Toolboxes a thing of the past, so what do Truck drivers want now?
Thinking Outside The Box
Camping World hasn't announced its own winner's gift to follow in the tradition of Craftsman's familiar toolboxes, but Truck series drivers have a few suggestions:
"I think they should give us a motor home, but I guess that's not practical."
-- Ron Hornaday Jr.
"Maybe tickets to a travel resort?"
-- Dennis Setzer
"A mini-RV or a mini pop-up tent."
-- Brendan Gaughan
"A gas Coleman lantern."
-- Todd Bodine
"Motor-home accessories every race would be kind of cool -- you know how you drain your dirty water from your motor home, where they give you a hose? Though people would think you're kind of weird if you've got a hose sitting in your trophy case."
-- David Starr
As he had done in each of five previous trips to Victory Lane, Terry Cook hoisted the Craftsman toolbox and sent it airborne with a spin, showing everyone the inside of the lid that declared him the winner of the 2006 Truck series race at Kansas Speedway.
Then it came down, and Cook realized -- oops! -- the toolmaker had built a better, heftier box in the four years since the last time he finished first. Crash!
"I couldn't catch it," Cook said. "It came tumbling down on the truck, dented the truck and hit crew members in the back. I did more damage after the race in Victory Lane with the toolbox than I did winning the darn race. One drawer won't even close, I dropped it so hard. I still have that toolbox."
Well, of course. If you won any Craftsman Truck Series race from its 1995 inception through last year, you or your team kept the toolbox as a prized possession. Cook has one from all six of his wins. Todd Bodine's 15 boxes are prominently arranged in a pyramid over an entryway at the Germain Racing shop. Ron Hornaday Jr., the three-time series champion and all-time leading race winner with 39, has a few from back in the day, but now signs and gives them to crewmen in order of seniority.
"It's kind of neat to go to these guys' houses and you see the toolbox," said Hornaday, who won last year's championship in a Camping World-sponsored Chevrolet. "It's their little trophy, too."
But with Camping World taking over as the title sponsor of the Truck series in 2009, the coveted winner's toolbox will become a thing of the past. The new series promoter has a tough act to follow in the trophy department. To racers, the basic three-drawer red box, which wouldn't draw a second glance in any average Joe's workshop, was a priceless reward at the track. To Craftsman, it was the centerpiece of a 14-year run that redefined sponsorship activation in motorsports.
There are certainly far more pressing issues in the Truck series this offseason: Bobby Hamilton Racing folded last month, Mansfield (Ohio) Motorsports Park dropped its 2009 race date Wednesday and much uncertainty remains amid this horrid economy. But once the racing resumes in mid-February at Daytona, keep an eye on the "other" prize at Victory Lane.
"Hopefully they'll come up with something unique, something cool," four-time winner David Starr said. "Everybody [was] aiming to win a toolbox. Even though you had the trophy from the event you won, you also had that toolbox. You don't want to scratch it, you don't want to hurt it; you want to set it up like a trophy."
NASCAR, along with most forms of motorsports, doesn't do trophies particularly well. There are recognizable favorites like the grandfather clocks given to winners at Martinsville and the custom-made guitars at Nashville. But most are forgettable, changing from year to year as race title sponsors spin through a constantly revolving door.
Other ploys by series sponsors to get their names in photos and TV shots from atop cars in Victory Lane have been lame at best. Sprint uses an oversized cell phone. The former Busch Series used oversized beer cases. Now, as the Nationwide Series, it simply perches a company sign aboard the winner's car.
Craftsman struck gold immediately with its toolbox in 1995, and the only tweak it made came a couple of years after the series began, when the company started etching the race date and track under the lid.
"Like a lot of other sponsors, we were just trying to get brand visibility in Victory Lane with the toolbox," said Scott Howard, manager of marketing partnership and activation for Sears, Craftsman's parent company. "It started out as an unbranded toolbox. Then what we were finding was a lot of the drivers actually wanted that more than they wanted the actual trophy from the racetrack."
For all the other innovations Craftsman created to get its brand name noticed -- from windshield decals (since copied by many other series) to spotlighting new tools during race broadcasts -- a toolbox that retails for about $60 became the most recognizable element. "A natural billboard," Howard calls it. After all, does any race team not have a toolbox or two? Or 20?
"I've got some cool trophies, but just the fact that the toolboxes always had the date and the name of the race, you could line them up side by side and get to see exactly how many you got," said Brendan Gaughan, an owner of eight boxes. "That Craftsman toolbox was an iconic symbol for Craftsman and the Truck series."
"Camping World should continue that, hopefully they've got really good people thinking about it, because that was a fun, special thing."
That has been duly noted at the Illinois headquarters of the RV and outdoor accessories giant (located about a half-hour away from Craftsman's home). Camping World officials admit they don't know yet what they'll award winners at Victory Lane, but they recognize drivers and fans will scrutinize it.
"We absolutely want to follow that trend and figure out which one of our products to use, or what we can build to make that iconic piece that people will remember Camping World by," said Diana Ardelean, the company's senior vice president of marketing. "We've got some really neat products that would make sense and I think the drivers could have some fun with. Ideally, it's something that doesn't collect dust on a shelf."
And, ideally, something Terry Cook won't have any trouble with.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.