SBJ/July 21-27, 2014/Franchises

For longtime sponsor, ‘This is our biggest ticket’

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Suite 19 at Kentucky Speedway is all Smoke.

Behind the suite bar, there is a sticker of a skeleton in a racing helmet, the official logo of Tony “Smoke” Stewart. It is flanked by white stickers that say “Smoke,” and on a wall nearby, there’s an enormous Fathead of the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers car Smoke will drive that day.

Driver Tony Stewart talks to Rush Truck Centers customers after being introduced by Rush Enterprises CEO Rusty Rush.
Photo by: TRIPP MICKLE / STAFF
The Quaker State 400 is one of five primary paint schemes Rush Truck Centers has for the year. A longtime associate sponsor of Stewart-Haas Racing, the truck dealer and servicing company signed on as a primary sponsor for this season in an effort to raise brand awareness and reward longtime customers. The deal is a mix of value-in-kind and cash that is valued at more than $4 million a year.

Kentucky sits in the middle of a key market for Rush Enterprises, the publicly traded company that has a market cap of $1.23 billion, and it invited 60 key customers to the race. The people it will entertain will account for 1,000 of the 16,000 trucks it has on the road in 2014.

“This is our biggest ticket,” says Karen Konecny, the company’s director of marketing. “The reason we do it is there’s an affinity between those in trucking and transportation and a love for NASCAR. For us, it’s everyone from the technician to the top executive. We view this as relationship building, something to say, ‘Thank you.’”

Rush Truck is saying “thank you” with the help of Stewart-Haas Racing. The team provides marketing support for many of its sponsors, and it sent five people from its marketing team to Kentucky to manage Rush’s hospitality. They fly in between Thursday and Saturday and handle a mix of jobs from filling gift bags with Rush Tuck hats and cozies to offering garage tours for company guests.

Mahria Graham, who flew up race-day morning with the pit crew, oversees the garage tour. It is a staple in the NASCAR industry, and Graham is just one of dozens of tour guides leading people past the haulers and next to the garage where teams are working on cars before the race. It’s the equivalent of visiting the team locker room at an NBA arena before warm-ups, and Graham explains everything from why the haulers are situated where they are to how a NASCAR inspection works.

When she returns guests to the suite, each of Stewart-Haas’ drivers — Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Stewart — stop by for 10-minute question-and-answer sessions. Stewart is last, and Rush Enterprises CEO Rusty Rush introduces him.

Rusty Rush keeps an eye on the team’s progress during qualifying.
Photo by: TRIPP MICKLE / STAFF
Rush has known Stewart since 2008, and they hunt together often. He has deep respect for the way Stewart approaches racing — his go-for-broke determination — and that’s part of the reason Rush sponsors the No. 14.

“We’ve had a great partnership for the last few years because what you see is what you get, and what you get is real,” Rush says to the group of customers he has assembled. “This man’s as real as it comes, and he’s been able to do things his way. With that, I’m going to turn it over to you.”

“Thank you,” Stewart says. He leans against the edge of a table and stares at a packed suite of more than 40 people huddled around him. It’s two hours before race time, and he looks glum as he explains that the team had to drop from 13th in qualifying to 42nd because the car’s transmission broke down and they had to replace it, forcing him to the back of the field.

“The good news is I’m not going to go backwards,” Stewart says, grinning as the crowd laughs.

A few hours later, the crowd stands alongside the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers car on pit road before the race. Then they watch from the suite as Stewart finishes 11th. He just misses the top 10, but he definitely didn’t go backward.

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