For most of last weekend, Mike Wallace and his team had the look of a contestant on Blind Date. They were being set up with a stranger, and they knew that much of TV Land would be tuning in to see if a long-term relationship was in the cards.
Actually, they were partaking of something far more nerve-wracking: a one-race deal. For sponsors unwilling to shell out $15 million for a full season, putting up a few hundred thousand dollars for one race is an attractive alternative. Two sponsors fielded cars at last Saturday's Pepsi 400 in single-race deals. One was Dakota Imaging, which backed eventual 40th-place finisher Shawna Robinson. The other was 1-800-CALLATT, which sent the owner of Wallace's car, Andy Petree, a check. The company also sent its pitchman, Carrot Top, who sat atop Wallace's war wagon while serving as his honorary crew chief.
For sponsors, a one-off offers a huge potential upshot. Lycos put itself on Johnny Benson's hood the night before the 2000 Daytona 500 and was rewarded with an estimated $1.1 million worth of television time when Benson nearly won the race.
The benefits for the racing team are less tangible. "The one-race deal doesn't really help us a lot, other than to get the car out there and get some visibility," said Petree before last Saturday's race. In other words, in addition to having to handle countless details, such as coming up with a paint scheme for the car and having uniforms made with the sponsor's logo, everyone on the team knows that if he screws up, he might scuttle chances for a long-term deal. That can produce some serious pressure to perform in the face of long odds. (How often do Blind Date contestants walk down the aisle together?)
Wanting to make the most of its chance, Wallace's team was the first in the garage on Saturday. Mr. Top, whose visage graced the hood of the car, proved to be only slightly less popular a track attraction than free cigarettes. (At one point three Florida Highway Patrol troopers escorted him as he walked through the garage.) Carol Eversen, an AT&T general manager, spent two days with the team and liked what she saw. "I'm hooked," she said on Saturday afternoon before sounding a note of caution. "I'm not sure what we'll do. I'm thinking about [a further commitment], but it's not in the plans. So far the program has exceeded my expectations."
The impressive show continued when the race began. Wallace worked his way into the top 10. But on the 18th lap Steve Park wrecked him, and he finished 41st. It wasn't the greatest way to end the evening, but Petree did receive some good news. AT&T said it was leaning toward coming back for October's Talladega race, so it appears there will be a second date after all.