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.