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For thousands of motor racing fans, including me, today is a very special day. The running of the Daytona 500 is Super Bowl and World Cup and World Series and Stanley Cup and Masters all in one spectacular event.

But in these times of economic turmoil, which has hit the auto industry particularly hard, would it be as big a deal as in the past? From the look of things today, you bet.

The event was sold out. Over  200,000 race fans were on hand to see NASCAR’s biggest event.  Even though rain stopped the race with about 50 laps to go, veteran race car driver Matt Kenseth sobbed over winning this premier event. It’s ironic; a guy like Kenseth who can race a car three-wide on a high-banked oval at 190 miles per hour inches from the next cars, breaks down and weeps over winning this prestigious event.

This is the Daytona 500. It’s Ben-Hur versus Messala with 600 horses powering their chariots.

Detroit’s Big Three, GM, Ford, and Chrysler, have all cut their marketing budgets, but they only trimmed their NASCAR expenditures. I’ve read estimates from auto analysts that GM cut its spending on NASCAR from a high of approximately $125 million a year to about $85 million. Ford is reported to have cut its NASCAR spending by approximately 35 percent. The auto companies usually won’t disclose the information. But there is no way they will abandon NASCAR.

Savvy auto marketers know that stock car racing remains a great way to attract buyers. It’s simple enough to see why NASCAR and the auto makers are so dependent on each other.  A winning Chevy or Ford or Dodge or Toyota brings buyers into the showroom. To withdraw from this scene might surely mean loss of market share.

NASCAR-related expenditures for advertising and promotion pay big dividends for a wide variety of products, not only autos. NASCAR fans are traditionally fiercely brand loyal to products that support NASCAR racing. Just read the drivers’ racing suits and the decals on their cars. You’ll see all types of products that marketers know have hugely loyal followers because they support their beloved racing.

The Daytona 500 kicks off the NASCAR racing season. The show of loyalty and enthusiasm over today’s race was startling given the economic gloom and doom that surrounds us. Perhaps people need the race to forget about the hard times for a while. Or perhaps, as with a hint of spring, there is some optimism creeping in.

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