Tories' stock car sponsorship deal likely to finish short of checkered flag
By Deidre McMurdy
Mr. Novotny is the man behind CASCAR, the Canadian stock car racing organization he founded in 1981 and sold to the U.S. NASCAR juggernaut last September. The acquisition is part of NASCAR's bid to buy growth and diversity in a rapidly-maturing domestic market.
"There's no question that hardcore motor sports people are extremely loyal and support those who support them," he says. "But I'm not entirely sure what the fit is for a political party -- especially since sports sponsorship and government have got such a bad rap recently."
He estimates that the driver, Pierre Bourque, is leasing the Dodge Charger emblazoned with the Conservative Party of Canada logo for about $20,000 per race from the Dave Whitlock race team. And that doesn't include the steep price of about $20,000 per team per race to follow the NASCAR schedule across Canada.
"It's a very expensive sport and a risky one," he says. "The message you send by losing or crashing isn't very positive, is it?"
But Mr. Novotny is by no means alone in his bafflement at the Tory move: It's shared by political analysts and environmentalists alike.
"At a time when climate change has become such a major issue, this sponsorship certainly sends a mixed message," says Stephen Hazell, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada. "They're encouraging the frivolous use of a very scarce resource."
The 500-horsepower engines in a stock car typically get about two to five miles per U.S. gallon and it's estimated that NASCAR consumes about two million U.S. gallons a year of high-octane fuel -- and it only moved to unleaded gasoline earlier this year.
The Tories already have a relatively solid grip on the blue-collar, male demographic that comprises the core audience for stock car racing. And although NASCAR claims 75 million North American fans -- including about 5.8 million in Canada -- the small-time Canadian circuit, with shorter tracks and a shorter season, more typically attracts audiences of about 5,000 to 10,000 fans, according to Mr. Novotny.
"Our circuit is sort of like the minors in hockey. The junior system that feeds into the majors eventually," he explains.
Furthermore, while the "NASCAR dads" comprise a strong Republican party force in the U.S., that sort of narrowly segmented approach to the electorate is of dubious value in Canada.
"That sort of tight demographic focus works in the U.S. where there's very low voter turnout and you have to target who to motivate at the polls," says Peter Donolo, who was communications director for former prime minister Jean Chretien and is now with Strategic Counsel in Toronto. "Canadians are a lot more label-resistant. They tend to defy that type of facile characterization."
He notes the Tories are "preaching to the converted" in gender terms as well, since their support already skews heavily to men -- as do NASCAR events.
Arguably, whatever "NASCAR dad" appeal the Tories tap into will come at the cost of alienating "Eco mums" and other swing groups that are more environmentally focused.
Despite Mr. Novotny's insistence that NASCAR executives are making a concerted effort to reach out to minorities and other non-traditional spectators, there's little evidence that the overwhelmingly urban, immigrant demographic -- which represents the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population -- has any interest in competitive motor sports.
The resolutely North American roots of NASCAR are emphasized by the fact that until 2006, no cars made by any foreign manufacturers were allowed in the race. Toyota only muscled in last year by proving its Camrys were built in the U.S.
Even in regional terms, NASCAR's appeal is limited in Quebec, which has a long-standing loyalty to the Formula One tradition and the legacy of Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve.
"The Quebec market strongly supports the F1 circuit," notes Alain Hotzau, a sports business consultant based in Montreal. "Even with NASCAR bringing a Busch series race to the city this year, it's questionable if they can move that dial."
And then there's the choice of driver for Team Tory.
Bourque runs a news website that sells headline space for news stories to political organizations. His business model was the subject of considerable controversy leading to an Elections Canada ruling that parties who placed favourable headlines on the stories run on the Bourque site had to declare the cost as a campaign expense.
(CanWest Global, which owns the Citizen, has sponsored Mr. Bourque's racing ambitions as well.)
"You have to ask to what extent this reflects an investment in Pierre Bourque and the use of his website," notes one observer.
Not that the answer to that question would be a surprise. Even to Mr. Novotny.