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Performance-driven nonsense driving NASCAR sponsor moves

Tuesday September 12, 2017 will be a day of infamy in NASCAR for many years to come when it comes to sponsorship, dedication and commitment.

rod mullinsFor on this date, heads rolled at a faster rate than bodies being placed on the guillotine during the French Revolution as Danica Patrick lost her ride with Stewart-Haas Racing, effective at the end of the 2017 season.

But another event also occurred in the world of sponsorship in NASCAR with the “he said, she said” back and forth between Smithfield Foods and Richard Petty over the termination of the #43 car sponsorship at the end of the season as the Virginia based pork producer said they would pack up all sponsorship and move to Stewart-Haas racing with the likelihood of Aric Almirola surfacing at SHR in a Ford sponsored by Smithfield.

Are you still with me?  Then hold on.  It gets even more interesting even in the wake of the fiasco involving the Subway/Dunkin’ Donuts/Daniel Suarez/Joe Gibbs Racing debacle.

It’s the kind of day that makes you long for the old days of NASCAR. Less political correctness, loyalty, less “free agency,” racing, sponsorship and servicing the fans the way it used to be.

To be quite honest, even with all of his business savvy and reputation, I don’t know if Dale Earnhardt Sr. would even fit into today’s mess of what we call NASCAR. I know that some of the legendary drivers of old would not sit idly by and let a sponsor cut their throat, personally and professionally.


Richard Petty said yesterday in remarks that “a handshake used to mean something; a gentleman’s agreement,”  but we’ve discovered that after reputation-questioning and sponsor-killing Tuesday (an intentional take off and play on words about hog killing that usually occurs in November in these parts) that a handshake doesn’t mean diddly-squat anymore, at least not on the NASCAR sponsor/corporate level, and especially not to some corporates types who think they are the second coming of Donald Trump and “The Art of the Deal”.

I suppose we should be blessed that Kenneth M. Sullivan, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Smithfield Foods, doesn’t tweet like Donald Trump.

Seems he had a lot to say in a razor sharp, cutting corporate statement where he essentially called Richard Petty a liar and drew into question the commitment of Richard Petty Motorsports, all while terminating sponsorship with the #43 team after 2017.

Like a hog-killing on a cold November day in the mountains, the blood splattered when Smithfield made the first cut into the racing sponsorship carcass of Richard Petty Motorsports.

But if there’s one thing you don’t do in corporate sponsorship, in NASCAR on the national level is call Richard Petty, “King Richard,” “Rapid Richard Petty,” “The King of Stock Car Racing,” a liar and not expect the crap to hit the fan.

“We have had numerous discussions with Smithfield Foods regarding the extension of our relationship dating as far back as February,” replied Petty in a statement issued from Richard Petty Motorsports. “Over the past few months, Smithfield had continually told me they wanted to be with us, and I recently shook hands on a deal to extend our relationship. I come from a time when we did major deals with sponsors like STP on a handshake.”

Sullivan started the press release war/counterattack with a sharply worded release, claiming that Petty disparaged Smithfield, even going so far as to question Petty’s team and their lack of dedication, designated by Sullivan as a “subpar performance on the track.”

Smithfield’s biggest complaint? Richard Petty Motorsports’ “inability to deliver on the track” and “the organization’s repeated failure to present a plan to address its lack of competitiveness.”

This latest episode of “NASCAR sponsor Peyton Place” is just one of the issues that is plaguing the sport and also questioning sponsor loyalty and also the intelligence of the racing fan.

You know Subway, the big sub sandwich giant that pushed Jared Fogel into our living rooms for years, only to ultimately discover Jared was not as wholesome and clean as his image portrayed, also has been stirring the sponsorship soup mess as well. Maybe not as cutting as to Richard Petty and Richard Petty Motorsports, but still stinging nonetheless.

The company had one race left on a four-race sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing and its driver, Daniel Suarez, but a July incident cost Suarez and Joe Gibbs Racing the sponsorship deal and all because of some donuts. Dunkin’ Donuts.

Being nice to the fans, doing a little pre-race feature for NBC and those “nasty, unhealthy, reserved for law enforcement officer” circles of sweetness and calories, was the catalyst for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota losing the fourth and final Subway-sponsored race of the year.

The NBC pre-race segment called “Desayuno (breakfast) with Daniel” had been a big hit with fans. Suarez and racing commentator Rutledge Wood toured the campgrounds at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July on a golf kart and handed out those “sinful delights” to the fans camped at NHIS.

Subway was not amused. It wasn’t Jared Fogel all over again, but for this popular, healthy chain, it was a conflict of interest to have an agent of the company, in this case Suarez, to be passing out Dunkin’ Donuts to fans.

The “wholesome” company’s response?

“Due to circumstances beyond our control, Subway had to terminate its sponsorship of Daniel Suarez.”

Cut open like a foot-long on the sandwich prep counter at Subway, Suarez and Joe Gibbs Racing had their bread pulled out from them and placed in the toaster to burn.

A Joe Gibbs Racing spokesman later confirmed that Subway had terminated its contract with the NASCAR Cup team and would not comment on what caused the contract to be terminated but added that Suarez did not violate any type of morals clause.

All of this calls into question loyalty, commitment and truthfulness in a sport that at one time was set to overtake the NFL as the most watched spectator sport in America.

Sullivan stated in Smithfield press release that “(i)t is very unfortunate and disheartening that RPM has chosen to disseminate false statements regarding our communications to NASCAR fans who we have supported wholeheartedly with tens of millions of dollars in investment in the sport over the last several years.”

It’s unfortunate that a company head in Sullivan question the integrity of the King and also at the same time, question the dedication of fans.

“Smithfield is a performance-driven company and we demand performance from the people we do business with,” Sullivan elaborated.  “For that reason and that reason alone, Smithfield decided not to renew its contract with RPM when it expires at the end of this year.”

So Smithfield’s answer to the Richard Petty debacle? Move to a team whose performance has been as “sub-par” as Richard Petty Motorsports, in Stewart-Haas Racing.

It’s a team that has not had the greatest success on the track with the exception of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.

Oh, please. Quick, give me a Kleenex. It’s crying time again in the sport of NASCAR and NASCAR sponsors who have the fans best interest in mind.

It’s forced me to take a hard look at where I spend my dollars and question the integrity of two companies who place themselves on a pedestal above the fans of NASCAR and consumers, telling them the high standards they expect us to live by but not live by themselves.

It’s the old “Do as I say, not as I do” business mentality.

For Smithfield, saying they are an American company is not exactly telling the truth.  A Chinese company bought the Virginia-based pork producer for $4.7 billion back in 2014 and marked the first major investment by a Chinese entity of an American company.

All while reassuring the American public that they are the same Smithfield Foods (isn’t that a little deceptive when you raise the hogs here, kill them and send them to China to be processed and then shipped back to the United States), a performance-driven company and dedicated to “good food.”

Editor’s Note: According to a Smithfield Foods spokesperson, all Smithfield products sold in the United States are made in the United States, with the exception of a small number of imported specialty meat products from the EU (like Polish hams, for example). The acquisition of Smithfield by WH Group has not and will not result in the import of any food from China to the United States.

More information is available here: www.smithfieldfoods.com/madeinusa.

Wait, did I say “good food”?

Yep, that’s what they claim in their “disclaimer” at the end of their press releases. “Smithfield Foods is committed to providing good food in a responsible way and maintains robust animal care, community involvement, employee safety, environmental and food safety and quality programs.”

So did I read that right? Good food?  Why not great food? Isn’t their practice of sending China the pork to process a little insulting to the American worker?

Smithfield’s president said in his statement that they are a “performance-driven company.”

Shouldn’t “great food” be a performance driven issue over just “good food”? Shouldn’t giving more Americans a job be the goal of a “performance driven company”?

It should be, but Smithfield doesn’t see it in their mission to public or the fans.

And shouldn’t respect go both ways in the eye and scope of public perception? Even with an institution such as Richard Petty and yes, the fans?

So as petty as it may seem, no pun intended, I can’t support a company that comes out in a press release and levels a claim that Richard Petty and Richard Petty Motorsports disseminated “false statements” in regard to their “supposed deal” that did or did not involve a handshake. I also can’t support a company for getting upset, childishly upset, at a driver for giving out donuts to fans.

No more Smithfield foods in my ‘fridge or in my belly and no more Subway foot-longs, six inch subs or breakfast sandwich purchases for me. I’m declaring it here and now.

With all of these events of this week, all of this has left me longing for the old days of NASCAR.

The days of walking into a Winston Cup Race and Winston Girls offering me packs of cigarettes, even though I have never smoked a cigarette a day in my life. Getting handfuls of Goody’s Headache Powders and tablets given to me, even though I didn’t have any pain or headache, at least I knew I’d have something on hand, and yes, even snapping into the countless promotional handouts of Slim Jims. Way before Randy “Macho Man” Savage made the phrase “Snap into a Slim Jim” a part of the national conscience.

It wasn’t the product as much as it was “servicing” the fans of the sport.

For six years, I believe that Richard Petty Motorsports did that with Smithfield, servicing the fans in promotional events, getting the word out there and associating Smithfield with the #43 car.  Just like you associated STP with Petty in the golden years of NASCAR.

In fact, STP should be considered exemplary for their dedication to Petty and the fans, staying on the Petty car through the 1970s, King Richard’s 200th career win at Daytona in 1984 and through the truly awful years leading up to the King’s retirement and even when Petty named Rick Wilson and Bobby Hamilton Jr. as drivers in subsequent years.

There was no cutting press releases by execs and no bitterness in the tone of the announcement when STP left as a full-time sponsor. No mention of the “hundreds of millions of dollars” provided to the team like Smithfield did in their press release.

It was simply servicing the fans and establishing their place in racing sponsorship history.

In today’s NASCAR business world, Smithfield and Subway have disserviced the fans and Smithfield has questioned the integrity and commitment of a racing legend and the loyalty of the fans. You don’t do things like that and expect to advance forward positively.

If Smithfield had been concerned about their image of a performance-driven company, maybe they should have approached NASCAR about replacing the Victory Lane showgirls with an idea of their own instead of sponsoring Petty five years ago or Stewart-Haas in 2018 or entertain a “Stroker Ace”-inspired theme from that ‘80s movie dud starring Burt Reynolds.

Have Smithfield Pork Girls in Victory Lane handing out bacon to the winners or painting a race car pink, with a pig snout on the nose of a race car and calling it the “Fastest Squealer on the track”.

It would have certainly garnered more attention and promotion than being on a “subpar” racing team. It’s just another one of the things wrong with NASCAR, sponsors and this new age of motorsports and sponsorship.

It leaves me longing for the good ol’ days of NASCAR.

Rod Mullins is a freelance digital journalist, blogger, podcaster and contributor to the Augusta Free Press. He has covered NASCAR at the local and national level for several years.

  • Sally Baker

    I know that Richard Petty would not have a beer sponsor on his car because he promised his mother he wouldn’t. This is the man Smithfield is accusing of lying? Really! Seems to me that proposing to put Bubba Wallace in the #43 was to address the performance issue. There’s a bad smell here, and it isn’t coming from RPM.

    • Roderick Mullins

      Sally, I have no problem with Bubba Wallace going into the driver’s seat at RPM. Great young driver, great personality fits well with the Petty image. You hit on your other point as well with the beer issue. Petty had issues with Busch Pole Award, etc. and things because of exactly as you said, a promise he made to mother. RPM is not the greatest race team on the NASCAR circuit but they are fighting a battle against multi-car teams that can draw information, testing and resources from various sources. Petty has struggled but has managed to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe Wallace is what his team needs, maybe a new dynamic sponsor that compliments Wallace and can compliment the sport is what NASCAR needs. Sponsors come and go in the sport but if there’s one thing you don’t do is question the integrity of the sport’s most winning driver and make him look like a heel.

  • Albert Torney

    I’m glad you wrote this column. It is one that has needed to be written for some time. Corporate greed has done a lot of evil things in this country and around the world. Dirty air and water pollution come to mind. They have fought, and thankfully lost, battles to correct these problems. And then they have the nerve to publicize their commitment to cleaning up things. Well they are now showing the NASCAR gang their true colors. I doubt any fans associated donuts with Subway. Within one mile of my house I have those two chains. I don’t associate either one with breakfast or as being competitive with one another. I happen to like donuts and Subway tuna subs. I do not consider Dunkin’ Donuts a quality donut and I have never received a Subway sub that looks as good as what they advertise. But neither does a Big Mac or Whopper for that matter. My point is that Smithfield and Subway have let the cat out of the bag so to speak as to how much control sponsors have taken in our sport. They control who gets a ride in a race car, how the driver acts, or reacts, in certain situations. What participants can and can’t do. And look and listen to the new generation of drivers we have. They look alike, talk alike and act alike. Not one shows any personality whatsoever. No wonder fans have left the sport in droves. What does it tell you when two former champions and really good race car drivers can’t get sponsorship because of age? In typical fashion when the sport was growing by leaps and bounds in the ’90’s sponsors were everywhere and now they are abandoning the sport in droves.

    • Roderick Mullins

      Albert, thanks for your comments. On of the best ways I can say it is that NASCAR has been sterilized, so to speak. The feel of what was 20-plus years ago when I covered my first Bristol race is gone. Handlers, spokesmen, its become a sterile sport unlike the days when drivers like Junior Johnson and many others spoke their mind and said to hell with the rest of it.

  • MarkM

    ” but for this popular, healthy chain,…” On their being healthy, please tell me you were speaking ironically, with your tongue firmly planted in your cheek when you wrote that. I have family members who worked for Subway for years that will gladly refute it. And no, neither of them were fired. One retired after being the store manager for many years, (my mother-in-law), & my wife left there after getting a better job.

    I’ll put it like this, since they both left the company, (both on friendly terms & several years apart), none of us have ever eaten at any Subway since.

    Everything else in your article was spot on however!

    • Roderick Mullins

      Tongue was planted in cheek.

    • Roderick Mullins

      BTW, thank you Mark for your comments.

  • Jerry Clark

    No more Subway or Smithfield for me! Thanks did not know the pigs were cut up in China

    • Roderick Mullins

      Actually the pigs are killed and processed here and shipped to China. No pork will be shipped from China to the US…a misunderstanding on my part.

    • Jerry Clark

      Still will not eat any Smithfield products, life long Petty fan

  • Jon O’Data

    Good grief, it’s not like Suarez was handing out Jimmy John’s.

  • Fire and Ice

    simply said “Amen” long for the days of a real sponsor who understands the sport and the fans

  • Carl up North

    Thank you for bringing out the Chinese connection. Perhaps the Chinese overseers don’t see the return or results the way we do? Their demands on the American puppets may involve their version of reeducation camps for Smithfield execs. Just another once worthwhile product line to add to my list of not to buy.

    • Roderick Mullins

      Carl, thanks for commenting. Appreciate your input.