Navy and NASCAR = More Enlistments?
$6.5 million sponsorship with NASCAR team drafts racing superstar to boost enlistment
In about two weeks, dozens of young adults from across the country will head to Naval Station Great Lakes for a muscle-punishing boot camp and a meeting with their celebrity “mentor” — NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The racing superstar may be headed to the Lake County naval base in part to express patriotism, but he’s also performing one of the duties laid out in his $800,000 speaking-appearance contract with the Navy. It hired him to be a spokesman this year with hopes of recruiting a few of NASCAR’s millions of fans.
As the Iraq War becomes increasingly less popular in the eyes of the American public and recruiting more difficult, Navy officials say this is the first time they’ve turned to a celebrity recruiter for help. Navy officials have long joked Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” was a great unofficial celebrity recruiter, but that movie came out in 1986, when many of today’s enlistees weren’t born.
As part of its separate $6.5 million racing-sponsorship deal with Earnhardt, who is named after his late racing father, the Navy named a special division after him and bought the right to paint the Navy’s name on a car now raced by an up-and-coming driver on Earnhardt’s team, Brad Keselowski.
The special divisions, like one the Navy has named after the White Sox, appeal to young people who may be tempted to join the Navy if they can find a slightly different experience, or want to express their fan support, said Lt. J.G. Andrea Ross, the Navy’s NASCAR program manager. Navy officials said the one-year contract includes at least 22 appearances at Navy-related events by Keselowski, and at least seven by Earnhardt.
“It’s largely a recruiting effort and a branding tool,” Ross said.
Earnhardt will be “mentoring” his recruits, Ross said, and will be at the base in Lake County to meet them when boot camp starts later this month.
When Tanya House enlisted in the Navy in April, the recruiter asked her if she’d be interested in joining the Dale Jr. Division.
House, 18, of Cromwell, Minn., hoped the Navy would help her get medical training for a possible career as a dental hygienist, and the question gave her pause. “I didn’t know what to think of it,” House said later. “It sounded like I’d be working on cars.”
But House said the recruiter told her the division was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and so she figured, “Why not?”
With that, House became the first member of the Dale Jr. Division. This summer, the Navy flew her and a few of the other earliest Dale Jr. enlistees to Charlotte, N.C., to watch a race and meet the star trackside.
House, who had only left Minnesota once before, skipped graduation for her 26-person senior class at Cromwell-Wright High and headed to the race.
“We were down by the action and everything, and it was really cool,” said House, who received an autographed cap from Earnhardt. “It was beyond expectations.”
Professor David Segal, director of the Center on Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, said the Navy’s relationship with Earnhardt says less about the Navy than it does about the way young people emulate celebrities and are influenced by celebrity endorsement. It also reflects how mainstream NASCAR has become, he said.
“It used to be a fringe sport, and now it’s gentrified. It went from redneck to middle class,” Segal said.
People who watch NASCAR already have a characteristic needed in the military, Segal said: “[The] people who are interested in it like action.”
The Navy wanted Earnhardt’s 88-person division, ideally, to be 50-50 male-female. That was a stretch, because only 15 percent of the Navy is female. As of Thursday, 77 people had signed up for the division; 22 women and 55 men.
NASCAR, a once solidly good ol’ boy sport, has changed in a way that may have helped the Navy: NASCAR officials say 40 percent of the fan base is female.
Navy officials said their decision not to continue the program next year was a strategic one.
“The recruiting market is very challenging today, and the Navy needs to remain flexible,” Naval Service Training Command Deputy Public Affairs Officer Todd Willebrand said in an e-mail. “This has nothing to do with the team relationship, the fan base or leadership of NASCAR.”
In statements released by his publicist and in other comments at news conferences, Earnhardt said he was disappointed his sponsorship by the Navy won’t continue, but he looks forward to working with the recruits.
House said she’s running and lifting weights in preparation for moving to Great Lakes in mid-August.
“I haven’t seen many other cultures,” said House. “I want to be able to see more.”