NASCAR: Fluke collision leads to unexpected sponsorship

Josh Bilicki, Alpha Prime Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Josh Bilicki, Alpha Prime Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Josh Bilicki’s participation in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen International happened because of a fluke collision at Road America.

Josh Bilicki made his sixth start of the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series season this past Sunday at Watkins Glen International. It was his fifth race with Alpha Prime Racing, but it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for a collision which took place in his third.

Back in early July at Road America, Bilicki was involved in an incident which saw him get turned into a Sargento Foods sign, which he then carried for several hundred feet on the front of his car.

Sargento, a Wisconsin-based company, ended up sponsoring the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin native’s #45 Chevrolet in this past Saturday afternoon’s race — and all because of this incident at the Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin track.

“It was unique,” Bilicki told Beyond the Flag. “Road America, my home track, Sargento sponsors the track; Sargento’s headquarters are I think under five miles from the track. They’re right there, they have a very well-known presence at the race track. NASCAR weekend at Road America is my favorite weekend of the year, so many family friends.”

He walked us through the incident and how he ended up with the sign on the front of his #44 Chevrolet.

“The Xfinity race on Saturday, we had a great car, running inside the top 10 early in stage one,” he explained. “We had an unscheduled pit stop which sent us all the way to the back. We were fighting our way back to the front and I think we were 19th or 18th at the time, it was like two laps after a caution, and I’m coming out of turn three, which is a hard right.

“I’m going underneath the Sargento bridge, and all of a sudden, four or five cars ahead of me, I just see a car get turned, I see tire smoke, I can’t see through the tire smoke, and then I see the cars go in the grass and just dust everywhere. There are no spotters there; there are only three or four spotters at Road America, but that specific section, there are no spotters, so I have to do my best to try to get through the wreck. And at this point, there are five or six cars in the wreck.

“So I’m checking up, I’m on the brakes really hard, and I’m on the brakes harder than the guy behind me. John Hunter Nemechek gets into my left rear bumper, turns me into the grass, right after the Sargento bridge, and he clips me, and I drive straight into a Sargento sign.”

The 27-year-old didn’t even realize that it was a sign at first.

“At the time, I didn’t know what really happened,” he continued. “I hit the wall a little bit; I was really frustrated. I didn’t know there was a sign attached to the front of my car. I thought that we had a lot of damage; I thought my whole front bumper was pushed in. Basically, I just saw a big rectangle in front of me, and I thought it was our bumper.

“But at the same time, I’m looking straight, but I’m also kind of looking to the right, and I see cars just piling up to the right. In hindsight, I’m very thankful that I kind of got turned away from the wreck…I was going to go straight, hope there was nobody through the smoke, but there were a lot of cars in the smoke.

“I took that sign for a ride; it wasn’t until after I came out of the smoke that I realized it was a sign. I didn’t know what kind of sign it was; all I saw was the back side. But I took it for a couple hundred feet, maybe a little bit more, maybe 1,000 feet, and eventually I stopped right after turn five, backed up, the sign fell, and I kept driving.”

Even then, Bilicki didn’t realize just how viral that moment went.

“It wasn’t until after the race that I realized how big of a hit it was on social media,” he admitted. “I was on TikTok, and I don’t have TikTok, but I’m getting sent TikToks of me. Then I think the coolest part of the night and the whole situation was logging onto Facebook during dinner. I’m scrolling, I follow Sargento, and I see Sargento changed their background picture to the picture of me in my car, my race car, with the sign strapped on.”

He took advantage of the hype and turned it into a sponsorship opportunity.

“I’m like, this is fun, this is funny, Sargento knows about this, how can we create more traction and how can we take this next step?” he said. “Right away after the race weekend, during the next work week, I fire off an email to some of their executive team, and they were able to put me in touch with some of their marketing team, and we were able to put together the sponsor deal for Watkins Glen last week.

“Pretty cool how that all came about, with the Wisconsin race track, Wisconsin business, and a Wisconsin driver.”

It was Bilicki’s idea to pursue this sponsorship opportunity, as he is one of the few drivers who handles all of his own sponsorship deals.

“I handle all my own sponsors,” he said. “Every car I’ve raced this year has had my primary sponsor on it. I consider myself more of a businessman than I do a driver most of the time, but yeah, I maintain all my own sponsors, I handle my own sponsors, I pursue sponsors, and I love partnering with Wisconsin companies.

“There are a couple of Wisconsin companies that are on my list, and Sargento I’ve always wanted to add to my list. It’s something that I’ve pursued for multiple years, and it just never really gained the traction. I think the Sargento sign deal at Road America definitely helped point it in the right direction.”

It’s certainly not how he ever would have anticipated adding Sargento to the list.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he added. “At the time, I was really frustrated when I got steered into that sign, but looking at the big picture, everything happens for a reason. We were able to finish the race too, so there were a couple of good things that came out of it.”

He finished the race in 13th place.

Bilicki knows firsthand the importance of being aware of potential unexpected opportunities, since sponsorship is the most vital factor in terms of getting the chance to get behind the wheel.

“I’m one of the only drivers who really maintains my own sponsors; a lot of the bigger teams have marketing teams that are bigger than our race team,” he explained. “They have marketing teams that consist of 50 people. Our Xfinity Series team consists of 15 people, at most. My Cup Series team consists of 40 people. And that comes with some additional things that I need to think about when I’m driving or when I’m at the grocery store walking past Sargento cheese.

“My mind’s always racing on how I can turn Company A into a sponsor. So it’s very important to me, like I said, handling all my own partners. I know how important it is, and without sponsors, I don’t race. Without Sargento stepping up, I wouldn’t have been at Watkins Glen last year; I know how important they are. Sponsorship is the most important key.”

This is something that everybody in the NASCAR world can relate to, especially this year as two-time Cup Series champion and 60-time Cup Series race winner Kyle Busch faces an uncertain future following Mars Wrigley’s departure from Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I mean, you see it right now with Kyle Busch – a lot of question marks around where he is going to land next year, and it’s all sponsorship-driven,” Bilicki said.

With Sargento being Wisconsin-based company, the incident having happened at a Wisconsin track, and Bilicki being a Wisconsin native, we asked him if he has plans to potentially build on this partnership on some level moving forward. That is his goal, but so far, there is nothing to announce.

“I would love to,” he said. “We’re hopefully going to have some continued conversations here. We just raced at Watkins Glen on Saturday. I feel it was a good run for our team. I would’ve liked a top 15 or a top 10. As a driver, you always want more. If you’re top 10, you want to be top five, if you’re top five, you want to win the race. I feel like we had a great car.”

He finished the race in 17th place.

“Hopefully they saw the value in what we did,” he continued. “I’ll tell you just from my perspective, I saw the value across social media, across all the interviews I’ve done, including this one right now. It’s gained the most traction out of any announcement I’ve ever had – even my full-time Cup Series announcement, which was probably second to this.

“Hopefully we can turn this into more races, but if not, I’m thankful I had the opportunity to represent Sargento. Like I said, it’s something I’ve pursued for many years, and I got to meet some pretty cool people along the way and give Louie Gentine, their CEO, a ride around Road America in a Corvette. So that was pretty cool. We definitely had fun with it, and hopefully we can turn it into more races.”

While he doesn’t have anything lined up as far as future Sargento sponsorship goes, he does have several more races scheduled throughout the rest of the season.

In addition to his part-time role at Alpha Prime Racing, he is the primary driver of the #77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet in the Cup Series.

After driving full-time in the Cup Series for Rick Ware Racing for the first time last year and securing a career-high 10th place finish at Daytona International Speedway, he has competed in 16 of 25 races so far in 2022. His best finish is a 16th place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway back in March.

“I have multiple Cup races left, some of them with Zeigler Auto Group, which is my anchor sponsor in the Cup Series,” he said. “I have one more Xfinity Series race, which is in Charlotte, North Carolina at the Roval, with Alpha Prime Racing. That one is to be decided yet, who’s the sponsor on that.

In six Xfinity Series starts this season, his best finish is a ninth place finish in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, which came in his lone start for DGM Racing.

Next. Two drivers eliminated from NASCAR playoffs already. dark

“We have open races, so I’m always selling – my day job is selling sponsorship, honestly,” he concluded. “It’s a mix between preparing myself mentally to drive a race car and doing all the homework it takes to be fast, but it’s also to make sure we have dollars, because without the dollars, we don’t go racing. We definitely have more races I’m sure, and hopefully we’ll add some to that schedule as well.”