Air Force casts its recruiting lot with Sadler
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
Gen. John W. Handy is on the other end of the phone line from the Pentagon, barking about race cars, recruiting quotas and, well, common sense.
Understand here, Winston Cup racing is all about fast cars, plus a ton of teamwork and smarts around the garage area and pits. Fire up some jets, the general swears, and you could be talking the U. S. Air Force. Crew chiefs are synonymous to both, even.
So when the Air Force fell short of its recruiting goal two years ago -- unfortunately, for Pentagon folks, it was an historic first -- Handy, a four-star general, helped lead the charge to spend some of the branch's new advertising bucks in Winston Cup racing.
If NASCAR can help peddle Coors Light and McDonald's to young Americans, not to mention Viagra to their dads, surely then it can steer a few thousand recruits the Air Force's way.
And it has.
Just how much credit it can grab isn't clear. But having signed on as an associate sponsor of Elliott Sadler's No. 21 Motorcraft Ford, and parked its recruiting hauler on the grounds at every stop on the Winston circuit this season, the Air Force met its recruiting goal by the end of May.
The military brass is giddy, confident they've found a target audience in the stock car crowd.
"I'd like to think it's rocket science, but it isn't," said Handy, U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff. "We had a recruiting/retention task force looking at a long list of opportunities for the Air Force to market itself to the American public. It didn't take much market analysis to tell us what we all know today. NASCAR was a sport on the rise. The traditional sports were flat-line or declining, as far as TV and audience participation.
"It's important to understand that NASCAR is a speed sport. There's tremendous teamwork required between driver and pit crew. There is a crew chief. If you look at the Air Force, it's very high tech, very high speed. The relationship between the pilot and crew chief is similar to NASCAR. One of the skills we need most is mechanical skill. The average NASCAR race has 150,000 in attendance and the audience for TV is in the millions. That all combined in the picture."
A captive audience doesn't hurt.
And the fly boys got their "juices flowing" Memorial Day 2000, admits the general, when in a special tribute to the services, the Air Force paint scheme was chosen to adorn Dale Jarrett's car during the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. It hadn't been a hot recruiting area. But for three months after the race, Air Force recruiters noticed a huge spike in interest.
"With NASCAR, you get a real patriotic crowd out there," said senior Master Sgt. Randy Fuller, who travels track-to-track in his role as recruiting service superintendent of Air Force Motorsports. "They might have a propensity over some people to join the Air Force."
At least two other branches of the military have followed mainstream marketers, investing ad dollars in motorsports, but only the Air Force is found in Winston Cup, if in a secondary role. The Marines field a car in NASCAR's Busch Grand National series, while the Army has a top-fuel dragster on the National Hot Rod Association circuit.
Off the early results, Gen. Handy expects the Air Force to continue spending money with the stock-car crowd.
Some key Washington politicians who ultimately have a voice in those decisions aren't complaining, either.
Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, says he's all in favor of the Air Force and the other services "breaking the boredom barrier" in going after quality recruits.
"I think all the services, ever since the elimination of the draft, have had to be innovative," said Cleland, an admitted NASCAR fan. "They're going after the same cohort, 17- [to] 21-year-old males, basically. But more and more it is a high tech force. It's a force that thrives on adventure and excitement and technology and speed. And in some ways, NASCAR may be more in that zone than most. Whatever seems to work, the services have to try it.
"Right now, they are struggling for visibility, for just coming into the mind of a young person. In effect, the services are like many other commodities, I guess. You've got to break through what one of my friends in the advertising business used to call it, the 'boredom barrier.' And if that means at halftime of sporting events or between NASCAR races all of sudden paratroopers coming out of Air Force planes, dropping to the middle of the infield -- that at least breaks the boredom barrier. You've got to get people's attention first. So then you can say, 'Hey, this might be cool.'"
The Air Force might have it tougher than the other branches, having to recruit and retain enough mechanics to keep its $20-million-plus airplanes in the sky, especially with the commercial airlines and private industry as lucrative landing spots for its trainees. Of its 34,000-plus recruits this year, almost 45 percent will arrive with mechanical or electrical acumen.
That's why Air Force recruiters set up shop along the Winston Cup circuit, and bring their No. 21 show car to high schools, as well as malls and other teen hangouts -- trolling for the next generation of fighter jet mechanics and combat engineers. It's why Elliott Sadler, driver of the car, is booked for a two-hour autograph session Friday at Simpson World, about a half-mile from Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And why an Air Force B-52, with No. 21 scripted on its tail, is scheduled next weekend to buzz the crowd just before the start of the Brickyard 400.
"It's been great to be represented by the U.S. Air Force, of all companies," said Sadler, a third-year Cup driver. "That is pretty cool. And the way they just rolled out the red carpet for us. I've been to the Pentagon with them, been to a few Air Force bases. They took up few of my crew members and owners in F-15s and F-16s. What they've done for us is unbelievable.
"There are only like 11 or 12 four-star generals in the whole United States, and I think I already met seven of them."
Now, if NASCAR and Sadler will only keep sending recruits their way.