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1on1: Lt. Gen. Freakley believes NASCAR and the Army are a perfect fit

February 22, 2011, Joe Menzer,

Lt. Gen. Freakley believes NASCAR is a perfect fit for Army's recruiting program

With Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum's efforts to end military sponsorship of race cars in NASCAR in the news last week, it was no surprise or coincidence that the U.S. Army made Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley available to the media prior to last Sunday's Daytona 500.

Freakley is a veteran of tours in Afghanistan and Iraq who now serves as commanding general of the U.S. Army's Accessions Command, which was established in February 2002 and is "charged with providing integrated command and control of the recruiting for the Army's officer, warrant officer and enlisted forces." On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down McCollum's proposed budget amendment that would have ended the U.S. Army's sponsorship of Ryan Newman's No. 39 Sprint Cup car. Freakley defended the Army's long-running decision to invest sponsorship dollars in a NASCAR race team, and explained why he believes it's so important and such a great fit.

"We have a great and, in my mind, treasured relationship with NASCAR because it gives us a great venue to tell our story as soldiers where people are receptive to it."


Question: Would you say that Congresswoman McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota, simply lacked an understanding of what the Army is trying to accomplish through its NASCAR sponsorship?

Freakley: Clearly in all things that we do, we can always do a better job of laying out and communicating the specifics of the programs we're involved in -- especially as America takes greater scrutiny to examine every aspect of where the national treasure is being spent and the debt that is being accumulated. I mean, I applaud the Congress for looking at that and trying to balance the budget. ... I do think better information always leads to better decisions.

Q: You have mentioned that in 2010 you developed approximately 46,000 leads for potential new recruits off your motorsports program, which is one-third of the overall leads that your sports marketing program produced last year. What is the conversion rate of those leads turning into actual U.S. Army recruits?

Freakley: A large part of what we're looking for is getting them to what we call the marketing funnel. What we want to do is get them to where the Army recruiter sits down and shapes the discussion to your personal needs and your personal qualifications. We have a good conversion rate. But part of the problem is that of those 46,000 leads, we have that one-in-four that qualify [physically or academically]. So someone might come to a race and be interested, but they may not qualify. Last year, we brought in over 100,000 soldiers; 99.9 percent of them had their high-school diplomas. Now we don't turn away a GED [General Education Diploma], but it's much more competitive now than it's ever been -- a GED vs. a high-school diploma. But we're pretty good with our conversion rate.

Q: You have mentioned that your costs for the NASCAR marketing budget include the $7.4 million sponsorship of the Newman car, as well as $3.9 million in the National Hot Rod Association. How does that compare, percentage-wise, with your overall sports marketing budget?

Freakley: When I first took command in 2007, we had a very broad sports marketing program. We were in rodeo; we were in bull-riding; we were in arena football. We were in NASCAR, NHRA, motorcycle racing. ... We have brought those down, and now we're into motorsports and we're primarily into the All-American bowl -- which is the best high-school football game in America, where we bring 92 of the best football players from across the country together to San Antonio. We also bring 125 great bandsmen together for that, so we're looking for great music performers and diversity there as well.

So there is a pretty good split between NASCAR and the overall motorsports program and the All-American bowl in our sports marketing program.

Q: Bill Harper, who is McCollum's chief of staff, told reporter Dustin Long of Landmark Newspapers that he doubts anyone joins the Army because they see the Army-sponsored car going around the track. What is your response when you hear that?

Freakley: I respect our Congress and our Congress leadership. They are elected by our people and have a very significant role to play in America. They have tremendous staff; just like I do. I don't know that man, so I'm not going to respond to that, other than to give this perspective: we do know that young people and their parents have this passion for NASCAR, and we do know that they come to the races. And we do know they come to the Strength in Action Zones [set up at race tracks where potential recruits can get information and participate in such activities as simulated helicopter rides] and they talk to our soldiers. They talk to our sergeants.

We have a common dialogue on no threatening ground. You're not standing at a recruiting station on the brink of a decision. You're at a NASCAR event to have a discussion and a deep dialogue about [the potential recruit's] future. ... And so we get a much richer dialogue on this common ground than if we weren't here. As we see in our research the propensity for young people and their parents to know even less and less about military service. ... As we reach out for diversity and we reach out for this dialogue on safe ground, I think it is a very good place to have this dialogue.

Q: Why is having that dialogue -- and the right place to have it -- so important?

Freakley: We have an all-volunteer Army. The investment to make people aware and to encourage people to join this all-volunteer force has to happen somewhere. We are always looking for opportunities to have that dialogue, and this is one of the best ways we've found to do it.

Q: Why is NASCAR and the U.S. Army such a good fit together?

Freakley: Have you ever watched a NASCAR opening? How patriotic is it? Flags, the national anthem, pride in country, pride in my guy -- whoever that might be. For us, that happens to be Ryan Newman in the No. 39 U.S. Army car, by the way.

I just think there is a nexus of this is America's sport, and the Army is America's team. We are America's Army. In my mind, the men and women serving to protect our country represent the best of America, because they volunteered for the sacrifices that they will face. ... There just is a lot of common ground between the teamwork, the power, the passion, the competitiveness and the patriotism. We overlap one another as we come to these events.

We know this is having an impact on recruiting and helping our recruiters with their jobs. The alternative to this is having a recruiter walking up and down a mall and talking to about 150 people just to get one person to engage them. That is what we used to have to do. ... We have a great and, in my mind, treasured relationship with NASCAR because it gives us a great venue to tell our story as soldiers where people are receptive to it.