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Gibbs is full speed ahead in nurturing sponsors — and also in beating them on the racetrack

By Bill King
Interstate Batteries chairman Norm Miller values his friendship with Joe Gibbs, as well as all he has brought to promoting the sponsor relationship.courtesy of joe gibbs racing

The chairman of Interstate Batteries chuckles as he tells the story of his single experience racing cars against his uber-competitive friend and business associate Joe Gibbs.

Norm Miller and Gibbs were in Norfolk, Va., in 2009 to promote an indoor racing venture they invested in, which had midget cars racing on a 1/10th of a mile track — in essence, half-sized stock cars, turning tight left turns around the floor level of a basketball arena.

Gibbs was scheduled to appear and sign autographs before the event, then drive a 20-lap exhibition match race against Miller, who funded Gibbs’ first NASCAR entry and became a good friend.

It was relatively uneventful for five laps, as the two men got the feel for their cars and the tight track. Then, on the sixth lap, Gibbs tried to dive under Miller as they entered Turn 4.

When Gibbs’ left front clipped the right rear of Miller’s car, he sent his friend into a spin, and then a barrel roll, bounding up the track.

Miller treasures a photo of that moment that hangs in his Dallas office, his black and neon green Interstate Batteries car going airborne as Gibbs’ orange Home Depot car slides by.

“He was scared to death,” Miller said, laughing as he recalled the wreck that ended the exhibition prematurely. “He thought I was going to get killed.”

At the very least, Gibbs might reasonably have feared he’d just cost himself a sponsor. But Miller wasn’t taking Interstate Batteries anywhere.

It was Miller who wrote the check that got Gibbs on the track in 1992, when he won his third Super Bowl with the Redskins and rolled into Daytona a week later, bringing a spotlight rarely offered to a first-time race entrant.            

Miller saw he’d hit the jackpot.

Thirty years later, his opinion hasn’t changed. NASCAR’s cost structure has risen dramatically since then, putting the sort of full-season primary sponsor package that the battery company started out with beyond the company’s budget. But Interstate Batteries remains a highly visible sponsor of Joe Gibbs Racing, serving as primary on its familiar No. 18 driven by Kyle Busch for six races this year. It also will sponsor a car driven by Gibbs’ grandson, Ty, for three races.

“The whole thing has been a wonderful thing for us,” Miller said. “And we couldn’t have ever expected to find a better partner to hook up with to try to advance your business.”

Miller pointed to Gibbs’ engagement with the company as the key. From the beginning, Gibbs has been a fixture at Interstate’s hospitality area before each race, signing autographs and posing for pictures. He appears regularly at Interstate’s national meetings and conventions.

After most races, Gibbs is on the phone, or sending texts, to sponsor company CEOs and executives who didn’t make the trip. He’s been known to get them on the line and hand the phone to a driver in Victory Lane.

“He’s got a charm with sponsors,” said Rick Hendrick, a fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner and winner of 14 championships in its premier division. “People respect him. And he’s an NFL Super Bowl champion, so he can get in doors. He’s got this magic about him. I’ve known a lot of guys that were jerks that haven’t had half the success that he’s had. He’s just totally different.”

Over the years, Gibbs and Miller often have traveled together with their wives. They shared a boat trip in Florida and went to Hawaii together for an Interstate convention. They spent five days together on an RV trip in Canada.

While they have built a friendship and Gibbs remains a reliably popular attraction at the company’s events, Miller is candid about what has kept the company around.

“You want it real simple? He wins,” Miller said. “You know? He wins. And he’s just a tactician at building the step-by-step momentum you need to do that, based on a plan. He attacks things with a game plan. It comes from the training he got in football.

“He’s 81, so he’s had a good long time to work it out. He’s not new to the steps it takes to move to the front.”

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