Sponsorship expert weighs in on the business aspect of the Stewart-Ward tragedy.
The Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward, Jr. tragedy resonates on so many personal levels, it’s easy to forget that there are enormous business implications involved.
Those implications should be forgotten during the appropriate mourning period for Ward, 20, who was killed 11 days ago when he was struck by a sprint car driven by the three-time NASCAR champion, who has always loved to moonlight at his first love, dirt-track racing. Ward apparently blamed Stewart for a crash that flattened Ward’s right rear tire at a race in Canandaigua, New York, the night before Stewart was to race his NASCAR Sprint Cup car at Watkins Glen.
As you likely know, an upset Ward left his car and approached Stewart’s still-moving car on the racing surface. One of three things happened next: Stewart saw Ward at the last minute and tried to avoid him; Stewart saw Ward and tried to brush him back with his car, or Stewart saw Ward and purposely tried to hit him. This last opinion seems profoundly extreme, but based on internet feedback, including on this site, that belief is more prevalent than you may think.
Stewart sat out Watkins Glen and Michigan, and has yet to announce if he is returning for Bristol this weekend. NASCAR teams burn money at an alarming rate. How patient will Stewart’s sponsors be?
At the very least, “I think some of Tony's sponsors are definitely disappointed that they will miss out on the Chase for the second year in a row because of sprint car racing,” says sponsorship authority Ernie Saxton. Stewart’s chances of making the chase this year are negligible, and last year, he missed the chase because he crashed his sprint car in August, injuring his leg to the point where he missed the rest of the season.
Stewart’s sponsors hung with him then. How about now? “If he is charged,” Saxton says, “I think that will be enough for sponsors to use a clause in the contract regarding behavior to get out of sponsorship.”
Sponsors quiet so far
So far, Stewart’s top sponsors – Mobil 1, Bass Pro Shops and Rush Truck Centers, which was the primary sponsor for his Watkins Glen car – have remained largely silent. Other sponsors listed as “partners’ on Tony Stewart’s web site include Code 3 Associates, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, J.D. Byrider, Jimmie John's, Arctic Cat, Simpson and New Balance.
Those sponsors paid for Stewart to be behind the wheel: When he isn’t, they could argue that their investment is diminished.
The Ontario County, New York sheriff’s department has said to expect the investigation into Stewart’s crash to take at least two weeks, which we are fast approaching. If they fully exonerate Stewart – say there is absolutely no evidence of intent on his part – business-wise, that’s the best case. If the say there is insufficient evidence but fall short of proclaiming him guiltless, that’s not as good. And if he is charged, the implications are grim on multiple levels.
The Pennsylvania-based Saxton, who has published the subscription-only Motorsports Sponsorship Marketing News for 30 years (www.saxtonsponsormarket.com), says that so far, it is hard to fault Stewart’s actions post-tragedy.
As soon as he shows up at a track, he will be fresh meat for the media.
“Tony did the right thing in passing on the two races, and I would not be surprised to see him sit out more and maybe not run the rest of the season. As soon as he shows up at a track, he will be fresh meat for the media, especially the mainstream media that does not understand the sport. The longer he stays away, the more chance it will be somewhat forgotten. And if the investigation shows that he is not at fault that will work in his favor.
“It is unfortunate that many seem to feel this was Tony's fault when in fact it was just the mistake made by a young racer with a temper who climbed out of his race car and went charging down the track to make a name for himself by confronting Tony,” Saxton says. “It cost him his life.”
Whether or not it will cost Tony Stewart his career remains to be seen.