Coca-Cola Racing Family Through The Years

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Written by AJ Appeal - 

Motorsports has had the world's largest companies assist with their operating costs through sports marketing and sponsorships since the beginning. Through the years some drivers and teams have welcomed partnerships from family owned businesses while others have had access to Fortune 500 brands. 

When King Richard Petty's car adorned the now famous STP red, and Petty Blue in the 1970s, many of the drivers in the field started to sport well-known drink brands. From icy cold adult beverages such as Coors and Budweiser, to frosty and fizzy sodas like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, drink industries noticed the massive return on investment that existed through partnerships with NASCAR drivers. 

The Coca-Cola Company endorsed many drivers over the years, first with a one time sponsorship of Joe Weatherly at Darlington in 1959. Beginning in 1970, they supported primarily Bobby Allison, while additionally promoting the #37 of Don Tarr on a part-time basis. Other drivers carried the Coca Cola livery including Earl Ross, David Hobbs, Chuck Bown, John Krebs, Dave Marcis, and even Jeff Gordon for a short time.

After becoming one of the hottest drivers in NASCAR in the early 1990s, Jeff Gordon was one of the first of the next-generation of Coca-Cola drivers. His famed #24 DuPont Chevrolet carried along the Coca-Cola banner on the decklid in the 1994 and 1995 seasons. At the end of the 1995 year, his contract ended with Coke, and Gordon became an overnight advertising sensation when he signed with rival Pepsi

Pepsi had promoted different drivers over the years including hall-of-famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, but this was the first time their brand was as reputable in the racing market as southern based Coca Cola. In his first 2 years with Pepsi, Gordon won the Daytona 500, two Brickyard 400s, and the NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Pepsi's brand was visible nearly every lap of every race during that time on network broadcasts. This became a major contributing factor to Coke's next move. 

Already partnered with NASCAR as the 'Official Soft Drink of NASCAR', Coke's new 'Coca-Cola Racing Family' was created on February 11th, 1998. Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty, Todd Bodine, Ricky Rudd, Kenny Irwin and Steve Park were the first members of the Coke family. 

In addition to having partnerships with 10 of the most popular drivers in the sport, several other layers of sponsorship activation took place leading into the 1998 season. A theme-park styled attraction was built outside of the Daytona International Speedway. There were racing simulators,  a new traveling 'Coke Stage' was developed that traveled with the sport, and a surplus of Coke Racing driver engagements were promised to fans at the track each week. Additional, but smaller agreements with other 'true' family members such as Adam Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were also arranged within NASCAR's then Busch Series. To even further push this new initiative, print, television, radio and online advertising all took over in NASCAR regions. New merchandise was also developed. If you could think of it, you could buy it with a Coca Cola Racing logo on it. 

"The Coca-Cola Racing Family celebrates the fans' passion for motorsports and good times spent at NASCAR events with friends and family," said Steve Koonin of The Coca-Cola Company. "Through the Coca-Cola Racing Family we will link fans with their favorite drivers and families in a variety of new and exciting ways."

Each season Coke represented different drivers. Sometimes drivers would stay, other times they were let go due to conflicting agreements with other brands, or even poor performance. Some drivers also had exceptionally long tenures with the brand. 

1998 - The original group was headlined by NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Sr. His leadership in the sport and previous interactions with Coke were a match made in heaven. Most Coca-Cola marketing efforts included Dale at this time. 

The original members of the Coca Cola Racing Family were also featured in what are now considered classic and collectable vending machines. 

1999 - The addition of Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a former member was the highlight of the sophomore season of the the family, perhaps only until Tony Stewart was also added. Jeremy Mayfield was also added, while all previous members from the original team remained. 

2000- No changes to the team in year 2000.

2001 - Dale Earnhardt passed away in the 2001 Daytona 500; his replacement of Kevin Harvick carried Coke logos on his newly numbered #29 Chevrolet, but Harvick. His official partnership with Coke would begin in 2003. 

New drivers for the 2001 season included John Andretti and Michael Waltrip, while other drivers Jeremy Mayfield, Kenny Irwin Jr. (also deceased), Steve Park, and Todd Bodine end leave the team. 

2002 - No changes in 2002. 

2003 - All of the 2002 drivers returned in the 2003 season. In addition to those members, Kevin Harvick formally is recognized as part of the family as is former CCRF member Steve Park. Kurt Busch also joins.

2004 - Elliot Sadler joins along with other Ford driver Greg Biffle. Steve Park departs for the second time. 

2005 - Jeff Green replaces John Andretti both at Petty Enterprises and on the Coca-Cola Racing Family. 

2006 - Roush Racing drivers all begin to carry the Coca-Cola logos. Their role with the brand was not as apparent in advertising at the time. No others leave the team from 2005. 

2007 - Denny Hamlin joins the Coca-Cola team.

2008 - Aric Almirola begins carrying Coca-Cola on his car, and is recognized as a member of the team. 

2009 - Original CCRF member Dale Jarrett leaves the team in conjunction with his retirement from the sport. Mark Martin leaves the team after joining PEPSI's Hendrick Motorsports allegiance. Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, and Ryan Newman all join the CCRF. 

2010 - No significant changes, occasional team and driver swaps took place that did not lead to a Coke driver change. Kyle Petty who had not been competing in motorsports on a regular basis as a driver, but was an original member of the team is on the team for the final time. 

2011 - Elliott Sadler leaves the team when he transitions to the NASCAR Xfinity Series. 

2012 - Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch both leave the team. Danica Patrick joins. Patrick would represent the 'Diet' Coke brand, which was a new addition to their marketing strategy. AJ Allmendinger was added early, but did not remain on the team long. 

2013 - Around 2013, the 'family' and marketing theme changed. The re-addition of Elliott Sadler from the Xfinity Series took place, and their marketing activation became mostly television commercials and promoted interviews. Weekly racing reviews from motorsports coverage started to decline. Several drivers still remained on the team over only the next few years, but their marketing strategy began to adjust.  

2014 - Jeff Burton leaves the team after a retirement from fulltime racing. Coca Cola returns to the famed #3 Chevrolet with the addition of Austin Dillon. In a less promoted or discussed partnership, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also began promoting the then-Coke-owned NOS Energy Drink. The drink is no longer owned by the Coca-Cola Company. 

2015 - Elliott Sadler no longer formally associated with CCRF. Stenhouse who was included as a formality is no longer included in press materials as Coca-Cola sells their share of the NOS Energy Drink. 

2016 - The team is down to their smallest roster ever. Only a handful of drivers remain including original member Tony Stewart in his final career of full-time racing. Bobby Labonte leaves the team prior to the season. No additional members of the original CCRF remain after 2016.

2017 - With Tony Stewart's departure, the team goes down to only 5 drivers. 

2018 - NASCAR diversity members Daniel Suarez, Darrell Wallace Jr., and Kyle Larson all join the team for the first time, while NASCAR's only woman driver Danica Patrick leaves due to her retirement. 

2019 - Daniel Suarez leaves the team. 

2020 - Suarez returns after 1 year off of the team. 

2021 - Darrell Wallace Jr. leaves the team after he signs a new deal with Dr. Pepper in 2021. The team enters the 2021 season with only 5 drivers. 

The Coca-Cola Racing Family in total has had 35 different drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series. Some of the drivers were recognized through an obvious marketing backing, while others were simply marked with the iconic red logo on the side of their cars through their career. 

The strategy of the team's marketing dollars has evolved over time, and what was once of the the most significant marketing factions in the history of motorsports has become more of a group of drivers that simply have the same endorsement arrangement with Coke. 

The new goal for Coca-Cola is their shared sponsorship of NASCAR's Premiere Series. They, along with Busch Beer, Geico Insurance, and Xfinity Internet and cable share a portion of the naming rights and branding activation around the track and receive brand awareness globally in return. 

It will likely be along time before another group as obviously important in the world of motorsports is able to be formed with more recent ties among drivers to their auto manufacturers. 

Coca-Cola Racing Family will always exist, though...and for that, I'm gonna enjoy a cold one myself.