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Written by Susan Wade.

Top Fuel's Bob Vandergriff Jr. has carved a niche for himself as an advocate for "homeless," out-of-the-loop NHRA drag racers.

He's not in a soup kitchen but rather in the boardroom, lobbying for marketing partners to get some of the sport's displaced drivers back behind the wheel -- sometimes so he can race against them in his C&J Energy Services Dragster.

As he prepares for next week's SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Vandergriff continues to try to find funding for such standouts as three-time Top Fuel series champion Larry Dixon and six-time NHRA winner J.R. Todd.

Keeping his finger constantly on the pulse of trends in sponsorship-procurement trends, the Alpharetta, Ga.-based businessman has discovered some subtle but significant changes in strategy when it comes to marketing drag-racing programs.

One major upheaval lies with the female racers. Another shift involves the NHRA's activity -- or inactivity.

Hillary Will is back on the Top Fuel scene. With Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force in the mix this year, the Funny Car class is back to having two active female competitors, as in the days when Melanie Troxel and Ashley Force Hood were racing.

However, Vandergriff said the females have lost their "wow" factor when it comes to persuading a potential sponsor.

Melanie Troxel, he indicated, is one example. Troxel has won in four NHRA classes (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Modified, and Top Alcohol Dragster) and still owns the record for most consecutive final-round appearances to begin a season (five in 2006). But she's driving her motorhome wherever she thinks she can network and secure a deal to race again.

And if Vandergriff is reading the landscape correctly, Troxel might find this round of job-seeking extra-difficult, the nation's struggling economy notwithstanding. Trading on being a female racer, especially in the diversity-jaded NHRA, provides little leverage.

"The problem she's got," Vandergriff said with no disrespect intended, "is that her uniqueness has worn off now a little bit because of the Ashley Force [Hood] and Courtney Force factor -- and 'John's Force's daughter' factor. It's almost a hindrance to be a female in our sport right now. You have to compete against that juggernaut over there.

"The uniqueness you have pales in comparison to what they present, just because of his place in the sport. It's hard when you're going apples-to-apples against something like that. They've been very successful with what they've done over there with their daughters," he said. "I almost hate to say it, but for a female out here, it's kind of created a little bit of a hindrance for them [other women racers], their uniqueness of what they're trying to sell.

"Once there's 10 females . . . all of a sudden the fact that you're the first becomes less [significant]. Nobody cares anymore," he said, speaking in general terms about this new wave of Top Fuel racers who have followed in the footsteps of Shirley Muldowney, Rhonda Hartman-Smith, Cristen Powell, and Shelly Anderson [Payne].

"It's not so much that Melanie has to compete just against Courtney Force," he said, "but you've got other females in our sport who are successful, as well."

Erica Enders in Pro Stock, Karen Stoffer in Pro Stock Motorcycles, and Leah Pruett in Pro Mod are among them. The retired Angelle Sampey, like Muldowney, won three series championships.

In achieving parity with the decidedly more dominating male drivers in landing sponsorships, the females -- frustratingly for them -- have erased their marketing edge, Vandergriff said.

"A lot of females want to be considered equals to the men, but then when they're competing as equals to the men in the sponsorship stuff, that defeats the purpose of being the female. It's kind of a double-edged sword for them," he said. "There are some good drivers sitting on the sidelines. Melanie is certainly is somebody who represents the sponsors well and is good for our sport. But right now, it's just tough times, as far as bringing people into the sport.

"The uniqueness of who they [female racers] are pales in comparison to the model you've got to put together with them to attract somebody to come in here," Vandergriff said.

Then again, the women and the men both find themselves in that situation, he concluded.

"It almost doesn't matter who the driver is. [With] a lot of the programs, the program will dictate whether they get involved or not. The driver's just a piece of that puzzle," he said. "Maybe years ago, the driver attracted some of the attention. Today it's more about 'How does the program help the company?' and you plug the driver in."

He said the driver does matter, for some have that intangible "it" that a company is looking for in a brand-awareness representative. Some have more outstanding records. Some have a particular personality the potential sponsor is seeking. Some have credibility away from the track in the business area that the sponsor wants to use to build his portfolio. But he indicated that today the driver is not necessarily who or what . . . well . . . drives the transaction.

"It's not like you can plug anybody into it. You obviously want to get the most qualified driver that you can get who brings all the pieces to the puzzle to help that program out," he said. "It's usually now like the program steers the car and the driver doesn't steer the program anymore."

For example, he isn't necessarily the linchpin even to his own relationship with C&J Energy Services, and that's not an insult to Vandergriff. He's a smart enough businessman to recognize that what the Houston-based oil-and-gas-industry firm wants is a business-to-business platform -- and is receiving it.

"Our race team has been able to represent some of the largest companies in the world, like UPS, and Caterpillar, and we always enjoy seeing how much fun their guests have at the races," Vandergriff said. "We were thrilled to have guests of Cat Global Petroleum and HOLT Cat, along with our other sponsors, C&J Energy Services and SpeedCo, at Dallas when we won the race there last year. Judging by their overwhelming reaction to jump the fences, greet our team out on the track after the final round, and follow us to the winners circle, I would say they had a lot of fun."

When Vandergriff beat Spencer Massey to earn his first victory at Dallas last fall, Vandergriff challenged the notion that Massey, from Fort Worth, was the hometown favorite. He proudly said, "I had so many C&J guests from Texas and their customers and guests our hospitality was bigger than theirs."

Major associate sponsor Caterpillar said it certainly is enjoying the relationship. It renewed for the 2012 season after its dealers attended almost every one of the 23 national events last season. Sometimes Caterpillar brought as few as 10 guests. Sometimes they invited nearly 300, as when some dealers connected a specific marketing campaign with a Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event.

"We've really enjoyed the opportunity to send guests to the NHRA races through Bob Vandergriff Racing" Dean Cervenka, Americas regional manager for Caterpillar Global Petroleum, said. "It gives us a fun opportunity to reward our customers with such a unique experience. We always hear back from everyone that attends how amazed they are to have been able to meet the team's Top Fuel driver and owner, Bob Vandergriff Jr., get an autograph and have a conversation with him in the pit area, then see him race at 300 miles an hour on the track a half-an-hour later."

Greg DeWalt, corporate marketing manager for Yancey Bros. Cat, hosted more than 250 employees and guests at the 2011 Atlanta race and said, "It's truly a unique experience to bring our customers to an NHRA event. They love being a part of the team. That's the only way to describe what it is like, because you are literally right in the team's pit area. We watch the team work on the car, eat lunch at the table next to the crew members, can ask the crew chief, driver, or any team member a question about how they make the dragster go so fast, and then walk-up to the starting line when they run. We appreciate the detailed level of involvement at the NHRA races."

Vandergriff said, "It goes back to what you have to sell. You certainly wouldn't think an oilfield service company would benefit from a lot of what we do out here. But there are so many things that are under the surface that people don't see that have benefited them greatly already -- from an employee standpoint.

"They've had more business from customers that they already had that they didn't know were drag-racing fans that we brought out here. And they've increased their business tenfold with a lot of those people from it," he said. "We've formed business relationships for them with people already in our sport, such as Caterpillar. And we're trying ways to find them -- from the battery people, from the oil and gas people who provide products that are involved in out sport -- [companies that] can help C&J save money and give them a better product.

"There are a lot of pieces to that puzzle that people don't see as to how much C&J is benefiting from their involvement in our sport," Vandergriff said, adding that marketing partnerships go far beyond just plastering a company name on the side of the race car.

"When I drive this car, that's 10 percent of my job," he said. "That's when I get peace and quiet. Nobody's bothering me."

He said that includes "other things we're trying to work on, people with questions and stuff like that -- that it's constantly going. But that's what drives the program. So you have to understand that that's the big piece of the puzzle. Getting in the car and driving it, that's just the result of all the work you've done before."

That level of business relationship, he said, is the result of many, many months and sometimes years of hard work.

It's work the team owners and drivers have taken upon themselves these days, not relying on the sanctioning body to attract interested investors.

Of the NHRA, Vandergriff said, "I think their intentions are good. They're in the same boat the rest of us are in. It's hard enough to bring somebody into this sport, in any sport right now. If they can benefit or piggyback or you can utilize them to help you bring it into the race car, it's a win-win for everybody."

But he and others have had to shoulder the responsibility.

"We haven't seen the results from the sanctioning body that we've seen from the teams, actually. I would say the teams, especially myself, are more adept at bringing sponsors into the sport than the sanctioning body is right now," Vandergriff said.

"It comes down to understanding what you have to sell and how you go about selling it. I think if I were the head of it [the NHRA] I would do things a lot differently. I would take advantage of some of the things that I think are key that would bring sponsors into the sport that typically aren't right now being used to what I think is in the best interest of the sport. You have to leverage the assets that you have," he said.

"And I think sometimes we don't look at the big picture. They [NHRA officials] look at the short-term money grab versus what would benefit the sport in the long term," he said. "Some of the things that we have here to sell, they make it a hindrance and harder on the teams than make it easier on the teams.

"That's the constant battle I fight with them every day out here is that they don't make it any easier on us. It seems like everything we're trying to do or trying to accomplish they make it harder on us. And that eventually doesn't work," Vandergriff said. "I would think that some of the decisions are made . . . How do I put this? . . .Some of the decisions that are made, I feel, are made from the easy-way-out standpoint instead of having to do a little bit of work to make it better. There's a lot of things that we do -- a lot of the decisions that are made -- are just done from the easy way out: 'I don't have to mess with that, then we don't have to do it" or 'I don't have time to police that.' or 'I don't have time to be doing all that.' For me, that's never the right answer."

This racer who waited until his 14th final round to score a victory (an NHRA record) knows the value of patience. And in negotiating sponsorship deals, that is a precious commodity.

"The biggest thing you have to remember is sponsorships are -- and this is what I try to tell everybody -- while it might be your No. 1 priority, it's usually the company you're trying to attract's 100th priority. You have the urge to pick up the phone and call them every day, because it’s the only thing you're worried about. But it's generally pretty far down the list of things that they're involved with," he said.

"There's always a multiplication factor when you deal with companies, as far as the time frame. When they tell you, 'This week,' you've got to times it by three or four. I think everybody's intentions are good, but the reality is, like I said, it's not their No. 1 priority. They're constantly working other programs inside their companies and new things or things that aren't paramount to their day-to-day business sometimes get put on their back burner," Vandergriff said. "So you really have to have a lot of patience and a lot of understanding as to where you fit in the whole scheme of things. "

Figuring it out is half the battle, but as Vandergriff can explain, that last half of the battle is the most grueling.
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