After a six-year partnership between driver Kurt Busch and Penske Racing, the organization announced Monday that the two have “mutually agreed to part ways“, effective immediately. Typically, NASCAR teams and drivers do not ”part ways” with Speedweeks rapidly approaching.
In April of 2010, Busch signed a contract extension with Penske racing through the 2015 season. However, the separation of Busch and his long-standing relationship with Penske proves that contracts don’t always secure a ride in NASCAR. Over the course of the 2011 season, Busch’s became more known for his anger outbursts than for his performance on the track. Before the incident at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Busch’s outbursts were well-documented.
When it comes to sponsors, not only do drivers have to perform on the track, but they have to live up to high expectations off the track as well. If the driver acts so poorly off the track that fans can’t remember what the driver did on the track, he is not living up to the expectations of the sponsor.
Sponsors want a driver who can be fan-friendly; a spokesperson for their brand; and an outstanding representative for their product. If the sponsor is not happy with the driver representing their brand, the team generally has no choice but to make a change in order to appease the sponsor.
The separation between Busch and Penske has awakened drivers, I think, and it will change how they act on and off the track in the future. We have seen that contracts can and will be dismissed if the sponsor is not happy.
To succeed in NASCAR, you must please the sponsor. Without sponsors, there is no NASCAR. Even in today’s economy, a driver may do well on the track and be a good spokesperson off the track (example: David Ragan), but may be jobless next season due to lack of sponsorship funding. When sponsors are dishing out millions of dollars to have their logo on a driver’s race car and firesuit, they want to be sure that their money is spent on a driver who will represent them accordingly.
There are an array of jobless/sponsor-less drivers available for hire in the NASCAR circuit right now (David Ragan, David Reutimann, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Elliott Sadler, Brian Vickers, etc.) who are all proven winners and could be an excellent representative for a sponsor. So why would a sponsor waste money on a driver who is going to hurt their brand?
When a driver gets out of the race car, one of the top priorities for the post-race interview should be to thank the sponsor, not verbally abuse fellow competitors/media/team, etc. Shell Oil decided that they had seen enough of Kurt Busch. They didn’t want to deal with the harm Busch’s mouth was doing to their brand, so Penske was forced to remove Kurt from the equation.
The moral of the story is: sponsorship money is everything in NASCAR.