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Navy sponsorship dumping JR Motorsports
The U.S. Navy announced it was withdrawing at the end of this season as sponsor of the Nationwide car driven by a young man identified the same week in USA Today as NASCAR's rising star on a team owned by NASCAR's most popular driver.

I wondered like everyone else, what Dale Earnhardt Jr. had cooked up for next year that was so rich it scared the Navy off. No sponsor would willingly step away from a deal that gave it everything any sponsor could possibly want!

But, now that I've spoken with the Navy and with JR Motorsports, I realize the answer wasn't as hot as it was another sign of our frightening economic times.

Mike Davis, communications director at JR Motorsports, told me Earnhardt and his young driver Brad Keselowski of Rochester Hills, MI, have no plans to move to the Cup division next year, and they hate to see the Navy go.

The Navy may stand ready to project military might anywhere on the globe, but just like the rest of us, it isn't certain about what next year's economy will bring.

There will be a new commander-in-chief in the White House, and very possibly a new direction no matter if it's Barack Obama or John McCain.

So the Navy's motorsports program that very successfully connects with and retains sailors already in the fleet and draws in new recruits from the traditionally patriotic NASCAR fan base is on hold. And this is probably why we also keep hearing rumors about the Army leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. It's about uncertainty.

"This is a change in strategic direction and a desire to remain flexible in our advertising and marketing strategy," said Lt. Andrea Ross, director of Navy Motorsports. "It was a very difficult decision and is no indication of what we think of Brad or the team. We just aren't your average sponsor."

Political strategist James Carville hung a sign in Bill Clinton's campaign headquarters in 1992 before they clobbered George Bush the First. It said, "It's the economy, stupid!" Which candidate will figure out the slogan is just as valid today, at the close of another Bush presidency?

In Detroit this week, lots of folks in the Ren Cen are wondering too, especially those in GM's motor sports divisions which were specifically cited as an area where cuts will happen. The saying used to be "As General Motors goes, so goes the nation." We here in Detroit are seriously worried about where GM is headed. And what's happening here should serve as a stark warning to rest of the nation and our sport.

Ross, who worked in motor sports marketing right here in Detroit (Dodge and Ganassi Racing) before joining the Navy post-9/11, promised her service will keep its $6.5 million deal in place with JR Motorsports through the end of this season. And she spoke about the Navy's relationship with Keselowski with obvious pride -- as though he was another young sailor she's watched grow and mature through this breakthrough season.

"I'm just really proud to represent them," Keselowski said Tuesday in a NASCAR teleconference when asked about the Navy's departure. "That's been one the coolest things a driver can do is represent a branch of the military. Certainly, I hate to see them go, but I got to do a lot of really cool things with them."

Ross has introduced Keselowski to countless sailors and admirals at naval stations across the country and on board ships at sea. Kez has actually worked out with the special Dale Earnhardt Jr. Division of recruits training at Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. He has manned the wheel of a ship and flown with the Navy aerobatic team, the Blue Angels.

"Brad absolutely embodies our credo: Honor, courage commitment," said Ross, who also admits the gawky 24-year-old looks like a young sailor.

"Our awareness numbers with Brad are the best they've ever been. The NASCAR community has been extremely supportive of the military," Ross said. "But, our deal is a lot different from Coke or Pepsi. We've been with Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) from the start (of his team), but we need to be flexible. Motor sports might not be part of the equation in the future."

It's the same picture in Detroit where General Motors has vowed $10 billion in cuts. Something has to give in the estimated $140 million GM spends on our sport -- NASCAR $80 million, American LeMans $12 million NHRA $5 million and lesser amounts on USAC, SCCA and other forms of the sport, according to various sports business publications.

Another impact is likely to be GM's presence at race tracks with marketing displays and track sponsorships. GM is the provider of trucks and pace cars at 12 of NASCAR's 22 tracks, including Michigan International Speedway. Two of those tracks New Hampshire and Bristol have already gotten the word. But some deals are long term, like sponsorship of the Sept. 6 Chevy Rock & Roll 400 deal at Richmond International Raceway that runs through 2010.

Earnhardt made some comments a few months back that fueled speculation about bigger plans at JR Motorsports. His spokesman, Davis, said this talk is flattering, but also distracting for what is only a three-year-old team that is just now finding its stride and is suddenly searching for a new sponsor when so many other teams also are looking for financial help next season.

"Junior's comments a few months ago were in response to questions regarding the comparison of cost between Nationwide and Cup, and he said if the right deal came along, he would consider going Cup because -- these days -- it's not too terribly different than what it costs him to run a Nationwide team," Davis said. "It was a hypothetical explanation to a question about costs. Certainly no such deal had been presented to us, but it sparked instant speculation that there was more to it. The next thing we knew, we were having to answer weekly questions about JRM's future in the Cup Series."

Davis said the rumors then swirling about Tony Stewart's desire to leave Joe Gibbs Racing fanned the flames of a possible Cup partnership. Then, Keselowski's win at Nashville fueled the speculation even more.

"We chuckled, rolled our eyes, and laughed at some of the questions, but eventually it became a nuisance to the point that Junior said he's not talking about this anymore," Davis said. "Simply, it had just gotten ridiculous."

Davis said JR Motorsports has now assembled the right pieces with the Hendrick Motorsports alliance, Tony Eury Sr. on the pit box and Keselowski behind the wheel.

"Brad is an important key to our company, and we hope to have him in the No. 88 Nationwide car next year," Davis said. "We are working on sponsorship for that team, and hope to have something announced by the end of the year." detnews.com CaptainThunderRacing.com

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