There are many things needed in order for motorsports to operate, and if one part disappears, the sport collapses. Fans are certainly an important part because sport is kind of pointless without them. Drivers are an important part because only a select few have the skill and bravery of racing a car at 200 mph without seriously injuring themselves. Sponsors are also an important part because they largely provide the funding for teams to be at their best.

Sponsorship funding in NASCAR can be the difference between a team competing for top 10s and a team competing for wins. More funding means more development, and that could mean more people working in the shop, more cars being built, and an overall better performing car.

CarParts.com entered NASCAR in a rather abnormal time. If a decade-plus of economic woes and lower ratings didn’t make a company hesitant to become a NASCAR partner, the COVID-19 pandemic wouldn’t help matters. But due to NASCAR becoming one of the first sports to come back, the online auto parts company signed up with Front Row Motorsports and Michael McDowell right in the middle of the pandemic.

“Back in May, NASCAR was one of the first [sports] to return to national television, and that’s kind of when we saw an opportunity,” said CarParts.com CEO Lev Peker. “We were always looking for an opportunity to get involved in NASCAR… NASCAR fans, they love cars, they love cars that go fast, and a lot of them fit into our demographic as well.”

After initially signing up for one race at Darlington, CarParts.com analyzed television ratings as well as social media reactions and on-track results after that race, and liked what they saw. After the first Darlington race, CarParts.com agreed to become a sponsor for the midweek Darlington race a few days after, as well as races at Charlotte, Indianapolis, and Daytona. CarParts.com will be on the car at this Sunday’s Martinsville race, and both sides are currently discussing continuing their partnership in 2021.

May 17, 2020, Darlington, SC, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Michael McDowell (34) races during the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Brynn Anderson/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Network

Why NASCAR? Well other than the obvious connection of a car parts company being involved within a car racing series, CarParts.com saw the passion and devotion of the fans, and the accessibility of the drivers, as a positive. Peker noted that the company had sponsored other sports teams in the past, and getting a player to do something for them was a tall order that needed to go through many levels of approval. But in NASCAR, things are done more low-key, and it’s common for drivers to do various events for their sponsors. Recently, McDowell hosted a virtual meet-and-greet with CarParts.com employees, and on the day he spoke with us for this piece, McDowell was filming something on behalf of CarParts.com. The company gravitated to McDowell and CarParts.com found an ideal partner.

“It’s important when you are sponsoring a celebrity, it’s important that it’s the right person for your brand, and Michael McDowell is absolutely the right partner for us,” Peker said. “For us, it was really important to pick a driver that has the potential but at the same time, wasn’t controversial, wasn’t going to go out and do something that would make us want to disassociate from that celebrity. So Michael is all of those things. He’s a family man, he’s a great driver, has unlimited potential. That’s kind of what we saw in him, and FRM has been great to work with and they’re a great team… For us, it was important to select the right team, but also important to select the right driver. We think we made the right choice.”

One thing that may have tested McDowell’s reputation for not being controversial was this year’s All-Star Race at Bristol. In the Open, Bubba Wallace hit McDowell from behind to move past him, and then McDowell paid Wallace back as he hit Wallace and put him in the wall. Things were understandably heated, especially on Wallace’s side, but it’s also short track racing for a chance at a million bucks. Tempers are going to be heated in the moment, and that’s what a situation like that will bring.

After the incident, Wallace took the front bumper of his car that was damaged in the crash and set it at the #34 hauler, thus starting a sequence of events that turned a negative into a positive for many people.

McDowell didn’t really know what happened, but on the way home from the race, he got a bunch of cryptic messages about a bumper. Out of the loop, McDowell eventually had to call his wife to get the story.

“The bumper, in particular, I didn’t know about it at first,” McDowell said. “After the accident I went out, you have to do the whole process and get checked out in the Infield Care Center. And I was just heading out the tunnel and I didn’t think anything of it, it was just kind of a racing accident. And I got a text about 10 minutes later from the owner (Bob Jenkins), ‘Make sure you keep that bumper.’ I’m like, ‘Bumper, what’s he talking about? I don’t know what he’s talking about.’ And then I was driving home and I had some family say, ‘Hey, what are you going to do with that bumper?’ I’m like, ‘Bumper, what’s everybody talking about?’ So I finally called my wife and I said, ‘Why is everybody asking me about this bumper?’ She told me the story, and when I got home I saw the clip and I thought it was funny. It’s just, I don’t know, I just laughed. I didn’t take it as disrespect. I didn’t take it as anything other than, ‘That’s funny.’”

Front Row Motorsports team owner Bob Jenkins got the idea to put the bumper up for auction on eBay to raise money for Motor Racing Outreach, a Christian-based charity that provides church services at racetracks, using motorsports as a platform to provide Christian principles for those who seek that out. Once they found out the bumper was up for auction, CarParts.com took the opportunity to bid on a piece of All-Star Race history that was connected to their team.

It might have sounded like FRM and CarParts.com cooperated from the start, but both sides independently decided to do some good. In addition, CarParts.com went the extra mile to match their $20,034 ($20,000 plus McDowell’s number) donation from winning the auction to donate $20,043 to Victory Junction, a camp created in memory of Adam Petty that provides a free camping experience to kids with serious illnesses and disabilities.

“When we saw that the bumper was on eBay, the marketing team came up with the idea that, ‘Hey, we’re part of this community, why don’t we do double the good, and why don’t we win the bumper. We’ll donate it to a lucky fan, and then at the same time we’ll match the donation to Bubba’s organization Victory Junction,'” Peker said. “We kind of kept it in the dark [that CarParts.com was bidding] until we won the auction. Then we reached out to both teams and said ‘Hey, we won the auction and this is what we want to do.’ And we do a lot of charity things around our DCs (distribution centers) and in the communities we’re in… NASCAR is a community for us. And we reached out to both teams, and both [drivers] were very receptive to what we were trying to do.”

“We didn’t know at the time when we put the bumper up for auction that CarParts.com was intending on bidding on it and trying to win it,” McDowell said. “And so I didn’t find out [CarParts.com won] until everybody else. When the auction was over, they said, ‘Well, CarParts.com got it.’ And I was like, ‘Really? That’s awesome!’ So it was a great thing and obviously went to a couple great charities.”

McDowell added, “I give a lot of credit to Bubba because obviously he got the short end of that deal. So for him to come and sign the bumper, and help us promote it, and help us raise the funds, was a nice move by him and something that we’re thankful for.”

After donating over $40,000, CarParts.com wasn’t done with their philanthropy. Last month, the company decided to give away the bumper to a lucky fan.

Right around the All-Star Race, McDowell scored his best finish of the season in a CarParts.com sponsored car, a seventh-place finish at the Brickyard 400. What was originally a one-race deal at Darlington, CarParts.com experienced great finishes at some high-profile races and took part in helping many within the NASCAR community in just a few months. They have become a part of the NASCAR community.

CarParts.com is on the #34 for one more race in 2020, and that will be this Sunday at Martinsville. The company is launching a new logo, which has to say something about NASCAR- a company that wasn’t even a part of the sport a year ago is now trusting the sport to provide the platform to launch their new branding.

“We’ve partnered with Michael for Martinsville, and we’re going to do a soft launch of our new logo,” Peker said. “It’s exciting, it’s a new chapter in our brand identity, and we’re excited what it’s going to look like on the car and what it means. Really, it represents the open road, and our mission is to get every driver back on the road. It represents who we are and where we’re going.”

Michael McDowell will be driving the #34 CarParts.com Ford at Martinsville Sunday, November 1. Photo: Front Row Motorsports

“[CarParts.com] have done a great job”, McDowell said. “They’ve done a really nice job activating and just engaging with the fanbase. I think probably the biggest thing is it’s a pretty easy and natural fit. I mean, CarParts.com is all about helping the consumer to be able to do these projects, these car projects at home, be able to do simple maintenance, and all the things we sort of take for granted, but I think it relates to the NASCAR fan really easy. It’s a good fit, it’s a good fit for NASCAR.”

In terms of 2021, CarParts.com and Front Row Motorsports are looking forward to continuing their partnership. It’s not a done deal yet but both sides are happy with each other and are in discussion to extend so they seem eager to stay together in some fashion for the foreseeable future. A long-term partnership with a sponsor is something that McDowell values.

“I’ve taken a lot of pride in having partners for a long time,” McDowell said. “In this sport, we see people come and go and for me, not that it’s super personal, but I do take that a bit personally, I wanna help generate and cultivate those relationships, and I want to help provide value to our partners. And if you do that, and do that consistently, they’re not going to go anywhere. And that’s really the key ingredient.”

“We’re going to be in discussions with FRM for next year,” Peker said. “We definitely like the results we’ve seen. And then it just depends on the FRM side as well as what kind of value we can assign. Whether we want to do a full season or whether we want to pick and choose some races that we want to participate in, but we’ll definitely be involved in future races.”

“I know we’re working hard towards making sure that we have CarParts.com back on in 2021 and having some more races,” McDowell said. “Our partnership is definitely through 2021, so hopefully we can continue to grow it. It’s been a great fit for me, it’s been a great fit for our team, and hopefully CarParts.com feels the same way… Hopefully, we’ll continue to provide tremendous amount of value to them and keep growing that partnership, and keep growing their opportunities and bringing them back for next year.”

Every NASCAR sponsor has a unique story of how they got into the sport. CarParts.com entered the sport at a time where it needed a bit of certainty in an uncertain time. They thought their NASCAR experience was going to be for one race, but they got a taste and were hooked. Less than six months after their first race, CarParts.com has found a home in NASCAR and with Front Row Motorsports. And they intend to be here for years to come.

[Photo: Front Row Motorsports]

About Phillip Bupp

News editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, highlight consultant for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

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