Originally created 05/11/00

Sponsor puts focus on health



FORT WORTH, Texas -- Lucille Sitton got a playful nudge from her husband, Bob, as the two stood outside the Men's Health compound at the Texas Motor Speedway.

Already a step closer after the push, the woman from nearby Terrell slowly walked toward the front counter and took her place in line."You get free binoculars if you get a check-up," she said. "My husband wants the binoculars, but he's too afraid to get the check-up."

Pfizer Inc. is trying to change all that.

The pharmaceutical company is trying to remove the aura of denial and indifference by men toward their health needs. Armed with statistics that show men are more hesitant to get regular checkups, Pfizer and its Viagra brand are taking their message to a bastion of manhood -- a stock car racetrack.

Not only is Viagra's name splashed on the side of the Eel River Racing Pontiacs driven by Mike Bliss, but Pfizer also has provided more than 5,000 checkups in the parking lot before the first 11 races this year.

"To us, the most important thing we do at the racetrack are the checkups," said Janice Lipsky, director of marketing for Pfizer's Winston Cup Series program. "That's why we're in racing. Women, by and large, see the doctor more often than a man. They get their annual checkups. There is a need to increase the awareness among men that they have health needs that can't be ignored."Pfizer's Tune Up for Health program has included television commercials, free checkups and the multimillion-dollar sponsorship of a racecar to promote Viagra, a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction.

When Pfizer announced it was going to sponsor Eel River Racing's Pontiac this year, the initial response included lots of Viagra jokes. The race team, however, isn't laughing. Crewmen aren't amused by the jokes. They don't find humor in being asked for free samples. After all, a standard sponsorship package on the Winston Cup Series level starts at about $8 million a year. While Lipsky won't reveal any numbers, it's expected that Pfizer also spends that much in its Tune Up For Life program.

"This is serious stuff," Bliss said. "They've got a great thing going on in this sport. A lot of people are being helped. I deal with the racing side of it, and there are people who deal with the (medical) side of it. They keep it separate."

The race team, so far, hasn't had as much success as the medical side of Pfizer's new role in racing. The checkups have revealed some hidden medical problems, including several cases of diabetes, but the race team is ranked 42nd overall in the Winston Cup Series standings with no top-10 finishes.

"We just haven't had any good luck this year," Bliss said. "Also, we're basically a new team. We don't have any notes to go back on from last year like everyone else. Second round, when we go back to a track for the second time, we should be a lot better."

Crew chief Barry Dodson has plenty of experience of running up front. He turned the wrenches on Rusty Wallace's 1989 Winston Cup Series championship. Some key members of that 1989 crew are with Dodson as he tries to transform Bliss from a driver on the truck racing circuit to a competitive rookie in Winston Cup.Bliss said the team has been told to focus solely on racing. Talk about the sponsor, especially since it deals with a prescription drug, is left for those who work the other side of the racetrack -- the checkups.

"We have to watch what we say," Bliss said. "The other race teams have accepted us as another race team. I think the fans have, too. I think everyone views this as legitimate."

Viagra remains the most unique sponsor in the sport's history. Pantyhose, laundry detergent, bowling centers, bulldozers and professional wrestling have been some of the uncommon sponsors of the past. Aspirin, headache powders and anti-acids also have sponsored race cars, but what makes Viagra so special, quite obviously, is what the prescription drug treats.

"This is one of the things that makes you feel good about your job," Lipsky said. "We looked at the demographics at NASCAR, and it's the fastest-growing sport in the country. It's No. 2 behind football in viewers.

"We've heard some Viagra jokes. I can tell you, having sex is funny. Not being able to have sex is not funny. That's our society. We're trying to help make checkups more accessible. We've taken the first step by bringing the checkups to where the men are -- at the racetrack."

A routine checkup takes less than 10 minutes and includes screenings in blood pressure, pulse, blood sugar and cholesterol. Drivers Bobby Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin have promoted the checkups with commercials that air during race broadcasts.

The best promotion, however, would be getting the race car up to speed.

"As a pharmaceutical company, as a health care company, we feel our Tune Up For Life is the most important thing we do," Lipsky said.

"We need to take care of our bodies, and this is a great way to bring attention to that. The primary thrust of our sponsorship is men's health.

"Winning on the racetrack is important as well. Our focus is getting the information out, and that's a good way to do it. Our race team is a rookie team. We have to respect that. They're making efforts to do the best they can. As a company, we trust their experience, and we know it's going to get better. We have to be patient."

Pfizer and Viagra can afford to be patient on the racetrack as long as the pace at their Men's Health compound remains furious -- even if it comes one free pair of binoculars at a time.