CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It took 22 years for Miller Lite to make it to the top of NASCAR, and Brad Keselowski made it worth the wait when he cheerfully chugged the beer from on oversized glass during a live televised interview while celebrating his first Sprint Cup championship last November.
It was an iconic moment in the relationship between Penske Racing and MillerCoors, one that spans more than 30 years and ranks among the longest in sports.
Now it’s guaranteed to continue at least another four years as Penske on Wednesday revealed multiyear extensions with both Keselowski and Miller Lite through the 2017 season.
“This puts us in great shape because we’ve got continuity with a sponsor and an elite driver,” team owner Roger Penske told The Associated Press.
It’s the second contract extension for the defending Sprint Cup champion in less than two years. Keselowski signed an extension after the 2011 season that ran through next year, and the contract was redone to put the driver and sponsor in concurrent deals.
Keselowski said discussions on the extension began after last year’s championship as he and Penske charted a plan on how to stay on top of NASCAR. Keselowski cited the continuity of Jimmie Johnson, who won five consecutive championships with the same crew chief and sponsor.
“I feel like together, Roger and I have done some great things. I have a lot of confidence in him, I like the way he treats me and hopefully he would say the same about me,” Keselowski told AP. “It makes me feel very comfortable to go the extra mile to sign a long-term deal.
“At this point in time, with all these deals lined up, the health, the future of Penske Racing and its employees is now secured, at minimum, for the next half-decade.”
Miller Lite has been the primary sponsor of Penske’s flagship No. 2 since 1991. MillerCoors first partnered with Penske as a sponsor at race tracks he owned, and was sponsor of Danny Sullivan’s 1985 Indianapolis 500 winning car, building a personal relationship with Penske that survived up-and-down seasons in NASCAR.
“The relationship has lasted so long because of Roger Penske without that much success on the track,” said Andy England, the MillerCoors chief marketing officer. “So when we actually won the Sprint Cup together, that was just the icing on the cake. The cake itself is the strength of the relationship we have with Roger and his team.”
It also comes at a time when sponsors are rethinking their participation in NASCAR. Not MillerCoors.
“There is a large wave of beer-drinking guys who really enjoy NASCAR and it makes sense for us to be there,” England said. “These are still enormously attended events, and they don’t just shop for three hours. They shop for four days. There’s huge levels of commitment for this sport, and we need to be there.”
The new MillerCoors contract covers just 24 races on the No. 2 Ford instead of the full 36-race schedule Miller Lite had always sponsored. But both Penske and England said the 12-race giveback was at Penske’s request.
The cost of sponsorship fluctuates with the economy, and MillerCoors was one of the few companies still sponsoring a full schedule. Race teams set their own fees for inventory based on supply and demand, and top teams can pull in anywhere from $20 million to almost $30 million in a season.
The Penske organization believes it can sell those 12 races elsewhere to generate new revenue.
“You start to look across the Cup Series with the major sponsors and we need to keep them in the business across the long run,” Penske said. “We looked at going into markets twice, in fact, it was my idea, let us have those markets we got into a second time and give us a chance to bring in another world-class company. We have a number of people very interested in getting on with Brad.”
NASCAR’s top Sprint Cup Series visits 13 tracks twice a season, and Keselowski, the rare driver who pays close attention to the business side of the sport, said MillerCoors will increase its activity when it’s not on the hood of his car.
“It was Penske Racing that asked Miller to consider these options. We could have done exactly what we’ve done and had Miller come back long-term with 36 races,” he said. “But it was driven the other way, strategically, to open up races and increase the expenditure. Miller will now move it over to activation, and what’s going to happen in the long-term is there is going to be an increase in revenue in the sport, not a decrease.
“This is a huge strategic play that with the naked eye looks like a reduction, but I can assure you it’s not a reduction. It’s actually an increase to the sport. That might sound like spin, but there’s a strategic play here.”
There’s always a plan in play with Penske and Keselowski, and they executed this one to perfection.
“We’ve put Brad now in step with Miller far into the future, he fits the mold that they want. He’s open, he’s certainly willing to speak his piece, that’s what Miller wants, an athlete willing to represent their brand,” Penske said.
Joey Logano, the driver Keselowski recommended Penske hire as his teammate, earned his first career berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in his debut season with the organization. He’s got two years remaining on his contract and sponsor Shell-Pennzoil is in a long-term deal. Penske is also in the first year of a five-year manufacturer contract with Ford.