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Top Fuel dealmaker Vandergriff gaining leverage


When Bob Vandergriff beat Spencer Massey to win the AAA Texas Nationals near Dallas a couple of weeks ago for his first National hot Rod Association Top Fuel victory in a 17-year effort and 14 final-round appearances, he jumped from the car and started running.

He was heading back to the starting line to celebrate with his C & J Energy Services Dragster crew. But figuratively, he was running toward another goal he has had for just as long.

Vandergriff wants to bring more sponsors into drag racing to build on the business-to-business and business-to-consumer platforms the sport has to offer. In doing so, more promising, legitimate racers will have the resources to compete -- but they have a mutual value, contributing to those marketing partners' bottom-line objectives. He wants businesses to be bullish on what he has to offer through NHRA drag racing.

And winning underscores Vandergriff's case. His stock rose in value with the Dallas victory.

"I've been really successful, fairly successful, in bringing sponsors back into the sport. The one things that's held me back, I think, is not being an elite team, a winner, having that program like Don Schumacher and Alan Johnson," Vandergriff said. "We're now where people are saying we have a winning program."

The victory, he said he thinks, "is going to help me with all the deals I'm trying to put together right now. We now have some credibility and respect, as we're starting to show we have a top-notch competitive race team."

That day at the Texas Motorplex, Vandergriff plodded down the 131-degree concrete racetrack, high-fiving fans and fellow racers who had started spilling through the fences and flooding the track. He still was wearing his oppressively hot firesuit and helmet.

And that's what this creative entrepreneur, a the University of Utah graduate with a degree in business administration, had been doing for so long. He had been slogging through red tape and laborious corporate posturing and negotiating, heading for the right target but doing it the hard way.

He had inked deals in the past with such notable corporations as UPS, Caterpillar, Speedco, Fruit of the Loom, Jerzees Active Wear, Split Second Speedgear, and Direct 1 / Worldwide - Computer Systems Division. But he didn’t have that one commodity all potential sponsors are looking for: a winning reputation, a pattern of landing in the winners circle.

Vandergriff always had had plenty of potential. He owns a motorsports apparel company, He reached 13 final rounds before he scored that first Wally trophy. He was the 1994 recipient of the Auto Club of Southern California's Road to the Future Award. He always has been a gifted natural athlete, an All-State football and basketball player in Southern California for La Habra High School and a scratch golfer who competes in high-profile amateur tournaments and enjoys a round now and again with PGA Tour buddies Jay Don Blake, Troy Matteson, and Bob May.

Professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey draft on potential, But that isn’t how corporate backing works. Major stick-and-ball sports think the opposite way that the Zenith consumer electronics company does. Its motto since the late 1920s has been "The quality goes in before the name Zenith goes on," It's the opposite with major-league sports: teams put their name on a young athlete, then set to work to develop that athlete's potential. Motorsports marketing partners, like Zenith, want to see the quality first before they'll attach their names.

And it always perturbed Vandergriff that this drag-racing winning formula and this drag-racing sponsorship endeavor didn't come as easily for him as athletics have.

"It's been really difficult. In other sports, I've always won and I've always done very well. To come out here and have so many variables that are out of my control while you’re trying to build some kind of program has been tough. It's been real hard and disappointing to get out here and you see guys win you don’t think are as good as you are or you think, 'Man, I should be able to do that,' and you're not able to do that , and it eats on you. It's tough to swallow, but it’s worth it".

"I'm very competitive," Vandergriff said. "That drives me every day. The competition is what gets me going."

Take, for instance, his aggressive stance about hospitality. Reporter John Sturbin surmised that in the Dallas final, Fort Worth's Spencer Massey was the local favorite. Vandergriff challenged his statement, saying that C & J Energy Services is Houston-based and that "I had so many C & J guests from Texas and their customers and guests our hospitality was bigger than theirs. We had quite a group rooting for us out there."

(Drag racers are like that. They want to win at everything, no matter how huge or tiny the stakes. That's why team owners Don Prudhomme and John Force nitpicked at each other about who had the bigger American flag on the flagpole at their headquarters across the street from each other at Brownsburg, Ind.)

So competition is the fuel that drives Vandergrift, just like dollars, and lots of them, drive motorsports marketing [partnerships. So Vandergriff was especially pleased to say after his Dallas feat, "I finally feel now like I have a team and a car that are capable of winning every weekend."

Vandergriff doesn't necessarily need to take on ventures such as his Sponsor Drag Racers ( He's bright. He's creative. He's an asset in the business world with his ideas, his specific plans, and his plain-speaking demeanor. He has experience outside of being a Top Fuel team owner and driver: he was vice-president of Atlanta Dragway and national advertising director for Argus Publishers.

But this is his passion. "I don't think there's any substitute for being on the race track when it comes to giving a potential sponsor a taste for what we can do and what NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing is all about. You have to see it, and feel it, to believe it," Vandergriff told Internet web site back in 2009.


He spelled out on his own web site what a partnership with a drag-racing team can be:

"While the sport is exploding, your pockets will not as drag racing offers every size company a way to expose [its] product or service to a fanatical and passionate fan base, for a reasonable cost. By sponsoring one of our teams and drivers, we will create an unparalleled activation platform by targeting your most important key customers, distributors, and franchisees. Sponsoring a team and driver also gives you access to tremendous marketing assets, including engaging hospitality events and once-in-a-lifetime, behind-the-scenes experiences that cannot be matched in motorsports today."


More power to him -- and more victories.



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