When I think back on the days of my youth, that time when I had the privilege of traveling on the NASCAR circuit, it would be hard to pick a lesson learned that was more important than another.
But there is one that deeply branded itself in the bones of my being — that of the importance of being loyal in all things.
In those days, the world’s premier stock car circuit was evolving into a national sport from being a Southern giddy-up-and-go. A new cable channel called ESPN and a newspaper named USA Today was giving it coast-to-coast coverage that it had not had previously.
As the audience of spectators grew and women became almost half of the fans, non-automotive and non-male-oriented products became first time sponsors.
Suddenly, coffee, lemonade and detergent were major sponsors nudging in over beer, gas and car products.
We were so grateful. The growth of the sport meant more opportunities and money for all of us. We responded forcefully with loyalty to every company that spent a dime in our sport. Since I started drinking coffee when I was 5 years old, I had been utterly devoted to Maxwell House. But when Folgers became the first coffee company to sponsor a car, I, along with everyone who worked in the sport, switched to Folgers. I did not go back to Maxwell House until the day came when I no longer earned a living in the sport. (Note: the success of Folgers sponsorship forced Maxwell House into a sport as a major sponsor within a few years.)
All of us were zealots. Whenever I visit Darrell and Stevie Waltrip’s house, I always smile to see that they load up on Tide detergent, Darrell’s major sponsor for several years. Our mantra was: If a company supports our sport, we support it.
I learned that you do business with those who do business with you and you give loyalty to those who have proven loyalty to you.
One particular team owner had a more profound effect on me than any other when it came to this teaching. He was admirably protective of his sponsors. He owned a race team in another sport and that team was sponsored by a major beer company. His success in that sport had allowed him to grow his business and he never forgot that. He was abidingly loyal. Once, his NASCAR team members had received a case of beer from another team. It was not the beer company that sponsored their boss.
But it was free beer. And what racer would turn down that?
Their boss got wind that his employees were seen in public, drinking beer other than the one that had helped him build an empire. Now, he was Jewish. Yet he knew how to have a come-to-Jesus meeting better than anyone I ever saw. Oh. My. Goodness. When he was through with them, there was no misunderstanding — they would be loyal to the right beer because any more free beer that was the wrong beer would be the most expensive beer they ever tasted for it would cost them their jobs.
I admired that. His was righteous anger. We shouldn’t take money or goodwill from people without returning ours to them.
On the other hand, a top engine builder who had been ordered to use the motor oil of his team’s associate sponsor. He hated it. He claimed that it was subpar oil and clotted the engine. After the team’s car fell out of a couple of races with engine problems, he craftily found a way around his problem. He packed a couple of cases of the sponsor’s oil in his truck and drove off to a secret place. There, he poured out the oil from all the bottles then refilled those bottles with the motor oil he preferred, which he used from that moment on. And no one knew.