In the marketing-driven sport that is NASCAR, it's no surprise that the paint scheme on each car plays the major role in sponsor identification. These "rolling billboards" give sponsors the opportunity to showcase their brands in a unique and eye-catching way, which is why the paint scheme design is an integral part of every sponsorship.
Although the term "paint scheme" is somewhat of a misnomer with the advent of new body wrapping technology, Richard Childress Racing continues to cover its primary cars the traditional way -- with good old-fashioned paint.
"The majority of our races are run with Shell-Pennzoil, Jack Daniel's, and AT&T, our primary sponsors," said Chuck Spicer, director of competition and business operations for RCR. "So we paint all those cars. The only time we do a wrap is for special event cars such as the Reese's Elvis car at Indy where it takes too much time away from the team to have the car stripped down, sanded, primed, and repainted. Because once you do that, you have to redo it. With our wrap application, that car comes back on Monday morning, two guys take two hours to pull the wrap off it, and it looks like it did prior to the wrap."
Spicer said that the first step in painting a car is coming up with a design that's a good fit for the sponsor and the team. It involves choosing a graphic artist who works in consultation with the sponsor and team to design a scheme everyone agrees on.
"It goes through a lot of different stages because a corporation such as Shell-Pennzoil is heavily involved in what it wants the car to look like," Spicer said.
Sometimes the graphic artist comes from within the sponsoring corporation, but it is more common to hire an outside source for the job.
"There are a lot of outside sources," Spicer said. "A gentleman by the name of Steve Breakfield designed the Shell-Pennzoil car. Sam Bass does the same type of thing."
A critical element of the design process involves properly representing the corporate logos, including exact matching of the identifying paint colors. Once the design is completed, it is reviewed by sponsor representatives, the car owner, and the driver.
"There may be some tweaking involved, such as a curved line or something," Spicer said. "Richard [Childress] never wants to have a line going through the quarter panels or anything like that to break up the car, because that's where your identification is the greatest. So we want solid colors through the rear quarter of the car and on the hood area so you can see that identification of the logo. Once that's all done and the scheme is signed off on, then we'll take it to our paint and body man, Danny Dillard, and sit down to discuss it."
The result is usually further design refinement.
"How it appears on paper isn't always to scale of what the car is," Spicer said. "The way a jagged line or a swoosh or whatever looks on that paper isn't always how it looks on the race car. So we'll paint our first car and then sit back and look at it and say, 'you know, if we move this line a little or do this,' then it's just a matter of fine-tuning and tweaking it. Probably every car that we've ever done, there's some point of it that we changed just a little bit."
RCR employs seven specialists to paint all of the cars of its three Nextel Cup teams. Spicer said the job from bare chassis to completed race car takes from two to three days for each car.
"It's not like your transmission guy or whatever who specifically works for one team," he said. "When it comes to our body shop, whatever rolls in there is what they work on. So it could be any three of our Cup teams."
While it's not an inexpensive process, the cost pales in contrast to the millions of dollars sponsors invest each year in race teams. At a cost estimated by Spicer to be around $15,000 per car for labor and paint, it's a small price to pay for the brand recognition of a beautifully finished race car.