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The Story Behind A ‘Happy Accident’ That Landed A Nascar Sponsorship

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ELKHART LAKE, WISCONSIN – JULY 02: Josh Bilicki, driver of the #44 Gravely Chevrolet, drives with … [+] signage debris after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Henry 180 at Road America on July 02, 2022 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Josh Bilicki competes part-time in both NASC
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R’s Cup and Xfinity series. On the weekend prior to the race at Watkins Glen, with no ride for the Cup race at Richmond that weekend, and no Xfinity race, the 27-year-old had no NASCAR racing to look forward to.

That didn’t mean he had nothing to do, however.

Bilicki has been racing most of his life, and in NASCAR since 2016. Not being with a big team, Bilicki handles most of the business side of his racing himself. That means when he’s not racing, he’s always thinking about how to get his next sponsor.

“Honestly, I think of my job as a race car driver, my certain position is probably 75% business, 25% race car driver,” he said. “I feel like a businessman more than I do a driver half the time, and it’s not always ideal; It’s a lot to balance.

“I know there’s a lot of drivers that have full teams dedicated to the marketing side and the business side, sponsor negotiations. And up until this point, I’ve handled every sponsor negotiation, everything myself. I mean, all the sponsors I’ve had have just been through cold calls or one connection leads to another connection. I live and I breathe this sport.”

His latest sponsor, however, didn’t need a cold call in the traditional sense. It actually came about due to a ‘happy’ accident. During the NASCAR Xfinity race on July 2 at Road America in Wisconsin, Bilicki was racing his No. 44 Chevrolet fielded by Spire Motorsports around the 4.048 road course fighting to get into the top 10. On lap 26 a multi-car crash erupted in front of him, Bilicki slowed, and a driver just behind tapped the Chevy of Bilicki sending the car into the grass.

Josh Bilicki, has raced all his life, but in NASCAR since 2016. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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As the car slid through the grass it hit a large sign on the side of the track facing the TV cameras. That sign remained firmly attached to the front of the car until Bilicki was able to make it come off. The sign was a bright yellow advertisement for Sargento cheese, a longtime Road America partner whose headquarters are just a few miles from the track.

The hit actually sent Bilicki’s car around the carnage in front of him. Bilicki said the driver who hit him was John Hunter Nemechek, and he’s grateful it happened.

“Honestly it saved our race,” Bilicki said. “I was upset when it happened, but looking back at the replay, you know, he hit my left rear bumper just enough to turn me a little bit sideways, go in the grass, go around the chaos, hit the sign and then drive off.”

Bilicki said he didn’t realize what had happened at first.

“I thought that it was actually the nose of our car just caved in,” he said chuckling. “Like, I didn’t know what it was; like, it’s dusty, it’s smoky. And all I see is this big blob that it essentially almost blended in with the color of our car.

“I thought it was just our bumper’s caved in and I radio out to my guys. I’m like, ‘we have a lot of damage we’re done’. And I come around, I go down the straightaway a little bit further and then I realized it’s a sign. I didn’t know what kind of sign it was. But I stopped right after turn five, backed up sign fell and I kept going.”

Bilicki finished 13th. After the race he watched the replay, saw the sign, and the business side of his racing kicked in.

“I logged onto social media, and I really realized that it was kind of a comical moment,” he said. “Like my team, my Cup series team, my Xfinity series team, my family, my friends, everybody’s showing me all these videos, memes on social media…and they’re like, you know, this is hilarious. And then at dinner I log onto Facebook, and I see Sargento is playing along now. They changed their background picture. So, I’m like, ‘all right, you know, this is something where I’m starting to see the bigger picture here’. Like my brain’s working. How can we turn this into a pretty cool story, but how can we turn this into a sponsorship too?”

Bilicki is a Wisconsin native, Sargento Foods Inc. is a Wisconsin company. It seemed like a no-brainer for Bilicki. In short order he sent an email to Sargento CEO Louie Gentine.

“There’s a handful of Wisconsin businesses that I just feel belong in NASCAR, Sargento being one of ’em,” he said. “This is something that I’ve pursued for six or seven years before my time in NASCAR, even.

“It just took me hitting a sign to kind of start the conversation.”

Turns out, Gentine was at the race that day with his two kids standing a few corners away from where the crash occurred. The field had just gone by.

“We happened to be watching the screen that they have for the crowd,” Gentine said. “And we saw the crash happen on the TV and, then also then saw the Sargento sign going down into corner five.”

Once Gentine realized no one had been seriously injured his thoughts turned to the sign in the middle of the large TV screen being carried along.

“I did say, well, ‘that’s pretty cool’,” Gentine said with a laugh. “And then to learn that it was Josh who hit our sign, who is from Wisconsin. Then it was just kind of really neat to just see how everything kind of unfolded from there.”

Sargento CEO Louie Gentine and driver Josh Bilicki. Sargento Foods has been a longtime track partner … [+] at Road America.

Sargento Foods Inc.

Gentine knew he had a top-notch marketing and digital team on staff. It was that team that seized the opportunity and soon the image of the Wisconsin driver carrying a large Sargento sign went viral.

A few days after the race, Gentine saw the email, and soon the company contacted Bilicki. Not long after Josh Bilicki had a sponsorship deal with Sargento for the race at Watkins Glen.

Bilicki said he’s capitalizing on the viral story to help attract more sponsorship and leverage the ones he has currently.

“I think this is a unique situation; It’s a feel-good story,” Bilicki said. “You know, it was a bad accident, but we turned it into a positive, you know, all the stars aligned for our deal to come together… we took a bad situation and turned it good; it’s a cool outcome, it’s a win.”

One of his primary sponsors is Wisconsin based Zeigler Auto group. Bilicki said he shared the Sargento story, and the over 50 million and counting, social media impressions with them.

“Realistically, I would like to see it reach a hundred million,” Bilicki said.

“I’ll be sharing these numbers with them, showing them, you know, this is a unique story,” he said. “But what can we do that’s maybe similar to this that can kind of compare?

“Zeigler Auto Group and I did something cool last week with Michigan State University and we had a lot of success there too. So just learning how we can take our sponsorship dollars and really stretch them and create the maximum exposure and reach the highest audience we can.”

No matter where Bilicki finishes the race at Watkins Glen the reminders of the ride that a Sargento sign took on the front of his car will be evident as Sargento races; this time as part of the racecar, not simply stuck to the front of it.

Whether this one-race deal will turn into something more for Bilicki or for NASCAR for the Wisconsin based company remains to be seen, however.

“I have an amazing marketing team that has done a fantastic job building the Sargento brand with consumers,” Gentine said. “They do a lot of different creative things and sports sponsorships sometimes are a part of the mix and sometimes are not.

“For us it’s all about connecting with the consumer; every sponsorship, every execution we do from an advertising standpoint is all part of a bigger plan. I guess I never say never. But I also think that how we’re approaching it from more of a situational standpoint right now at least seems to be working pretty well, but we’ll see.”


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