Proud sponsor of NASCAR’s need for speed
Let’s be clear. A NASCAR driver’s success is primarily the product of their skill and experience.
Think of all of auto racing’s big names who consistently are in the winning circle. The best really know what they’re doing and prove that in every race.
Every driver and team owner also knows that all the people behind-the-scenes make a huge difference too, the people who make sure their car is in the best condition to race – before, during and after.
But, someone has to pay for the gas, right?
You could say that’s where the corporate sponsors come in.
The numbers show that one in four Fortune 500 companies sponsor a NASCAR team – up 8 percent since 2008, with 65 new sponsors in the last two years – as they look to connect with the sport’s mass appeal across the U.S., both at the track and on TV.
“In NASCAR, money often buys speed. So the more money teams have, the more they can spend on research and developing new parts and pieces,” says Bob Pockrass, the NASCAR reporter for ESPN.
Pockrass told me the sponsorship side of the sport is its lifeblood. With no spending limits for teams in NASCAR, the sponsorships can make up 75 percent of a team’s income for a season.
Jeff Gluck, the NASCAR writer for USA TODAY, agrees and says it’s a business structure unlike any other professional sport.
“NASCAR is the one sport that really can’t exist without sponsorships,” Gluck says. “It costs money to go fast, and unlike a sport like golf, tennis, baseball or basketball, the competitors must work hand-in-hand with companies to partner in competition.”
General Mills is proud to be in its 18th year as a NASCAR sponsor, working with four owners – and as best I can tell from our archives – at least nine drivers. The brands involved include Cheerios, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Hamburger Helper, Totino’s, Chex, Wheaties and Pop Secret.
Currently, Cheerios Racing supports Richard Childress Racing (RCR) and the No. 3 car driven by Austin Dillon (Childress’ grandson), which is back on the track this Sunday in its yellow and black Cheerios paint scheme at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte (with a special honor for a fallen Navy SEAL and his family).
“General Mills is a best-in-class company with iconic brands – just the type of business with whom RCR likes to have a long-term partnership,” says Ben Schlosser, chief marketing officer, RCR. “Brands like Cheerios, Wheaties, Helper, Pillsbury and Betty Crocker have a rich heritage in NASCAR and resonate with our fans – both on the track and within the grocery aisles. They are blue-chip, American brands, much as RCR is with its 45 year history in this quintessentially American sport.”
“RCR has been a great partner for us. They are seen as leaders in the sport and it’s an honor to work with them,” says Melissa Kell, marketing communications manager on our Integrated Shopper Marketing team, who works on the Cheerios Racing program.
Corporate sponsorships of NASCAR go well beyond what happens on the track, General Mills leverages the interest in the sport to work with retail customers across the U.S. to bring the excitement to stores and NASCAR fans.
For example, Dillon has several public appearances and events throughout the year, Cheerios “show cars” for the No. 3 travel around the country, and stores will have product displays with a Cheerios Racing theme.
“We have many customers who will leverage this platform, including Kroger and Walmart,” Kell says. “We also will see support from the convenience store channel. We know this is meaningful to our customers and that NASCAR fans are highly engaged. We’re excited to celebrate the sport.”
“NASCAR fans understand their drivers won’t win without a sponsor’s help, which means they’re often a fan of both the driver and the brand,” says Gluck. “To show support, fans often become loyal to whatever company is backing their driver – something you rarely see in other sports. Clearly, it’s a business model that has worked for decades.”
So how did General Mills get involved in NASCAR?
Our relationship goes back to the 1990s, when the company’s motor sports team worked with several of our brands to develop NASCAR-themed product packaging and promotions.
In 1997, Wheaties put RCR’s legendary Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the front of the iconic box (he was the first NASCAR driver to receive that honor).
Earnhardt also drove a Wheaties car for NASCAR’s 1997 All-Star Race. Soon, we were on the track with a consistent sponsor arrangement.
1997 to 1999 – Roush Racing
Roush Racing was the first team that General Mills partnered with for a season-long NASCAR sponsorship.
Mark Martin was the first NASCAR driver to take the track in a car on behalf of a General Mills brand – Bugles – in the No. 6. car.
Scott Hayes, a senior development manager in Sales, had a key role with our NASCAR projects in those early years.
“NASCAR was a great fit for General Mills,” says Hayes. “In itself, it’s so outside of the box and outside of the norm for what General Mills typically does. It was a great way to break through with consumers because they weren’t used to seeing General Mills brands coming to them in that fashion. It played a really key role and the timing was great as the sport was becoming more popular and more broad-reaching,”
After Martin, we teamed with Roush’s Johnny Benson in the No. 26, for Cheerios and several of our other brands.
2000 to 2008 – Petty Enterprises
In 2000, we moved our NASCAR sponsorship to Richard Petty Enterprises.
The connection with Petty, another legendary figure in the sport, helped solidify General Mills as a major sponsor.
Our connection, however, started even earlier. In 1998, Betty Crocker baking products featured Lynda Petty (Richard’s wife) and Patti Petty (Kyle’s wife) on Betty Crocker Baking and Meals packages as part of its Racing Wives program. The women’s sense of family, tradition and integrity was a natural fit with the General Mills brands.
In 1999, Richard Petty was featured on a Wheaties box in the “Legends of Racing” series. Consumer response was overwhelming – and General Mills pursued primary sponsorship of Richard Petty and his team on an ongoing basis.
“Our affiliation with Richard Petty was special,” says Bob Welch, director of International Sales, who also used to work on the NASCAR sponsorship team. “I always felt that the Pettys and General Mills were a great combination of family, business, legacy and success.”
“To be a part of the way we took on that sponsorship, and really maximized it with putting the Pettys all over the cereal packages and our various products, was just exciting to see,” says Hayes.
Petty’s drivers for General Mills included Jeff Green and Bobby Labonte, representing Cheerios and Betty Crocker, over an eight year period in the No. 43.
“It’s funny how certain cars stick out in memory over the years,” says Gluck. “When I think of Cheerios, I often still think of the No. 43 car with Bobby Labonte.”
2005 – Evernham Motorsports
Betty Crocker (and Cheerios) teamed up with a different Crocker, Erin, in 2005, in a brief sponsorship with Evernham Motorsports.
“Erin was attempting to break into the now Sprint Cup series,” says Welch. “Erin drove in both the truck Series, and the now Xfinity Series, and generated a lot of attention with her driving skills and technical knowledge. We got a lot of media attention with Betty Crocker sponsoring Erin Crocker.”
2009 to 2010 – Richard Childress Racing
Our formal sponsorship with RCR started in 2009 with Clint Bowyer, and Cheerios and Hamburger Helper taking center stage.
Many fans likely recall seeing the “Helping Hand” on the fire suits of Bowyer and his team, and a Helper commercial.
But most notably during Bowyer’s time as our driver, he earned General Mills our first win as a primary NASCAR sponsor. It came in September 2010 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“With all the General Mills’ brands that had adorned NASCAR Sprint Cup race cars through the years, they had not visited Victory Lane before RCR,” says Schlosser. “Richard made a promise to the individuals running the sponsorship at the time, that RCR would get them there. It was a special day when it happened, seeing the Cheerios and Hamburger Helper brands drenched with champagne spray and confetti, and all the great messages from General Mills employees and customers. Richard told them ‘I told you we’d get here together.'”
2012 – Richard Childress Racing
In 2012, we announced that Wheaties would become a co-primary sponsor of RCR’s No. 31 with driver Jeff Burton. Cheerios and Hamburger Helper also remained as sponsors.
For Wheaties, it was a rekindling of the brand’s previous relationship with RCR (with Earnhardt Sr., in 1997).
Burton visited our headquarters in February 2012 to meet with employees and show off his Wheaties car.
2013 – Richard Childress Racing
In 2013, Burton’s No. 31 car changed to a Cheerios paint scheme. We also started working with Dillon for the first time, as he moved up to the Sprint Cup Series to race for Honey Nut Cheerios in his Daytona 500 debut.
2014 to today – Richard Childress Racing
General Mills helped share the biggest preseason news in NASCAR in late 2013, announcing that Dillon would drive the iconic No. 3 (associated with Earnhardt Sr. and Childress) in his rookie season in NASCAR.
“It’s a number with a rich history and a passionate following across NASCAR. Richard Childress knew its return was big news and had to be done in the right way,” says Gregg Dorazio, marketing communication manager, who worked with RCR on the Dillon sponsorship for Cheerios Racing. “Austin was the perfect choice because he’s a great brand ambassador for Cheerios – he grew up with the brand, he’s humble and has a big heart. Cheerios is about families and the No. 3 is a family story.”
Besides its number, Dillon’s Cheerios car just plain looks cool.
“Most NASCAR paint schemes are busy and not eye appealing, but I love the No. 3 design,” says Janet Pettit, who worked with RCR and for our motor sports team for six seasons. “It is sleek, clean and easily seen and noticeable on the track.”
The 2014 season was a busy one for Dillon, with numerous in-store events and outreach to fans and our retail customers to celebrate the return of the No. 3.
He also appeared in commercials, including this one for Cheerios Protein.
General Mills was his primary sponsor in several races, including a Cheerios Protein paint scheme at Kentucky Speedway last June.
This February, another Dillon became the latest driver to have a General Mills connection in a big way. Ty Dillon, Austin’s younger brother, was sponsored in the No. 33 by Cheerios and Kroger in his Daytona 500 debut.
“Just as Cheerios is an archetypal American brand, the No. 3 is a special number with so much heritage in our sport,” Schlosser says. “And just as families are at the heart of General Mills’ business, Austin (along with brother Ty) is the 3rd generation of a tight-knit legendary racing family. Austin and Ty are bringing the latest generation of the Childress family to NASCAR fans, and Austin hopes to make his own chapter of history in the legendary No. 3 Chevrolet.”
With Austin and Ty Dillon and RCR continuing to generate enthusiasm on and off the track, the 2015 season holds great promise and a chance to get us back in the winning circle as a sponsor.
Who knows, maybe this Sunday in Charlotte in the Cheerios No. 3?
“Austin Dillon has great potential,” says Pockrass. “He won titles in NASCAR’s top two development series, so he obviously is a talented race-car driver. Dillon’s other strength is he is very comfortable in his own skin. He’s not trying to be anyone else. He races hard on the track and he shows his personality off the track. He is tough but not arrogant. He is competitive but also has fun. You want that spot? Too bad, it’s my spot and I have position. You think my cowboy hat looks goofy? Too bad, I like it and think it’s cool.”
“Dillon certainly has the potential to be a top-tier driver and have a long career in the sport,” says Gluck. “He’s already proven he can win at the lower levels; now it’s just a matter of getting the experience to do it in Sprint Cup. Dillon is one of the top drivers on the list of those who could get their first win over the next year.”
We’ll let Dillon and RCR take care of business on the track, but NASCAR also remains a big opportunity for General Mills outside the speedways and grandstands, even in a reduced sponsorship role in recent years.
“Our NASCAR sponsorship has changed and evolved, as has the sport itself,” says Kell. “Many brands, many cars, and many drivers later, we now leverage NASCAR across the entire country and our executions include some of our biggest brands, like Cheerios. The sport and the fans have changed so much since 1997, but it’s still a great fit with our consumers and our customers.”
What memories do you have of General Mills’ sponsorship of the drivers and teams mentioned above?
Share them in the comments!
Have a question about General Mills’ history? Send our Archives team an email.
Subscribe to “A Taste of General Mills” by email – here – and we’ll notify you about our latest posts.