Brendan Gaughan told Kodak he could conduct himself in a way that would draw potential customers.
Brendan Gaughan barely had been in the Jasper Engines and Transmissions office in Atlanta for a minute, hardly had pulled back his hand from the firm shake with a sponsor that could give him his first full-time ride in Nextel Cup. The inevitable question came quickly.
"Tell me about Homestead," asked Bud Denker, Kodak's vice president of brand and market development.
Gaughan gulped, then did what he does second best. He started talking.
Talking too much had gotten him into this mess about 72 hours earlier at Homestead. Gaughan had entered the final race of the NASCAR truck series schedule leading in points for his father's Orleans Racing team. He was running in the top 10 with 31 laps left when Marty Houston, making his first truck start in three years, caused an accident that wrecked Gaughan.
His title hopes dashed, Gaughan blasted fellow Dodge team owner Jimmy Smith for entering an unusually high five trucks, at least one of which Gaughan felt was being handled by an unqualified driver.
"Jimmy Smith can kiss my a--," Gaughan said.
Denker was cringing at corporate headquarters when an assistant relayed the news a few hours later. A deal already was brewing that would put Gaughan in a Cup car sponsored by Kodak and run by Jasper and Penske Racing for the 2004 season, and this was something both sides of management wanted to address.
"The Kodak people, of course they were nervous and they don't want something like that to happen," Gaughan said. "I told them that night I know there are a lot of children watching out there, a lot of children. I have nieces and nephews that are 4 to 11/2, and they are my world. I told them one of my nephews walked up and asked me about it, and I promised right there it would never happen again."
Image-conscious sponsors are not willing to bankroll a $20-million budget if their driver is going to alienate potential customers. This was not the kind of Kodak moment the company had in mind.
"Someone called me and told me what had occurred," Denker said. "I talked to (team owner) Roger (Penske) immediately and asked, "Have you heard what I heard?' And he said he would find out what happened."
Penske was satisfied with the explanation. Working with a young and fiery driver named Rusty Wallace helped provide his racing empire's NASCAR breakthrough.
Denker subsequently set up a meeting with Gaughan and Jasper CEO Doug Bawel in Atlanta. It was to the point.
"We're a pretty conservative company," Denker said. "We've been around a long time, so one of the first questions I had was to have him explain what had occurred down there, and he did a wonderful job. He said there is no other sport like NASCAR. It's not baseball or football where you have time to cool down a little bit before you say something."
After a few minutes, Gaughan had sold Denker. The rookie now drives the No.77 Dodge. Through 14 races Gaughan is 29th in points with one top 10.
Because sponsor support underpins their careers, drivers are obliged to heed concerns over behavior, either perceived or documented. Both 2002 champion Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch were ordered into anger counseling the past two years. Though Caterpillar stood behind rookie Scott Wimmer through his conviction in June for driving while impaired, there are likely to be in-house consequences beyond the 60-day suspended sentence and 24 hours of community service he received in court.
The mission and nature of the company have an impact. Just as sponsors want drivers who match their target demographic, they are likely to forgive reasonable indiscretions within their desired image.
"There's a scenario within our group with Viagra," the 25-year-old Busch said of 45-year-old teammate Mark Martin, who is sponsored by the erectile dysfunction drug. "They would not want to be on my car. The lawyers and everyone wants to associate a product with a driver for better recognition."
Denker said he has come to appreciate that a gregarious personality like Gaughan's is an asset if properly maintained. Kodak arranged preseason sessions with media relations experts to help channel Gaughan's energy. If that included getting the sponsor name in virtually every sentence, those meetings were worthwhile.
"I'd rather tame a stallion than motivate a mule, and we have a stallion," Denker said. "We don't want to harness that energy too much.
"If he makes a couple mistakes, that's fine."