News & Media

Retro Racing: Wheaties has iconic identification with NASCAR

October 07, 2011, Mark Aumann,

The announcement that General Mills' Wheaties brand will be a primary sponsor of Jeff Burton's No. 31 Chevrolet for 2012 continues an association between one of the world's largest food conglomerates and NASCAR that stretches back to a special paint scheme for the 1997 The Winston.

However, Wheaties has been connected to sports since the Great Depression, when ad writer Knox Reeves coined the slogan, "The breakfast of champions." Beginning with baseball player Lou Gehrig in 1934, athletes have been featured on the distinctive orange cereal boxes for more than seven decades. But the brand had never delved into motorsports until the tie-in with Dale Earnhardt at the Charlotte all-star race.

In addition to carrying the Wheaties paint scheme, Earnhardt's smiling face was featured on cereal boxes sold throughout the southeast. He wound up finishing fourth in that year's The Winston.

Since then, 10 other drivers with connections to NASCAR have been featured on Wheaties boxes. In addition to Earnhardt, the list includes Kyle Busch, Bill Elliott, A.J. Foyt, Ned Jarrett, Benny Parsons, David Pearson, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough.

Wheaties was invented purely by accident. In 1921, a Minneapolis health clinician -- whose name apparently has been lost to history -- spilled a batch of bran gruel onto a hot stove, where it dried into crisp flakes. He showed it to George Cormack, head miller of the Washburn Crosby Co. (a forerunner of General Mills), who tested 36 varieties of wheat before hitting on a recipe that kept the flakes from being damaged during shipping.

A contest was held to name the new cereal, and Jane Bausman, spouse of the shipping manager, suggested Wheaties. General Mills used Wheaties to sponsor radio broadcasts of the local minor-league baseball team, the Minneapolis Millers, and eventually expanded its sponsorship nationwide.

The idea of putting athletes' photos on cereal boxes followed, and since Gehrig, portraits of hundreds of sports stars have been immortalized on Wheaties boxes, although it wasn't until 1958 that the athletes were featured on the front of the box.

General Mills' biggest rival, Kellogg's, had sponsored cars in NASCAR's premier division since Chuck Bown drove to a 24th-place finish at Charlotte in 1990. So it was perhaps inevitable that the company with iconic brands such as Betty Crocker, Pillsbury and Green Giant would eventually dip its toes into the world of motor racing.

Buoyed by the success of the Wheaties paint scheme in 1997, General Mills turned to Jack Roush the following year, hoping to find equal exposure for Cheerios in NASCAR. Johnny Benson failed to qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500, but led 39 laps at Rockingham before valve issues put an early end to his day. Benson followed that with a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas, leading to a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes.

After two seasons with Roush, the Cheerios sponsorship then moved to Petty Enterprises in 2000. John Andretti piloted cars affixed with General Mills products for the next three seasons, including finishing second at Bristol in 2001.

In an odd twist of fate, Andretti was replaced in the Cheerios car at Michigan in 2003 by Brazilian Christian Fittipaldi. Fittipaldi's uncle, Emerson, famously refused to drink from the bottle of milk after winning the Indianapolis 500.

After Fittipaldi made 10 starts with primary sponsorship from Cheerios, Jeff Green took over the ride for the rest of the 2003 season, and through '05. His debut came at Dover, where he finished 16th, and his best finish came a year later when he wound up seventh at Martinsville.

The cereal wars became a family affair in 2006, when Bobby Labonte was hired by Petty Enterprises. Older brother Terry had been sponsored by Kellogg's since 1993. Bobby Labonte had some success in his first season with the Cheerios brand, finishing fifth at both Bristol and Charlotte, and third in the fall race at Martinsville.

But after three disappointing seasons with the Labonte-Petty team, General Mills returned to Richard Childress in 2009, with Clint Bowyer behind the wheel. Things got off to a great start, as Bowyer finished fourth in the Daytona 500 and second at Las Vegas.

The following season, General Mills showcased its new Wheaties Fuel cereal at the 2010 Brickyard 400. And after a decade of sponsorship, Bowyer finally got Cheerios into Victory Lane at New Hampshire to start the Chase, although the celebration was short-lived when the car failed post-race inspection.

Related: Wheaties to sponsor Burton in RCR's No. 31 Chevy in 2012