WASHINGTON — The Army National Guard’s decision Thursday to end its NASCAR sponsorship sent ripples across Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have slashed Pentagon spending while protecting bases and weapons systems in their states.
The Guard spent $32 million on NASCAR and $12 million on its IndyCar sponsorship this year. Military officials blamed Congress for forcing them to make tough cuts.
“Significantly restrained resources and the likelihood of further reductions in the future call for more innovative and cost-effective ways of doing business,” Maj. Gen. Judd H. Lyons, acting director of the National Guard, said in a statement.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who has held hearings on what she has branded as the military’s wasteful sports sponsorships, said the National Guard’s move was long overdue.
“I’m a NASCAR fan, and I love the National Guard, but spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a recruitment program that has been abandoned by other (military) service branches as ineffective, and which apparently yielded few, if any recruits, just makes no sense,” McCaskill told McClatchy.
Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat, disagreed.
“The motor sports industry is a critical economic driver in North Carolina and states across the country, and I am disappointed that the Army National Guard chose to end its sponsorship of NASCAR,” Hagan told McClatchy. “With a strong fan base of 77 million men and women, this partnership with NASCAR has resulted in significant exposure for the Army National Guard that has strengthened recruitment and retention.”
The Charlotte Motor Speedway, with a crowd capacity of 140,000, is one of the nation’s largest NASCAR racetracks, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame is located in the Queen City.
Richard “The King” Petty and Dale Earnhardt, two of the greatest NASCAR drivers ever, both hailed from North Carolina.
The Army National Guard’s NASCAR sponsorship has been mainly through its promotion of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his racing team. The younger Earnhardt currently sits second in the Sprint Cup Series behind California native Jeff Gordon.
NASCAR stadiums draw some of the biggest crowds in American sports, from the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth to Florida’s Daytona International Speedway. Officials at NASCAR’s Daytona Beach headquarters did not respond to several requests for comment about the Army National Guard decision to sever ties.
Since 2006, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard have each ended sponsorship programs with NASCAR.
NASCAR also has lost major corporate sponsors in recent years, among them Dodge, UPS, Aflac and Home Depot. While the sport retains millions of fans, its popularity has waned in the last decade. The average number of TV viewers for a NASCAR race is 5.8 million, down from the peak of 9.2 million in 2005, according to Nielsen Co. ratings.
Crowd capacities exceed 100,000 at the biggest NASCAR speedways in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and elsewhere, but some races now run in half-full stadiums.
McCaskill said the Army National Guard primarily targets men and women between 18 and 24 for recruitment, but only 10 percent of NASCAR fans are between those ages, with most fans between 35 and 54.
A former Missouri state auditor, McCaskill won a second Senate term in 2012 partly by building a reputation as a fiscal hawk willing to break with other Democrats on spending programs. At the same time, however, she belongs to a bipartisan caucus of lawmakers attempting to block the Air Force’s plans to retire the A-10 “Warthog” fighter jet in order to save $3.7 billion.
Whiteman Air Force Base, outside Knob Noster, Mo., 70 miles east of Kansas City, is home to a fleet of A-10’s assigned to the 303rd Fighter Squadron.
Military sports sponsorships are a divisive issue in Congress. Despite the presence of the Atlanta Motor Speedway in his state along with other major professional and college teams, Republican Rep. Jack Kingston has joined with Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota in unsuccessful bids to ban such promotions.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke out against a ban two years ago, citing talks he’d had with Army National Guard leaders.
“They are committed to the belief (the NASCAR sponsorship) has a profound effect on their recruiting,” Earnhardt said.