number is Dale’s,” Dillon said. “I think that’s very special. … Does it create more pressure? I feel like it didn’t matter what number I got in. With my family background, there was going to be pressure.”

Dow Chemical had a supporting role with RCR for several years, working with the team on technology and other aspects of racing to use Dow products and expertise.

Last year, the company sponsored Dillon in a race at Indianapolis and backed RCR driver Jeff Burton as a lower-level sponsor in the Sprint Cup series.

Steve Henderson, president of Dow Automotive Systems, said the relationship with RCR has evolved and the sponsorship makes for a good investment. As part of the agreement, the two companies will collaborate further on testing materials and products.

Dow plans to focus on business-to-business relationships, eyeing both current and prospective customers.
Automotive, agriculture, and building and construction products will account for most of the Dow-NASCAR campaigns. Return on investment exceeded internal expectations last year when the lower-level sponsorship was added, Dow found.

“We’re very sensitive of the legacy [of No. 3] and we’re going to [bring it back] with ultimate respect,” Henderson said. Most of the Dow campaigns will be at the track, hosting customers and prospects, staging VIP tours and using RCR’s North Carolina headquarters for meetings — and to demonstrate how Dow powers the race teams.

Dillon has appeal beyond the track. He likes to hunt and fish, and play fantasy sports and paintball. He recently appeared in a cameo in the ABC series “Nashville.”

Those hobbies and his humility, along with a willingness to study what his sponsors are trying to achieve, make Dillon attractive, Dorazio said.

“He’s easily coached: We’ve done TV shoots, brand prep work and it’s all been phenomenal,” Dorazio said.

Throughout the season, Dillon and the No. 3 will be paired with Cheerios in consumer campaigns and promotions. At least one national TV ad has been filmed and General Mills worked with grocer Kroger this month to release a special-edition, NASCAR-themed Cheerios box to be sold only at Kroger. Convenience stores, large customers such as Wal-Mart and grocers will have in-store promotions tied to the No. 3 and Dillon.

Dorazio said a show-car tour will take the Cheerios-Dillon sponsorship to shoppers nationwide. Stops include Wal-Mart stores, auto shows and other retailers. Cheerios is an associate sponsor on the No. 3 when Dow and any other brands have the primary role.

Support from the late Earnhardt’s children for Dillon to revive the No. 3 should help, too.

“I’m very happy for him, happy for Richard, thrilled that the situation is what it is,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think it’s a great time to bring the number back, and Austin has certainly earned the opportunity to race.”

Earnhardt said the move makes sense because Dillon has used the number for years, even while playing youth sports.

The legacy of the number goes beyond the elder Earnhardt and his famed driving career for the NASCAR team. Before that, Childress drove a car with No. 3.

Said Earnhardt, “He’ll add to the history and the heritage.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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