In the midst of a historic surge in gun violence along the Mexican border and a rise in attacks on its own agents, the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Patrol agency dished out $8.4 million for an unprecedented strategy.
The tax dollars didn’t buy more ammunition, put more drone patrols into the skies or pay the salaries of new border guards.
Instead, it went to Jay Robinson Racing LLC, a North Carolina -based racing team that competes in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series.
For its money, the CPB got a decal of its law enforcement emblem emblazoned on the lime green No. 28 race car driven by driver Kenny Wallace for the 2008 NASCAR season.
The expenditure, identified by Medill News Service and the Washington Guardian as part of a review of the government’s advertising expenses over 10 years, was supposed to help the Border Patrol recruit more guards as it struggled to meet President George W. Bush’s 2006 mandate to grow its force by 6,000.
But there was one problem: the advertisement on Wallace’s car didn’t make any mention of a need for recruitment. It simple featured the agency’s law enforcement emblem. An accompanying decal on the racing team’s tractor trailer that moved the car between races included the additional words “Now Hiring.”
In the end, the agency missed its goal, hiring about the same number of new agents in 2008 as it did in 2007 when it didn’t lay out millions to sponsor a race car. And Homeland didn’t renew the sponsorship for 2009, though Wallace fared well with a career-best third place finish at Memphis Motorsports Park and a sixteenth place finish in the Nationwide Series points standing.
The Homeland Security’s sponsorship has escaped the scrutiny thus far of Congress but fits into a larger portrait of government advertising at sporting events that has lawmakers questioning whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.
Homeland Security officials did not return repeated calls and emails seeking comment about its advertising expenses and specifically the Border Patrol’s NASCAR deal.
In all, Homeland Security’s spending on advertising spiked by about $20 million in 2008 to a total of $65.8 million, with the NASCAR sponsorship being the biggest new expense compared to 2007.
It's all part of a $16 billion surge in advertising, public relations and marketing spending uncovered by the Washington Guardian and Medill News Service.
Some of that advertising was aimed at helping CPB recruit 6,000 additional border patrol agents to meet Bush’s goal of 18,000 by the end of 2008.
Without the benefit of a race car decal, the Border Patrol had increased its ranks by 2,574 in 2007. Despite the investment in NASCAR sponsorship, the agency recruited nearly about the same number of new agents -- 2,576 – in 2008 and fell 2,501 recruits short of the 18,000 target, records show.
The sponsorship and recruitment efforts occurred with the backdrop of a historic rise of gun violence across the Mexican border fueled by drug gangs and an accompanying spike in attacks on U.S. border agents that often stemmed from immigrants frustrated about being stopped from illegally entering the United States.
The U.S.-Mexico border saw an 11 percent increase in incidents of violence against the agents in 2008, according to a DHS report. Of all the Southwestern border sectors, San Diego had the highest jump with a nearly 50 percent increase – a total of 377 incidents compared with 254 a year earlier.
“We were seeing quite a bit of violence coming from the south side,” said Shawn Moran, senior patrol agent at the San Diego Border Patrol sector and vice president of the National Border Patrol Council. “The people who we were catching were resorting to rocks, bottles and improvised weapons that they can find to assault our agents.”
Moran said that while recruitment is important, keeping current personnel in the field during the 2008 surge in violence was more urgent. He said he would have preferred to see some of the NASCAR sponsorship money being spent instead on backup personnel for his sector.
A key demographic of NASCAR fans matches those sought by border patrol recruiters: white males who are between the ages of 18 and 30 without college degrees, explained Larry DeGaris, an associate professor of marketing at University of Indianapolis who launched a national study examining sponsorship effectiveness in NASCAR in 2004.
Though targeting a rich recruitment pool, the agency’s tactics may have been faulty in the critical effort of converting imagery into action, he said.
The most prominent advertisement in the terms of the contract was the decals on the No. 28 racecar, but they only featured the logos of the agency. So, even if the fans saw the car circling around the track in person or on TV, they would not have known that the Border Patrol was actually hiring.
For fans to learn the agency was recruiting, they would have had to look at the team’s racecar trailer, which had the sign reading, “Now hiring” or stopped at the agency’s recruiting booth during race festivities.
The various military branches have tried similar NASCAR promotions to boost recruitment, but with little result.
The National Guard has and still continues to sponsor NASCAR, despite acknowledging that in fiscal year 2012, only 20 of the 24,800 contacts made from the NASCAR sponsorship qualified and none actually joined.
And that has prompted some in Congress to try to force the end of such expenditures.
“Why would we need to spend so much money on a recruitment tactic that has not proven effective?” asked Chris Crawford, press secretary for Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who co-sponsored a bill to ban military spending for sponsoring professional or semi-professional motorsports, fishing, wrestling or other sports. It was defeated in July.
Ironically, the Border Patrol has steadily grown its ranks since the NASCAR sponsorship, and the number of agents totaled 21,000 at the end of fiscal year 2010.