The Air Force Can’t Quit NASCAR

At Daytona, the flying branch is just another desperate advertiser

The Air Force Can’t Quit NASCAR The Air Force Can’t Quit NASCAR
This story originally appeared on Feb. 29, 2016. America’s most famous auto raceway looms large between a beach and a mall not far from... The Air Force Can’t Quit NASCAR

This story originally appeared on Feb. 29, 2016.

America’s most famous auto raceway looms large between a beach and a mall not far from the airport in Daytona Beach, eastern Florida’s self-styled “Spring Break Capital of the World.” From a distance, the Daytona International Speedway’s 10,000 red, white and blue seats never look empty.

In fact, the place is usually quiet. Workers give daily tours, allowing the curious to wander the expanse of asphalt. Locals fish for bass in a small lake in the middle of the track. But Feb. 21 isn’t just any day. This is the date of the Great American Race, when thousands of people descend on Daytona for the opening event of the NASCAR season.

The Daytona 500.

It’s the biggest, baddest, loudest of NASCAR’s 36 top-level annual races. Forty drivers steer 3,300-pound stock cars at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, traveling 500 miles in 200 laps around the track. Drivers sweat away up to five pounds of water weight as the temperature inside their cars rises to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are crashes. Sometimes drivers or members of their pit crew die.

The Air Force has chosen this race — actually, the stadium’s vast parking lot — as the venue for a very public and auspicious ceremony. With around a hundred race fans respectfully watching, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James leads 30 new Air Force recruits reciting their oath of enlistment.

“I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me,” the young recruits chant. When it’s all over, the audience applauds. Civilians mingle with the aspiring airmen, congratulating and thanking them. And then everyone joins the throngs filing into the stadium. The spectacle is about to begin. A very American spectacle of roaring cars, burning rubber and hollering race fans.

For all their exuberance, the events on this sunny day at Daytona — with its collision of automobiles, a mass audience and the military — are anything but spontaneous. The U.S. military — specifically, the Air Force — pays big bucks to add martial flair to NASCAR races, all in an effort to draw in the very recruits that James and other service officials frequently swear in at the races.

No. 43 pit crew get ready for their racecar to enter the pit for a tire change, Aug. 2, 2015, at the Windows 10 400 at the Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. The Air Force is using NASCAR's large fan base to recruit future Airmen interested in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career fields. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/Released)The Car #43 pit crew on Aug. 2, 2015 at the Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. At top — the Thunderbirds fly over Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 22, 2015. U.S. Air Force photos

The Air Force firmly believes that NASCAR represents one of its best recruiting opportunities. There’s plenty of evidence that the Air Force is wrong — that it’s pumping millions of dollars a year into racing in order to bait a tiny number of enlistees from an American population growing more and more disinterested in military service.

On the other hand, the raw numbers might not tell the whole story. It’s true that racetrack recruiting directly draws in very few enlistees. But it could also be true that the Air Force-NASCAR team-up is helping the flying branch to insinuate itself into the culture of a demographic that the military increasingly relies on to fill its ranks as more and more other Americans simply lose all interest.

According to that theory, race fans join the Air Force not because they briefly glimpse the Air Force’s logo on a race car once or twice at Daytona, but because, over time, the flying branch and its contractors and NASCAR and its own most famous drivers essentially whisper into the fans’ ears, year after year, race after race, that joining the military is a great idea. And the fans — a few of them, at least — believe it.

Of course, whispering is probably the wrong metaphor for an event as gaudy and loud as NASCAR. In truth, nothing associated with NASCAR is quiet or subtle, even if its effects can be.

Just outside the gate leading into the Daytona speedway this day in February, a man dressed as Donald Trump cavorts for the cameras. Another man stands on the edge of the parking lot screeching into a megaphone about the sin of idolatry while, not far away, fans gaze upon a bronze statue of famed driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

People say baseball is America’s favorite pastime and that football is the quintessentially American sport. They’re wrong. NASCAR — with its focus on the grit and instinct of one person, the ever-present risk of death, racing’s obscene quantities of money and a history rooted in gangsters and rum-running — is truly America’s sport. Of course the military wants a piece.

After the swearing-in ceremony, Air Force secretary James retreats from the parking lot, dons a baseball cap, blue polo and casual slacks and joins other American luminaries including baseball star Ken Griffey, Jr. and wrestler John Cena inside the speedway.

These celebrities and others parade before the crowd for two hours before the race kicks off. The 82nd Airborne Division’s All-American Chorus — the only Army presence at Daytona this day in February — performs for 20 minutes. Country band Florida Georgia Line caws its hit song “This Is How We Roll.” The 82nd chorus comes back to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

And as the anthem reaches its crescendo, there’s a rumble in the air. Some spectators pull out their smartphones and aim them skyward.

Five sleek Air Force F-16 fighter jets cut across the sky. “Yeah!” a man in the crowd hollers. “Who’s gonna fuck with us if they see that?” The jets disappear into the Florida sunshine only to return 15 minutes later to more cheering from the crowd.

Actor Gerard Butler throws the flag that starts the race. Butler is Scottish. But he protected the president in 2013’s loud, dumb action flick Olympus Has Fallen, so in a way he’s more American than anyone.

2266462752_62883356ed_bAbove — a scene from Daytona, 2008. Tequilamike/Flickr photo

Wanting a piece

At Daytona, advertisers blend seamlessly with the showmen and athletes. The race cars sport the logos of M&M, FedEx, McDonald’s. In the parking lot outside the raceway, vendors set up booths shilling products to the thousands of race fans who tailgate for hours before, during and after the race.

Daytona is a marketing goldmine — and not just for companies with products to sell. The U.S. military, too, has been eager to capture the NASCAR audience. And to recruit from it.

Until a few years ago, every branch of the military sponsored NASCAR drivers and sent its recruiters to races. But the NASCAR recruitment drives cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and reportedly convinced only a few young men and women to immediately enlist.

There was scandal. Congress investigated. The Marines, Navy, Army and National Guard cut most of their ties to NASCAR.

But not the Air Force. Despite potentially worrying evidence that it’s wasting the public’s money and its own time, the flying branch is still betting big on NASCAR to bring in new airmen.

In 2014 the Air Force spent more than $2.3 million sponsoring motorsports firms, sports teams and racing theme parks. Among the deals were various forms of “paid patriotism” — seemingly selfless tributes to the military at sporting events which are in fact Pentagon recruiting efforts in disguise.

More than $1.5 million went to NASCAR alone, according to a November 2015 report by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans.

Between January and September 2014, the Air Force’s booths at NASCAR events netted 18 percent of all new recruits generated by the flying branch’s sponsorship projects, according to a briefing by advertising agency and Air Force contractor GSD&M.

“The sport has a strong, patriotic fan base which provides a great opportunity for inspiring and building awareness of USAF as a service,” the contractor explained in the briefing. “NASCAR aligns well with USAF’s target audience’s interests.”

NASCAR is receptive to the military’s outreach efforts. The Pentagon offers good money, and in return, NASCAR and its teams allow the military to display its logos on drivers’ clothing and cars and on the walls around the track itself.

And then there are the recruiting efforts outside the speedway, in the tailgating zone.

At Daytona this year, the Air Force has brought along a mockup of a race car it sponsors. The mockup of Car #43 is sliced in half like a cutaway to reveal the vehicle’s internal machinery. Long after the flag has dropped and the race has begun, curious fans are still ogling the car’s mechanical guts.

“It’s a recruiting tool,” explains the car’s minder, a well-tanned contractor with a grey beard, wearing a blue shirt emblazoned with logos from the Air Force, NASCAR and Eckrich, a meat-canning company. He gives his name as “T-Bone.” “We swear-in about 20 airmen each week,” T-Bone says. “So the tool works.”

The Air Force employs 317,000 active-duty airmen. It needs to recruit no fewer than 25,000 people every year to make up for those leaving the service. If T-Bone’s numbers are accurate and he’s bringing in 20 airmen every week of the NASCAR season, then his team is responsible for a seemingly significant proportion of the Air Force’s total recruits — perhaps one out of 20.

But T-Bone is probably wrong. According to GSD&M’s data, the Air Force only recruited a total of seven people at 22 NASCAR events between January and October 2014. That represented a decline from 2013, when the flying branch recruited a total of 25 people at 31 races.

Worse, the Air Force spends an average of $11,000 to recruit a single new airman, according to the RAND Corporation, a California think tank with close ties to the flying branch. But dividing the Air Force’s NASCAR-sponsorship budget by the number of direct recruits the sponsorship netted results in an eye-watering per-recruit cost of $329,000.

For NASCAR marketing to be worth the $2.3 million the Air Force annually spends at the races, the flying branch would have to recruit 200 new airmen every year. Far fewer than the thousand that T-Bone optimistically attributes to the NASCAR recruiting effort. But way more than the seven direct racing recruits that the Air Force’s own marketing contractor officially counted.

In T-Bone’s defense, the swearing-in ceremonies at the racetracks paint a deceptive picture of recruiting success. As part of the Pentagon’s “delayed enlistment program,” Air Force officials can lead new recruits in their oath-taking then give them a much later date for reporting to boot camp. But delayed-enlistment is a no-strings-attached agreement. The individual can back out at any time before their enlistment date with no repercussions.

The Air Force recruiters at Daytona shrug off talk of hard numbers. “It’s a big marketing event for the Air Force,” one of the recruiters says. That’s marketing, as opposed to recruiting. With enough positive exposure to the Air Force over time, a young person will be more inclined to enlist. Eventually.

At least, that’s the idea. And in line with that idea, it can be hard to attribute a recruit’s decision to enlist to any particular marketing effort. That unified theory of military recruitment helps explain the Air Force’s continued commitment to NASCAR. What’s remarkable is that the Air Force still believes in racing even after the other military branches finally decided NASCAR isn’t worth the cost and invested their recruiting efforts, and budgets, elsewhere.

The flying branch apparently believes in NASCAR because it believes NASCAR’s fans are … special. Joshua Newman, a sociologist with Florida State University’s Department of Sport Management, says that car races are attractive to recruiters because motorsports fans are more likely than typical youths to identify with the armed forces or know someone in the military. Their friends might be interested in joining, too.

And who are these fans? According to JD Motosports, a NASCAR racing team, nine percent of fans are between the ages of 18 and 24, compared to 12 percent nationwide. Twenty-eight percent of NASCAR fans have children under the age of 18, compared to 36 percent of all Americans. Those stats don’t seem to argue for NASCAR’s unique value to the Air Force.

But these stats do. Seventy percent of NASCAR fans are male. Perhaps not coincidentally, 70 percent of airmen are men. And according to JD Motorsports, “fans are more likely to live in the South and Midwest.” In 2014 the Pentagon reported that 62 percent of airmen hail from the South and Midwest, which together are home to 58 percent of the American population, according to the 2010 U.S. census.

NASCAR is almost exactly as Southern, and as male, as the Air Force is. And then there’s the little matter of, ahem, ideology. In its reports, GSD&M does not shy away from describing race fans as “patriotic.” They might not be storming the local recruiting office pleading to enlist, but race fans listen when the military talks — especially when the military talks through racing. “NASCAR and their teams have provided an important platform for promoting military ideals,” Newman says.

Plus, race fans are what T-Bone calls “brand-loyal,” even when the brand in question is an armed service of the United States. “So even if a person may not be interested in joining the Air Force, they may know someone in their family that is,” T-Bone explains while standing beside his cutaway car at Daytona.

To be considered successful, the Air Force’s NASCAR efforts don’t have to immediately convince a race fan to enlist. He might join up later. Or simply convince a friend to enlist in his place. The flying branch’s racetrack marketing efforts reflect this long-lead philosophy.

While T-Bone keeps an eye on his car mock-up, his partner Janie presides over an elaborate video game installation in a tent. To play, you first supply your personal information on one of several tablets. Recruiters can follow up on these “registrants” and find out which qualify as “leads” — those likely to join the military.

“You can play the game without registering,” Janie explains, large Ray-Ban sunglasses shielding her eyes from the blazing Florida sun. “But we’d prefer people go through with it.” She wears the same blue shirt as T-Bone, “USA” in big letters across the shoulders.

Having registered, the player proceeds to a game that simulates a race, but where the player’s car advances only when you correctly answer NASCAR and Air Force trivia questions. At the end of the weekend, the registered user who finishes the trivia game fastest wins a hat autographed by famed racer Richard Petty. “The chance to win an Air Force racing hat signed by Richard Petty is a great incentive for fans to register,” GSD&M pointed out in its 2014 overview. “We can partially attribute the increase in registrants to this.”

“Parents encourage their children to participate in these experiences at alarming rates,” Newman said. “The line to enter the [game] is usually one of the longest at any stop outside a NASCAR track.”

The Thunderbirds Delta Formation flies over the Daytona International Speedway during the opening ceremony Feb. 22, 2015, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Couillard)The Thunderbirds over Daytona, February 2015. U.S. Air Force photo

Selling a brand

As the hard recruitment numbers prove, the lines outside the Air Force’s video game tents are deceptive. The truth is, recruiting has always been hard — and it’s gotten harder as millennials have come to dominate the pool of potential service members.

Of 435 respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 in a 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics poll, 60 percent said they supported sending ground troops to fight Islamic State. But just two percent reported recently joining the military to, you know, actually fight Islamic State. Four percent said they would “definitely” enlist if the military needed more troops. Nine percent said they’d consider enlisting. A staggering 85 percent said, in essence, no way.

That poll marks the continued erosion in young people’s interest in military service. A 2002 report from the official Defense Manpower Data Center charts, in men ages 16 to 21, the gradual decline over time in their “propensity” to enlist. In 1991, 34 percent of men in that age bracket indicated a strong interest in military service. That slipped to 25 percent by mid-2001, putting 75 percent in the “no way” category 15 years ago, up from 66 percent a decade prior.

Sixty-six percent. Seventy-five. Eighty-five. The trend toward “no” is hard to mistake. More and more young people just don’t want to enlist.

To help its recruiting efforts keep up with the public’s changing expectations, in 2001 the Air Force hired GSD&M, an Austin-based advertising firm. GSD&M’s other clients include Walmart, Mastercard and Krispy Kreme. Perhaps sensing the military’s increasing Southernness, the company decided automotive sports was the way to go. It reorganized the flying branch’s recruiting schedule and added stops at NASCAR races.

GSD&M tried a little of everything, but got the best response from interactive experiences including two tricked-out sports cars jointly called “Project Supercar” and “Rapid Strike,” a tent filled with touch screens, video games and a simulator ride that mimics piloting fighter jets and parachuting out of airplanes.

Project Supercar is partnership between the flying branch and Galpin Auto Sports. Air Force personnel worked with Galpin’s technicians to build two vehicles to highlight the service’s missions — a white Ford Mustang called “X1” and a black Dodge Challenger dubbed “Vapor” sporting custom interiors modeled on fighters’ cockpits. The cars have faux ejector seats, advanced military-style GPS, flight sticks and touchscreen consoles that display the car’s surroundings in night vision.

X1 and Vapor are absent in Daytona this year. T-Bone’s cutaway car fills in for them.

In addition to the simulators and car displays, since 2000 the Air Force has paid to slap its logo on no fewer than three competing race cars. For 2016, the service plans to continue its relationship with Richard Petty Motorsports and its Car #43. This year, #43’s driver is Aric “The Cuban Missile” Almirola, a Cuban-American Air Force brat who was born at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

“Having a dad that was in the Air Force really made me appreciate our partnership with the Air Force initially, but after working with them the last four seasons, it’s the men and women of the Air Force that we meet every week that really resonate with me,” Almirola said in 2014.

“The sacrifice these military members make every day to make our country safe is the ultimate gift to Americans.”

Stress balls in the shape of the U.S. Air Force NASCAR race car sit on a table at Hangar 43 in the Fun Zone June 1, 2013, at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. The 314th Recruiting Squadron uses the cars as a recruiting tool. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Jared Duhon)Car-shaped stress balls with the Air Force logo sit the Hangar 43 Fun Zone at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware. U.S. Air Force photo

In a sport where the engines alone cost $100,000, sponsoring cars is expensive. Sponsorships typically start at $250,000 — and that often only buys a sponsor prime real estate on the car during one race. A racing team must spend a minimum of $5.5 million “to run a competitive, top-20 team,” according to NASCAR’s Website.

The high cost didn’t seem to faze the Army National Guard, which lavished around $30 million a year from 2008 to 2014 sponsoring superstar Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt’s $30-million contract accounted for 37 percent of the $56 million the Army Guard spent on marketing at motorsports events. The price tag startled Congress, which in 2014 demanded to know how many recruits that cash bought.

As with the Air Force’s numbers, it depends on who you ask. USA Today reported that the Guard received 24,800 leads from NASCAR events in 2012. “Of that group, only 20 met the Guard’s qualifications for entry into the service, and not one of them joined,” the newspaper explained.

Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, disagreed. “Who is our best target audience? NASCAR fans, who are some of the most patriotic sports fans,” he told The Washington Post in 2013. Hudson claimed that 90 percent of the Army National Guard’s recruits between 2007 to 2013 said they learned about the Guard from NASCAR-related materials.

Problematically, Hudson took his numbers from a study funded by Hendrick Motorsports, the company that employs Earnhardt.

To deflate the bloated NASCAR budgets, the House of Representatives considered a bill that would have banned all military sports sponsorships. It was defeated by a 216-to-212 vote in 2013, but the military got the message and most of the branches abandoned their NASCAR sponsorships.

The Navy stopped sponsoring cars in 2008 and the Army’s last car retired in 2012. The branches cited the expense and hazy recruitment numbers as their reason for pulling out.

“Based on cost-benefit analysis, termination of that contract was one of our first priorities,” Alison Bettencourt, the chief of communications for the Army Marketing and Research Group, told War Is Boring. The service no longer has any national-level deals with NASCAR.

The Marine Corps didn’t think it was worth it, either. “We did have a Busch Series car via a contract with Rensi Motorsports from 2000 to 2006,” the Marine Corps Recruiting Command explained. “That endeavor ended due to a reduced advertising budget and difficulty assessing the number of leads generated directly from our participation.”

One by one and with a push from Congress, the armed services decided that NASCAR-based recruiting just wasn’t working. Only the Air Force has held out. In 2016, the Air Force is sponsoring Car #43 in two races — the Memorial Day weekend race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Veteran’s Day Race at Phoenix International Speedway.

The Air Force clearly sees the sponsorships as worth the cost, even though its sister services disagree. Either the Air Force is on to something, or it has no clue what it’s doing or who it’s trying to reach.

Aric Almirola, No. 43 car driver laces his shoes before climbing into the Air Force sponsored car, Aug. 2, 2015, at the Windows 10 400 at the Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. The Air Force is using NASCAR's large fan base to recruit future Airmen interested in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career fields. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/Released)NASCAR driver Aric Almirola and Car #43 at Pocono on Aug. 2, 2015. U.S. Air Force photo

Everyone’s a winner

The differences of opinion in the armed forces over the value of NASCAR recruiting is indicative of the military’s own apparent confusion over the very public it fights to protect and relies upon for a steady stream of recruits.

Leaving aside NASCAR’s rarified martial displays, the military has fewer and more tenuous connections to the general public than ever before. By and large, Americans don’t “get” the military and the military doesn’t “get” everyday Americans. It can no longer rely on conscription — which ended in 1973 — and must instead sell enlistment to a public that has the option of saying no.

Plus the military is smaller as a proportion of the overall population than it’s been in many decades. During World War II, one out of every eight Americans was in uniform. Today it’s one out of 200. Many Americans not only never served — they don’t even know many people who have done so.

That almost automatically leads to more theatrical and ridiculous measures as the military desperately tries to connect with an increasingly disinterested populace. But this doesn’t mean the all-American love of military displays, however abstract, is insincere.

“The popular adulation is some cases comes from a sense of guilt with regard to the way Vietnam-era soldiers were treated and also it came from the perception that this all-volunteer force was a winning team, and Americans like to root for a winning team,” retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, an historian and author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, told War Is Boring.

Bacevich served in the Army in Vietnam and led the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He’s been particularly critical of civil-military relations. His son, Army first lieutenant Andrew J. Bacevich, Jr., died in 2007 while on patrol in Iraq.

NASCAR and the military has made the metaphor between war and being on the “winning team” explicit in its recruiting strategy. In a 2008 Army National Guard commercial, Kid Rock performed to a montage of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. winning a race and Guardsmen fighting in a generic Middle Eastern country. The obvious message — join the military and … you can be like Earnhardt.

“Particularly after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the professional military looked like the winningest team in all history,” Bacevich said. “It became easy to not ask critical questions about what soldiers are expected to do and where they’re sent to do it.”

More troubling, these measures have concealed how large the civil-military divide has become. We’re a country of pro-military patriots who don’t serve, and don’t have the faintest idea of what any of that means. “That divide is camouflaged by the continuous expressions of high regard, public expressions of high regard, that have become such a commonplace feature in American daily life,” Bacevich said.

“But I would argue strongly that those expressions of high regard are fundamentally fraudulent.” Maybe so, but abstract celebration of all things military that’s so evident at NASCAR is clearly vital to the Air Force’s recruiting strategy, whether or not that strategy actually works or is cost-effective.

Find an audience that’s Southern, male and patriotic. Forge an association in the minds of spectators whereby racers are winners and racers love airmen and therefore airmen are winners, too. Show potential recruits a good time with video games, and get their digits in order to begin building a network of likeminded young people.

Follow up, but don’t worry about being too pushy. If you’ve done your job right, the young people themselves will sell your brand to their friends and relatives. You might not get a lot of recruits raising their hands and swearing oaths as NASCAR events. But over time, the constant equating of fast cars and daring drivers with fast planes and brave pilots should convince enough kids that joining the Air Force is as fun and rewarding as being a NASCAR fan is.

A basic trainee (rainbow) receives his first military hair cut during his initial days on Lackland AFB, San Antonio TX.A basic trainee gets a shave at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. U.S. Air Force photo

Recruiting is not a spectacle

Of course, there’s another way to recruit — one that doesn’t count on big, loud displays of military might, the kind that Bacevich argues are fraudulent and which lie at the heart of the Air Force’s raceway recruiting gambit. This alternative way of bringing in new recruits doesn’t need NASCAR and doesn’t cost millions of dollars. It might also be more honest about

More than 2,500 miles away from Daytona Beach at Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma, Washington, Technical Sgt. Ryan Bauman of the Air Force’s 361st Recruiting Squadron focuses his recruiting efforts on a 728,000 square-mile area stretching from Oregon to Washington and even parts of Alaska.

This is not the South. NASCAR is not the cultural phenomenon here that is in more southerly parts of the country. To find the right people, Bauman has to get personal. His is a recruiting laser compared to the veritable marketing carpet-bombing that the Air Force-NASCAR campaign represents.

“On a local level, most [recruiting] events are geared towards specific audiences,” Bauman says. “This could be athletes at a CrossFit competition for our Special Operations career fields, or students at a science fair for our mechanical and electronic career fields.”

In Bauman’s way of identifying potential recruits, there’s always a direct link between a particular trade or career and an Air Force speciality. While searching for military doctors — always in demand — the recruiters will visit conferences for surgeons and medical experts. Instead of spectator sports, recruiters will visit participatory sports such as athletic competitions open to the public.

Though the military has struggled to convince millennials to serve, Bauman says he sees them as a generation with a lot to offer. “The millennials may get a bad rap for constantly being on their phone,” Bauman said. “But I can tell you they are the most understanding and socially conscious generation in history.”

Recruiters such as Bauman — who lives in the community where he works — are among the few remaining direct connections between the professional military community, who are often clustered around large military installations, and the civilian public. And that connection is vital to his recruiting efforts.

“[Millennials] value a career with a sense of purpose,” Bauman said. “When they see local recruiters helping out in their communities, it shows that the Air Force is an organization concerned about more than just protecting the nation.”

Individual recruiters can be highly effective — especially when they’re active members of their own communities. In fact, single recruiters often far outperform the Air Force’s entire motorsports campaign. In 2010, Master Sgt. Chris Brown of the 361st recruited 35 airmen, five times as many as joined at a whole season’s worth of NASCAR races four years later.

And Brown didn’t cost the Air Force $2.3 million. A master sergeant might earn $50,000 a year plus benefits.

NASCAR is hardly an obvious, immediate boon to Air Force recruiting. It might even represent a failure for military marketers, especially considering its high cost compared to the individual efforts of recruiters such as Bauman and Brown. But racing is still better at bringing in new airmen than, well, pretty much any other sport the Air Force teams up with.

At football games across the country, recruiters have few problems convincing civilians to hand over their names and contact information, but these registrants rarely go on to become airmen, soldiers, sailors or Marines.

During the first three quarters of 2014, Air Force recruiters at professional football and soccer games — and at Six Flags theme parks — got better traction in terms of registrants than at car races, according to GSD&M’s data. At one FC Dallas soccer game, recruiters took down nearly 50 names every hour for almost three hours, twice the average rate at any NASCAR event.

But none of this translated into anyone actually signing up. None of the leads from Six Flags or the Texas soccer club translated into new airmen. Booths at regular season Miami Dolphins football games didn’t get anyone into a uniform, either.

No. 43 car pit crew watches the pre race ceremony, Aug. 2, 2015, at the Windows 10 400 at the Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa. The Air Force is using NASCAR's large fan base to recruit future Airmen interested in Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career fields. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston/Released)The Car #43 pit crew during the pre-race ceremony at Pocono on Aug. 2, 2015. U.S. Air Force photo

Wherever you find them, most people are reluctant to even consider the military as a career, never mind viewing it as a worthwhile public service. The gap between the armed forces and the public is a wide one, and getting wider. And the greater the chasm, the more spectacular the military’s efforts to leap it could become.

The leap might not land. But you can’t blame the Air Force for at least trying to make it to the other side of the civil-military divide. The alternative to jumping is standing still … and watching the public draw farther and farther away.

Back at the Daytona 500, one fan named Bill sits in the stands, watching the race. “I wouldn’t want my kid to serve,” he says. “The leadership puts the military in a glass case. They don’t know how to use it or what’s it for.”

Bill says he served in the Navy back in the ‘90s, participating in drug interdiction operations in Latin America. He seems unimpressed by most of the military displays at the race, but he says he loves the Thunderbirds. As the F-16s roar overhead, he drops his hand from his heart — one of many spectators to do so — and grabs his cellphone to film the spectacle.

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