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Take America's love affair with trucks, throw in the U.S. passion for car racing and hit the throttle.

Once the smoke clears, what you've got is one of racing's hottest commodities, SuperTruck, the fast-growing pickup truck racing series of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing.

Launched in June 1994 as a niche concept with minimal TV exposure, SuperTruck has suddenly caught fire this year, picking up a load of new spectators, major network and cable TV coverage, and a raft of new sponsors, many of them newcomers to racing.

Nascar says SuperTruck's success has exceeded expectations, but since trucks are the No. 1 selling vehicle in the U.S. and Nascar is more popular than ever with core fans, it's no surprise that people enjoy seeing pickup trucks scream around a speedway.

The lure for sponsors is that truck owners and racing fans have a lot in common, and many of them are prime targets for marketers of home, lawn and garden, and do-it-yourself products.

Ortho Lawn & Garden, 1-800-COLLECT, Papa John's Pizza, Snapper Power Equipment and Extang (makers of truck bed covers) are among new sponsors of SuperTruck teams. This is also the companies' first spin into auto racing. Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s Craftsman also committed in '95 to a three-year overall series sponsorship.

The sponsor bargain of '95

SuperTruck may have been the sponsorship bargain of the year, thanks to high value for price tags far below Nascar's usual fees. It costs between $500,000 and $1.5 million to field a SuperTruck team, vs. $2 million to $5 million for team sponsorship of Nascar's flagship Winston Cup stock car racing series.

"Because it's a new series, it's a relatively uncluttered environment for sponsors at the moment, but that will probably change in the next few years," said Owen Kearns Jr., Nascar media coordinator.

Monsanto Corp.'s Ortho built a national retail promotion around its SuperTruck sponsorship, touring 300 major retailers including Wal-Mart Stores, Home Depot and Builders Square between May and October, demonstrating its race-ready truck to consumers. A SuperTruck tie-in sweepstakes was included.

Consumers, retailers "loved" truck

"People loved seeing our SuperTruck, and retailers loved it," said Ken Hazlett, Ortho's area marketing manager.

MCI Communications Corp.'s 1-800-COLLECT brand saw SuperTruck as a way to get to a "smaller, more concisely targeted" audience within the universe of Nascar fans, said Patricia Proferes, director of specialty brands.

SuperTruck racing is getting bigger. From 20 events at tracks containing 7,000 spectators, the 1996 season will feature 24 events at 35,000-capacity racetracks. All events will have live TV coverage, and radio is being added next year.

The races feature an average of 32 teams, each running a half-ton, full-size pickup such as a Ford F-150 or Dodge Ram. But the drivers seem to hail from all directions, from stock cars to monster truck racing.

"It's unusual," Mr. Kearns said, "and that seems to be why it's driving interest from new spectators, as well as sponsors."

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