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Maine Sponsors NASCAR Race Car To Promote Tourism, Business Climate

Patty Wright, MPBN

It's being billed as the first-ever public-private sponsorship of a race car. Today Gov. Paul LePage announced that the state of Maine will use Fort Kent NASCAR driver Austin Theriault's car as a billboard for the slogan, "Maine is open for business." The sponsorship cost the state $50,000. Some are celebrating the move, while others question whether it will drive business to the state.

There were lots of snapshots taken of the Maine-themed race car while it was parked in downtown Portland Friday morning. Miss Maine and Miss Teen Maine were on hand for photo opps in front of the striped blue car, emblazoned with images of lobster, moose, blueberries, and a lighthouse. Dark letters across the side of the car declare: "Maine Open for Business."

Gov. LePage says he wants to send that message to a wider audience. "Hundreds of thousands of people are gonna see it," he said. "It's a very active sport,"

The sport is NASCAR, and 20-year-old Austin Theriault from Fort Kent is the driver who will race the car on Sept. 20 in Kentucky, for broadcast on ESPN. The car is entirely Maine-sponsored, from private companies to the state itself. Theriault's attorney and agent, Fred Lipp, lauded the rookie driver's decision to forgo the usual Fortune 500 company sponsorships in favor of sponsors from his home state.

"What if you proposed to the state and to NASCAR that you would make history on the stage of American's most-watched and beloved sport, and celebrate our state so people will invest here, haul their RVs up here, attend our local races at Beech Ridge, go up to Acadia, go up to Fort Kent, and spend money in Maine?" Lipp said.

There are big hopes for Theriault and for what his race car can do for Maine. It cost $200,000 to sponsor the car for the Kentucky race. The state of Maine chipped in $50,000 - $35,000 is from the state's tourism budget, and $15,000 is from contingency funds.

Gov. LePage says the money is worth it. "There are many business people that may look at 'Maine Open for Business' and come up and talk to us," he said. "We're inviting them up, and if they don't come to open a business in Maine, they might come up to visit."

But University of New Hampshire Marketing Professor Ludwig Bsteiler is skeptical of the return Maine will see on its advertising efforts."It's a nice idea to sponsor a local race car driver, but in terms of the outcome, it's very questionable," Bsteiler says.

Bstieler equates these kinds of sponsorships to advertising on highway billboards: It's difficult to measure effectiveness. He says Maine's money would be better spent on more targeted marketing - things like summer meet-and-greets for business people already vacationing in the state.

Any sponsorships, Bsteiler says, should reflect a company's - or in this case, state's - core values. "Using a race car to me - at least based on the information I have - stands in direct opposition to what Maine stands for. It's speed versus serenity or tranquility," Bstieler says.

But Peter DelGreco, of Maine and Company, a non-profit that attracts businesses to Maine and is also a sponsor of Theriault's car, says he sees the NASCAR sponsorship as an opportunity to make his phone ring.

"Talk to us. Let me - let my organization - introduce you to people around the state that are creating jobs, that are employing people," DelGreco says. "We'll show you how to do it successfully and profitably."

In addition to the race in Kentucky, the car will make appearances in three more events outside of the state. Gov. LePage says the car drives home the message he's been saying for four years - that Maine is open for business. And with Austin Theriault behind the wheel, he says it will also drive home Maine's strong work ethic that can take a kid from Fort Kent to a national NASCAR audience.

Patty is a graduate of the University of Vermont and a multiple award-winning reporter for Maine Public Radio. Her specialty is health coverage: from policy stories to patient stories, physical health to mental health and anything in between. Patty joined Maine Public Radio in 2012 after producing stories as a freelancer for NPR programs such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She got hooked on radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, and hasn’t looked back ever since.
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