The latest deal for Wisconsin NASCAR driver Josh Bilicki is a testament to persistence, social media and the power of cheese

·4 min read
An advertising sign hangs on the nose of Josh Bilicki's car after he was forced off track in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Henry 180 on July 2 at Road America. The incident led to a one-race sponsorship from Sargento.
An advertising sign hangs on the nose of Josh Bilicki's car after he was forced off track in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Henry 180 on July 2 at Road America. The incident led to a one-race sponsorship from Sargento.

Few NASCAR drivers, if any, work harder to generate sponsorship to keep themselves on track than Josh Bilicki, an ambitious 27-year-old from Richfield.

But once in a while a deal comes together by accident.

Behind the one Bilicki announced Wednesday is a tale of persistence, the positive side of social media and the power of cheese.

“I’ve actually been working on securing Sargento cheese for the last six, seven, eight years, even before my time in NASCAR,” said Bilicki, who has thousands of laps around Road America in Elkhart Lake, just a few miles from the company’s headquarters in Plymouth. “I’ve talked with (CEO) Louie Gentine a couple of times and just never had luck.”

When he finally had some, Bilicki thought it was bad luck.

In a scramble to avoid an accident during the July 2 Xfinity Series race at his home track, Bilicki got hit from behind and forced onto the grass, where he ran over one of the many small, flexible advertising signs stuck in the ground that show up well in photos and on television. From behind the wheel, Bilicki thought the nose of his car was caved in.

The Sargento sign stuck, and so did the impression Bilicki made while driving about a quarter-mile with a small billboard across the nose of his car.

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“I honestly didn’t know what happened,” Bilicki said Wednesday. “I thought it was part of the bumper. As soon as I came around Turn 5, my spotter said, you have a sign attached to your car, I stopped.

When he did, the sign dropped off and drove over the top of it.

“I didn’t know what kind of sign it was,” Bilicki said. “I didn’t know it was Sargento or anything.”

It was literally the sort of advertising a company can’t buy.

“As soon as I got out of the car and looked at social media, it was blowing up,” Bilicki said. “There was a meme, people all over Twitter, Facebook, Instagram were sharing it. A couple of hours later at dinner, I saw they had made their (Facebook) background picture into me hitting the sign, so I knew they saw the value in it and knew they wanted to have fun with it.”

Bilicki also raced in the premier Cup Series race the following day, and on Monday – the Fourth of July – he put together another small marketing pitch that he sent to Sargento the first thing Tuesday. Two weeks later they had a deal, a one-race sponsorship for the Xfinity race Aug. 20 in Watkins Glen, New York.

“Sargento’s background picture, they changed it to the picture of me hitting the sign with my race car so I knew they were aware of the situation and at that point all NASCAR fans were commenting on that picture,” Bilicki said. “I made a comment, and Facebook has this algorithm that where if I comment on somebody’s picture, all of my 45,000 followers will see that I commented on it. So all of my fans started following that post and commenting and sharing it too.

“So I think they saw a huge outreach of support and people saying we should turn this into a one-race deal. I think they felt the pressure, but I don’t know if it necessarily would have happened if I hadn’t reached out Tuesday.”

The specifics of the accident make Bilicki laugh.

It started when Noah Gragson crashed Sage Karam, Bilicki’s teammate that day, just before the bridge that has long been sponsored by Sargento. If Bilicki hadn’t been hit from behind, he probably would have driven into the crash, his race would have been finished and he wouldn’t have collected the sign. Of if he hit the sign of another company – say, one that wasn’t local or he hadn’t been pitching for years – such a deal might never have happened.

Bilicki, who has been working steadily to build a NASCAR career after making his debut at Road America in 2017, is always on the hunt for sponsorship. He is at a point in his career when he needs to make deals and take the money to teams for the opportunity to race.

Bilicki wonders – tongue in cheek – if he went about his search all wrong from the start.

“I would have hit every sign I could,” he said. “There’s some other signs too.”

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin NASCAR driver Bilicki lands Sargento sponsorship from sign