The Never-Ending Discussion
Every few years, this topic resurfaces. Each time it does, I feel compelled to share my experiences. I usually post on a social media page or write a blog post about it. After each instance, I feel confident that enough information has been shared and the topic will not come up again.
Yet here we are, 18 years after I first wrote about it and it’s still a hot topic. This time, the discussion centered around a few self-entitled basement dwellers who felt compelled to setup GoFundMe pages. You read that correctly: rather than getting a job or learning the skills to get into a good paying career, these wayward souls are looking for handouts.
Why not? Today’s society seems to be all about handouts, so who can blame them? The ugly truth though is that these little beggars will not succeed, not in their quest for charity nor in building the car of their dreams.
Maybe I was raised differently. The first time I went to a car show laid my eyes on some amazing machines, I knew it would take time, money and hard work. Even at 12 years old, I was smart enough to know this. As time went on and I started showing my cars, I noticed that some people were showing signs and logos of the companies they worked with. It became clear that they were getting help from these companies. I started to look into the concept of sponsorships in the early 1990s. After some time, I learned how it worked.
This learning process accelerated as I got behind the marketing desk of some automotive aftermarket companies. In these positions, I started to receive sponsorship proposals from racers and hobbyists. These positions afforded me the opportunity to work with NHRA team, IndyCar teams, NASCAR teams, BTCC teams and many, many more. I got to see first hand how truly professional groups authored their proposals. At the other end of the spectrum were the proposals I received from hobbyists. These experiences
Applying what I learned from my professional experiences, I started my personal quest to seek support from sponsors as I pursued my automotive hobbies that included drag racing, road racing and eventually, competing at car shows. This learning process spanned 25 years.
My personal experiences
Anyone who knows me knows that the pursuit of all things automotive and has consumed much of my life. Over the years, I’ve dabbled in many arenas. Seems like I’m always working on one project car or another. It’s been a fun ride and I’ve been fortunate enough to own more than 40 vehicles in my life.
My first sponsorship came in 1993. Here’s a look at some of my past cars:
- 1993 Mustang GT: 347 stroker, Vortech supercharger, Nitrous, full interior, show paint job
- 1996 Impala SS: Custom paint, nitrous, cam, exhaust, big brakes, custom wheels
- 1994 Toyota Supra: Yes, the orange Supra from “The Fast and The Furious.”
- 1999 Nissan Maxima SE: Yes, the blue Maxima from “The Fast and The Furious.”
- 1999 Nissan Skyline GTR: Yes, the silver GTR from “2 Fast 2 Furious.”
- 2001 BMW M3 widebody: Know as the “Uber M3.”
- 2007 Audi RS4: Suspension, tuning and cosmetic items.
- 2015 Nissan GTR: Wheels, brakes, tuning mods, carbon fiber aero/ styling
The work I’ve done to my vehicles has been recognized in more than 40 magazines from around the world over the years.
In addition, Ive written for some top automotive titles including:
- Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords
- MaxPower USA
- Super Chevy
- Super Street
- Modified Luxury and Exotics
In addition to all of this, I’ve worked in senior marketing roles for NGK Spark Plugs, Eibach, Meguiar’s and MagnaFlow. I’ve seen thousands of marketing proposals from people looking for contributions. I could always spot the difference between real influencers and hobbyists looking for free parts — and so too can anyone else in this business.
I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade. Instead, I want to share with you some information that might help you get a better sense of reality. The point of all this is simply to suggest that perhaps I might have some valuable insights into the sponsorship game.
1) “Sponsorship” does NOT mean free parts
The days of getting free parts from tuning companies are over. Unless you are a very, very, very well-known name in motorsports (or drifting) with a long, proven history of getting tons of media coverage, no company is going to give you free parts. The only exception might be if it’s a new company trying to prove that their part works for the application.
Simply put, the BEST you can hope for is a discount on parts. If you think you’ll be getting free parts to build your car, stop now and choose another hobby.
Sponsors don’t care if you can’t finish your project car without free parts. You chose this hobby an no one is under any obligation to give you a thing.
2) If you can’t afford to build it on your own, stop right here
Whether you paid for the parts or got them for free, any sponsor will want you to build a complete vehicle with a high degree of quality. This means that you MUST have the money to finish the car yourself.
A great example is a story of a friend who, in 1999, got an audio sponsorship with parts valued at about $6,000. He had some local audio shop do the install and it was horrendous. The owner of the car didn’t have the money to do a proper paint job so it too, looked awful. He then tried to take it to shows like Hot Import Nights. At the time, H.I.N. was the biggest show around. They turned his car down. In the end, he got a big fat bill from his sponsor and had to part out the entire car to pay it off.
Again, just because you got parts for free at a discount doesn’t mean that you can’t finish the vehicle if no one else contributes. You MUST complete the project, even if you have to pay every nickel of its cost out of your own pocket.
3) Start with an “aspirational” vehicle
In the simplest of terms, you MUST start with a vehicle that people aspire to own. I don’t care how cool your 1996 Honda Civic is, or how rad you may think your E36 BMW is, 99% of companies who would be willing to provide support are looking for late model vehicles that are actively followed and desired by tuners.
I hear this all the time: ‘why won’t anyone sponsor my really rad 1996 Saturn SC2?’ You can love your car all you want but unless people are putting posters of these cars on their bedroom walls, it’s a safe bet that you think more highly of your car than other people. This makes it a bad candidate for sponsorship.
Good examples of proper candidates would be late model Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers, Porsches, Ferraris, GTRs, BMWs, Benzes, etc.
My M3 featured a long list of sponsors.
This car made the cover of four magazines around the world, plus one in the USA. It was also featured in two audio magazines and on numerous websites with full build stories. It was only possible because I had a long history of delivering on my promises for exposure.
4) Pick a newer vehicle
It’s always best to start with the latest model of any given desirable vehicle. Getting sponsors for a 1993 Mustang would be impossible while getting sponsors for a 2018 Shelby would be easier. Trying to get parts for older cars through sponsorship is extremely difficult.
Why? The older a car gets, the smaller the audience of fans for these cars. Now, before you say that 67 Mustangs are more popular today than ever before, let me remind you that no one is giving sponsorships for cars like this except in extreme cases (i.e. a guaranteed spot at SEMA). It’s also worth noting that while you may have a “cool car” like an R34, since the audience of owners who might actually buy parts for this car is extremely tiny, don’t plan on getting any support from sponsors.
Manufacturers are interested in showcasing their latest products for the latest cars, period. In some rare cases, companies that supply parts for vintage cars might be interested in providing some items at a discount, but since they know you’re going to want to finish the car, so why should they give you for free what you have to buy?
5) Are you cool with discounted parts?
As I mentioned earlier, assuming your vehicle falls into the desirable category, today’s “sponsorships” are really nothing more than a discount on parts. Companies like HKS are NOT giving you free parts. Why? Among the reasons listed, HKS USA is just a DISTRIBUTOR of the products–they are NOT the manufacturer. It would be like asking a 7-11 store to give you free Pepsi products when you know full well that 7-11 is just distributor of their products.
In short, if you call HKS USA with the perfect project vehicle and they offer you a discount, yet you refuse it, you’re done. Period. They know damn well you’re just fishing for free products and you have no real loyalty to their brand. If you do this even once, you’ll be blacklisted by that company. It’s worth noting that all of the marketing people at these companies all know one another. They all talk. At SEMA, the after-parties in swank hotels are often filled with discussion of shady individuals trying to get free parts.
If you’re phone-shopping to potential sponsors for free parts, word gets around pretty fast. You’ll be turned down over and over and you may not ever know why.
Bottom line: don’t you dare call a company and ask for free parts then turn down an offer for a discount. Just. Don’t. Do it. If you really want to be sponsored by a company, you must truly want their parts and be willing to pay for them. A good rule of thumb is that if you’ve sent a proposal and you’re lucky enough to get the sponsor on the phone, ask for a discount and have your credit card ready.
6) Do you have a long history of magazine feature cars?
To be brutally honest, unless you’re a celebrity, you’re going to need a long list of successful show cars before sponsors will take you seriously.
Each of these cars should have received tons of exposure, whether it was in magazines, videos or social media. What constitutes “tons of exposure”? We’re talking verifiable proof of hundreds of thousands or millions of views.
If this is your first project car, I wish you luck. It’s safe to say you’ll be building your first project car or two on your own dime.
Bottom line: Newbies aren’t welcome in this arena. You need to have verifiable history of success.
7) SEMA: The Ace Up Your Sleeve
The annual SEMA show is one of the best opportunities to leverage sponsorships. If you don’t know what SEMA is, you’re simply not a player in this industry. The show has existed since 1965 and it is THE MECCA for the automotive aftermarket. It happens every November in Las Vegas.
If you are lucky enough to land a spot at SEMA, it’s only because your car was submitted for review and approved by SEMA several months before the show. Of course, you have to pay ALL costs with getting the vehicle there, setting it up, moving it out and getting it home. That’s at LEAST $3,000. If you don’t have that kind of cash, SEMA is out for you.
Assuming you’ve met all other requirements to get sponsors, assuming you’ve also spent your own money to build superb car and assuming it got accepted to SEMA, sponsors will likely be willing to talk. The irony is that if your car was good enough to get accepted by a sponsor, you probably don’t need any more help from sponsors.
Bottom line: A SEMA show makes sponsor’s go weak in the knees. Problem is, you can’t get a SEMA spot without a built car unless you have a long history of SEMA cars and have submitted a rendition.
8) The Importance of a Fan-base
Are you a social media superstar? Do you have 200,000 followers on Instagram? 100,000 subscribers on YouTube?
From 1991 to about 2008, automotive magazines offered great coverage of cool vehicle builds. Almost every good automotive magazine has gone bankrupt or closed its doors. The few that remain have audiences that are so small, they’re nearly worthless to a sponsor.
Social media is the preferred medium and many automotive Instagram pages have arisen to fame. Some have hundreds of thousands of followers and their individual post garner 50,000 views each. Now THAT’S exposure. My own Instagram is making 1,000,000 impressions per month. Such a social media footprint has value to sponsors if you know how to leverage it.
The same thing goes for some popular VLoggers (Video-bloggers). There are many channels that are killing it.
One of my favorites is The Smoking Tire. Creator Matt Farah has been doing this for more than 10 years. He’s built up a fan base of 790,000 subscribers. His videos get about 70,000 views each. Even with these numbers, he has a difficult time getting cash from sponsors. Since YouTube pays creators of content, you’d think he’d be rolling in the cash. YouTube’s payouts are so small nowadays, it’s hardly worth it to produce content. It takes consistency and good content to attract and retain fans.
My point is that your project car MUST producer verifiable “impressions” (views) for it to have any value to a sponsor. More importantly, you have understand the social media space and the lingo. Sponsors and advertisers look at “Cost Per Impression,” or “CPM.” Google advertising can offer 1,000 impressions for about $2.80 (as of this writing).
A good marketing person knows this and will look at your vehicle sponsorship proposal like this:
- Jim has asked me for a free part that costs us $1,000;
- Jim’s Instagram posts usually get about 10,000 likes. That makes each of his posts worth about $28.00, if you compare it dollar-to-dollar with Google ads. But the part cost me $1,000.
- Jim would have to do 35 Instagram posts for my product before his views would be to equal the value of a simple Google ad.
And this is just to make impressions! Most companies care only about conversions — how many people see an ad and then buy their product. They don’t care much about how many people have seen their brand or product.
Bottom line: You better study and know the value of impressions on any social media or digital media platform. Only then can you properly valuate your project’s worth.
What You Need to Get Sponsored
Ok, so my points so far have not sent you running for cover and you’re ready to start hustling for parts. Assuming you’ve met all the other criteria, here’s what you’ll need:
1) A desirable, late model vehicle that has a strong following and is considered highly desirable by an audience of a decent size.
2) A good, written proposal that includes all of the following as a minimum:
- Documented history of your previous show vehicles. The full list, the years they were displayed and their final disposition.
- History the media coverage of those vehicles, including pictures, magazine clippings, website links and detailed pictures of each vehicle.
- Links to your social media pages showing and an outline of your viewership stats.
- Your full legal name and physical address, along with your email address and phone number.
- Any references with names and phone numbers of previous sponsors.
- Recent stats on the size of the audience to which you are marketing
- A full list of each and every single event at which your car has a confirmed placement guaranteed and stats on the audience size for each and every one of these events.
- A list of the parts that you are asking for assistance with.
- A formal agreement of what you will guarantee for the sponsor, to include high res photos, a certain number of shows/events, and a complete outline of every social media page on which you can guarantee placement/exposure. Cars and Coffee does NOT qualify as show placement.
- A complete, detailed commitment as to where sponsor logos will appear on the vehicle and what size the logos will be.
- The term length of the agreement (ex. 1 year, 2 year, etc.)
- A written commitment to provide post-event, written reports/summaries to every sponsor along with pictures of the vehicle at these events.
These are the minimums. If you’re not prepared to do these things, you should know that your chances are extremely slim of getting anything, even a discount.
This is a two-way relationship. Once you accept parts from a company, you’re part of their “guerilla” marketing effort. You are essentially an employee. As such, you need to go into such an arrangement with the mindset that you are there for them, not the other way around.
Car Sponsorships Online
It should be obvious, but it’s worth stating anyway: ANY WEBSITE promising you free parts for a membership fee is simply misleading without proper disclaimers. These companies have been around for many years. You pay a fee, they get you “hooked up” with a bunch of no-name companies trying to sell you parts at “cost.” It’s a gimmick and it’s nonsense.
They pray and teens and younger drivers and promise sponsorship for their 2004 Chevy Cobalt or other obscure or vehicles that would otherwise have zero chance of getting a sponsor.
Please — don’t waste your hard earned money on this nonsense.
Recently, a story came to light about a guy named Billy Bautista. This guy allegedly borrowed people’s cars on the premise that the was going to get them sponsors. Many, many people reported paying him cash to get sponsored parts. This guy would take the cash to pay for his lifestyle and sell the parts that came off the sponsee’s cars. Sponsors were being guaranteed placement at SEMA, magazine coverage, etc. In some cases, Billy would keep the owner’s car for more than a year and when it was returned, the car was trashed.
This is a very old hustle, one that’s been going on for decades in various forms. If you’re dumb enough to pay money to a middle man to get you sponsors, you’re in for a tough life because you lack common sense.
Sponsorship relationships should ALWAYS be negotiated directly between the person/s getting sponsored and the sponsoring company. End of story.
Get a contract
Also on my list of things that “Should be common sense but common sense isn’t so common anymore” is the concept of a contract. Always, ALWAYS get a written contract of what parts are being provided in return for what guarantees. At the very least, the contract should state would you as a sponsee must provide.
Example: your car should wear decals/logos of the sponsor, right? How big? In what location? For how many months/years?
Are you going to tag your sponsor on social media? If so, in what ways? Using what pictures? How many times? Over how long a period?
Are you going to car shows or events? How many? Where? For a period of how long, a year? Two?
What happens to these sponsored parts at the end of the Agreement? Yours to keep? Can you sell them?
These are some of the most basic things that must be included in any contract. If you don’t bother with a contract or write one up that’s full of holes and ambiguity, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. In the absence of a written agreement, the sponsor is calling all the shots. You pretty much do what they say and go where they tell you to unless if you’ve written up a proper contract. Don’t know how to write one? Find someone who does or pay for the parts yourself. This is a business. Treat it like one.
It’s only a hobby
While sponsorship is a business relationship, we of course know that it was born from our hobby. Car modifying is indeed a hobby. As such, NO ONE is obligated to support your hobby. If my hobby was hookers and blow, I wouldn’t be sending sponsorship requests to the people over at Trojan condoms, right? Never approach a sponsor with wording that suggests that they need you more than you need them.
If you can’ get sponsors and you can’t afford to build the car you want, pick another hobby.
The bottom line
This is serious business. It’s not about you getting free parts for your car. It’s about companies developing a relationship with a brand ambassador for their products.
The sponsee becomes an extension of the company’s marketing team, a social influencer, an opinion leader and a representative of the brand. It is hard work.
A sponsee must provide periodic written reports, high res photography and maintain a strong presence of the brand on social networks.
If you’re not prepared to make such a commitment (and deliver on it), you should save your pennies and go buy the parts yourself.