(An earlier version of this story ran online.)
Of all the cars zooming around Nascar ovals for the past two decades, few were as recognizable as Jeff Gordon’s Chevrolet, sponsored by chemical giant DuPont Performance Coatings. It was a splashy partnership: Gordon, a young, California-born driver in a heartland sport, piloting a rainbow-colored set of wheels bearing the name of an old-money American dynasty. His team owner, Rick Hendrick, recently said the DuPont car was “one of the most effective and iconic relationships in sports marketing.”
But in February, DuPont (DD) sold its painting and coating division to the private equity firm Carlyle Group (CG) for $4.9 billion, and the new owner rechristened the company Axalta Coating Systems. Gordon’s car hood followed suit, launching its new look on June 9 at the Party in the Poconos 400 in Long Pond, Pa.
Although teams don’t disclose what corporate sponsorships cost (biggies include Jimmie Johnson and Lowe’s (LOW) and Kevin Harvick and Budweiser (BUD)), Adweek puts the figure at $5 million to $35 million. For non-racing die-hards, it’s difficult to appreciate the emotional attachment Nascar followers have with the sponsors and designs of their favorite drivers’ cars. Given Gordon’s long, successful career, swapping logos midseason is kind of like an aging Yankees squad having its pinstripes stripped off before the All-Star break. “It will be really hard to get used to,” lamented one fan on Gordon’s Facebook page.
“It’s true that nobody likes change,” says Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at the sponsorship consultant IEG. “But Nascar fans are loyal. Some hold dear to the old stuff and the nostalgia, but there will also be a segment that wants anything associated with him. Now he has a new uniform and a new look, and it will prompt merchandise sales.”
The biggest winner will likely be Axalta. “Educating folks about a new brand is a difficult thing to do,” Andrews says. “They can use Jeff and the team for explaining who they are. Having the Gordon sponsorship gives them an automatic platform for getting the name out there—it’s a built-in promotional vehicle.”
Gordon finished 12th in the Axalta car’s debut race. While many wondered about the provenance of the giant “A” on the car’s hood, they took comfort that the paint scheme is similar to the DuPont design, with bright yellows and reds and tendrils of fire running along the doors. Gordon, who turns 42 in August, is currently ranked 11th in the Sprint Cup standings, with no checkered flags. “I pretty much look at one year at a time at this stage,” he told reporters in June. Regardless, Axalta and Hendrick Motorsports agreed on a three-year extension of their partnership. As Axalta said in a statement, “Jeff Gordon is the best spokesman any company could ask for.”