Dem lawmaker renews effort to end military’s NASCAR sponsorships

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) is readying her next move in a months-long effort to slash Pentagon spending for NASCAR and other sports sponsorships.

McCollum questions whether the U.S. military should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on sponsorship deals for sports including stock car racing, professional fishing and pro wrestling at a time when the nation is running large deficits. Military officials and congressional supporters say the sponsorships help with recruitment.

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The House recently “voted to eliminate funding for homeless veterans, slash community health centers serving low-income families and pass a fiscal year 2011 budget that would force 800,000 Americans to lose their jobs,” McCollum said recently. “Yet taxpayer-funded sponsorship of NASCAR racing teams was protected. I find this absurd.”

McCollum has failed twice to advance proposals that would have changed the way the military awards contracts and doles out funds for those events, as well as for ultimate-fighting sponsorships. 

Undaunted, McCollum is mulling a new tactic. 

Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, said the lawmaker would likely offer an amendment on the House floor to the 2012 Pentagon appropriations bill that would limit the funds the military could spend on sporting events.

McCollum offered an amendment to the DOD spending bill last week that the House Appropriations Committee shot down in a voice vote.

That amendment would have required the military to submit for a 30-day congressional review period any contract larger than $250,000 to sponsor a motor sports racing team, driver or event; a fishing team or tournament; a professional wrestling event, or an ultimate-fighting event.

The Army spent $7.4 million on a single NASCAR team sponsorship in 2010, according to Pentagon data provided by McCollum’s office. That same team deal cost the Pentagon $11.6 million the previous year.

The National Guard spent $20 million in 2010 for its sponsorship of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car and Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car. The previous year, that contract was for $32.7 million.

The National Guard spent another $16.04 million to sponsor the FLW Outdoor College Fishing tour, which sees college fishing clubs compete for scholarships and prizes.

FLW Outdoors spokeswoman Trisha Blake said information about the company's sponsorship deal with the National Guard are confidential. But she told The Hill the figures cited by McCollum's office are "incorrect."

During the House Appropriations Committee markup, McCollum cited a $645,000 contract to sponsor a race in the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR’s top racing tour.

She said the Air Guard 400, held last September in Richmond, Va., failed to deliver a single military enlistee.

But a Pentagon official, in an email to McCollum’s staff that was obtained by The Hill, described the event as a marketing opportunity that came at a bargain rate.

“The intent of this event was to create awareness about the Air National Guard opportunity to serve,” said Lt. Col. Sherrie McCandless of the National Guard’s Office of Legislative Liaison in the email, dated May 16. “With that goal, the event was a success in returning to us over $5 million in advertising value delivering over 830 million impressions on national television, radio and in numerous print publications all for a low cost of $645K.

“The [Air National Guard] was able to have a small direct recruiting presence on site that collected lead information from 439 individuals,” McCandless wrote.

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The results of those leads are not flattering, producing no direct enlistments and only six “qualified leads,” McCandless wrote. More than 170 of the leads were “disqualified,” and over 260 were deemed “non-valid leads.”

“While we can’t directly attribute accessions to this event, it is important to reiterate the goal of this event, which was to generate awareness,” McCandless wrote.

The Air National Guard will not be sponsoring the race this year.

House Appropriations Defense subcommittee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) noted during the markup that his state is the home of the famed Daytona International Speedway. He counseled McCollum to see the connection between sponsorship deals and military recruiting efforts.

Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) warned McCollum to avoid dismissing the connection between NASCAR and the young Americans who typically join the military — noting many new recruits are from the South, where stock car racing remains most popular.

This story was updated on June 23.