News & Media

Don't overlook one economic indicator -- the swag-o-meter

January 29, 2011, David Caraviello,

Don't overlook one economic indicator -- the NASCAR media tour swag-o-meter

It all started with a headlamp.

Sitting down at the first event of this past week's NASCAR preseason media tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway, a luncheon with member of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, you couldn't help but notice something staring back at you -- the cyclops-like eye of a headlamp, the kind you might see beaming from the forehead of a cave explorer. They had been distributed by team sponsor Energizer, to pitch an upcoming promotion in which fans will strap them on and light up the Sprint All-Star Race. Yet they also signified something else.

"I feel so much better than I did two years ago. ... I feel like the storm has passed."


The return of swag.

Swag, promotional items or sponsor product samples handed out for free, used to be as ubiquitous on the media tour as unbridled optimism. Years ago teams gave away truckloads of the stuff, and reporters would be so overloaded by the end of the week that they'd stagger out of the hotel looking like they had just knocked over a Talladega convenience store. Hats, T-shirts, die-cast cars, small electronics, backpacks, food products, alcoholic beverages, you name it -- if it had a team logo on it or was made by a team sponsor, it was liable to being handed out. It wasn't unusual to get to Daytona a few weeks later and see a writer outfitted in a golf shirt, cap, jacket, laptop bag, notebook, and pen he had received gratis on the media tour the month before.

While stocking up on this stuff can lead to some conflict-of-interest issues for legitimate journalists, in NASCAR circles where sponsors are always pushing product swag was just seen as one of those idiosyncrasies of the sport, like all the competitors living next to one another in a motor home lot. And yet, when the economy tanked and the sponsors dried up, swag went away with it. In the last few media tours, about the only things reporters were given on their way out of team shops were a handshake and a thank you. In an atmosphere where some organizations were barely hanging on and where many sponsors were cutting back, handing out free junk to journalists went out of fashion.

Now? As evidenced by the gala of giveaways on display this past week in metro Charlotte, it's making a comeback -- which can be viewed as a good thing not just for freeloading reporters, but the industry as well. When economists plumb the depths of this post-recession recovery, they look at indicators like unemployment rates, discretionary spending, and stock market returns. They might want to check out something else: the NASCAR media tour swag-o-meter.

It's simple, really: the less swag handed out on media tour, the more the industry -- and the economy as a whole, given the sport's ties to sponsorship -- is struggling. But when those swagalicious flood gates begin to open, the good times begin to roll. Now, we haven't exactly returned to the salad days of a few years ago, when the swag was so plentiful that reporters risked slipping a disc getting it all in the car. On this most recent media tour, though, we saw more than we'd seen in a while. Much more. And that swag was often accompanied by a team presentation introducing a new associate sponsor, whose product you could pick up on the way out.

"We seem to be coming out of it now," said Chip Ganassi, whose organization announced a pair of new associate sponsors at its media tour stop. "I think it's probably a team-by-team thing, but I would hope so. I think certainly what we see is positive, but I can't speak for everybody else."

He didn't have to -- the swag spoke for him. The Earnhardt Ganassi stop also featured sunglass straps from Bass Pro Shops, a springy pen from new sponsor LiftMaster, and a gift bag from Target. That night at Penske Racing, which also introduced a host of new associate sponsors, there were gift cards from Shell, die-cast cars bearing the logo of Wypall, and dinner courtesy of Ruby Tuesday. Speed Channel gave out multi-purpose wall chargers bearing the network's logo. Michael Waltrip Racing distributed copies of the team owner's new book. Each night, every media tour member returned to their hotel room to find a cookies, a cupcake or a coffee mug courtesy of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"We seem to be coming out of it now. I think it's probably a team-by-team thing, but I would hope so. I think certainly what we see is positive, but I can't speak for everybody else."


And then there was the booze. Goodness, the booze. Richard Childress Racing handed out bags containing two bottles of wine from the boss man's North Carolina vineyard, a merlot and a white called a trio. Waiting back in each reporter's hotel room following the RCR visit was a bucket with four Budweiser longnecks on ice. Upon check-in, each media tour attendee was handed a welcoming gift -- two cans of Red Bull and a mini-bottle of Skyy vodka, all wrapped together with a ribbon. By the end of the week I had seven containers of adult beverages in my hotel room, and didn't know whether to throw a party or stage an intervention. No wonder everyone seemed so upbeat.

"I feel so much better than I did two years ago. ... I feel like the storm has passed," said Ty Norris, vice president and general manager at Waltrip's shop. "There's still some collateral damage, but the storm has passed. Until we rebuild the collateral damage from the past two, three years, then we'll start to rebuild the sport back up to where it was."

It just kept coming. Nationwide gave away a duffel that unzipped into a full garment bag. Furniture Row Racing held its presentation at a Charlotte-area store, and raffled off a bed and a few $1,000 gift cards. Richard Petty Motorsports, in such dire financial straits last year that it barely survived the season, raffled off a 46-inch high-definition television courtesy of sponsor Best Buy. On the way out, there was an RPM backpack loaded with stuff like Air Force sunglasses and Reynolds Wrap. Roush Fenway Racing, promoting its new sustainability initiative, gave away green T-shirts made of North Carolina cotton, with the slogan "Built here, raced here, recycled here" on the back.

Even Jack Roush was bullish. "The lights are back on in Detroit," the Michigan resident proclaimed. "My engineering business has returned to viability."

And yet, two media gifts stood out above all the rest. The simple, unassuming Wood Brothers, running a part-time schedule with Roush help, gave away something that perfectly suited their organization -- small wooden box with a No. 21 etched into the top, each containing a seed from the beech tree that's stood over the family's Virginia homestead for 150 years. And then there was Hendrick Motorsports, which didn't give away a gift at all. Instead, the 10-time Cup championship team made donations to an area food bank and children's hospital on behalf of the media, something that received a rousing round of applause.

But by then, the swag-o-meter had spoken, and the results were clear. If NASCAR hadn't exactly returned to full economic health, it was clearly trending in that direction, something evidenced by all the free stuff that media tour attendees lugged back home.

"I happen to make a living in the car business, and when the economy came off the rails at the end of '08, it wasn't just motorsports, it was everything. Banks. And it wasn't just the U.S., it was the world," Rick Hendrick said. "We feel like it's coming back. We had a really big year in the automobile business. The economy feels better. ... I feel better about our sport in general. I think it's going to be a great year."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.