MBNA Corpo. has revved up its affinity machine by landing Nascar -- the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

It could be one of the most powerful card-marketing alliances. Tens of millions of Nascar followers spend $1 billion annually on tickets and merchandise.

MBNA America Bank will issue a series of MasterCard affinity cards that feature racing themes and individual stock car drivers. The MBNA-Nascar cards will have a 14% annual percentage rate and no annual fee the first year.

So far, MBNA has signed eight Winston Cup Series drivers for its cards: Geoff Bodine, Bill Elliott, Harry Gant, Ernie Irvan, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and Kyle Petty.

Nascar claims to be one of the first organizations to be placing individual personalities on credit cards.

MasterCard Sponsorship

At the same time, MasterCard International has become the official credit card of the Nascar circuit, said to be the nation's fastest-growing spectator sport. MasterCard is the first payment system to market through the Daytona Beach, Fla.-based racing association.

Strategically, the sponsorship allows MasterCard and MBNA to reach 20 million spectators and national television and radio audiences. Almost 2,000 Nascar races take place in 40 states.

"When the market is this large, you don't need all the 20 million to create a business proposition that makes sense," said Steven Drees, MasterCard's vice president of affinity and co-branded marketing. "We think [Nascar] is the next big affinity opportunity."

Draw for Corporate Sponsors

Jim Andrews, editorial director of IEG Sponsorship Report, a newsletter than tracks sports promotions, pointed out that Nascar is already a big draw for corporate sponsors, including McDonald's, Maxwell House, and Kellogg's.

Among financial service providers, Commercial Credit Co., a unit of Primerica Corp., is a Nascar sponsor in the Southeast.

"It reaches our customer base," said Marjorie Magner, president of the finance company. "It's a phenomenal way to reach people. We run drawings and other activities that allow us to build customer list."

Billboards at Racetracks

Mr. Andrews estimated Mastercard paid $200,000 for the sponsorship rights, which allows the card association to post billboards at racetracks and signs in point-of-sale areas.

"We touch every aspect of society," Mr. Drees said. "When we look for sponsorship or business opportunities, we want to be the card for every person,"

Mr. Andrews predicted stock car fans will embrace the MBNA cards.

Attracted Homeowners

"Certainly, these are people who have developed an interest in anything attached to a driver or logo," he said. MBNA, the nation's largest affinity issuer with 3,000 marketing partnerships, sought out the stock car association because of its loyal and creditworthy fans, plus the popularity of the sport, a bank spokesman said.

The $6.5 billion-asset MBNA, based in Newark, Del., has used the affinity concept to build one of the biggest and most profitable credit card operations. By working through associations, it has attracted cardholders who typically own their homes and make an average $55,000 a year.

Nascar fans pay $80 to $100 for tickets to each race, said Brian France, Nascar's vice president for marketing and corporate communications. About three out of 10 spectator earn at least $50,000.

Mr. France said market research shows that 92% of Nascar fans support stock car sponsors. "It actually changes their purchasing decision," he said.

Aggressive Marketing

Nascar had been open to an affinity card relationship but turned down proposals from a dozen banks over the past couple of years, Mr. France said. The association wasn't pleased with the marketing plans.

MBNA's aggressive marketing approach -- sending teams of workers to event sites, along with direct mail and telemarketing -- won over the race association, Mr. France said.

Nascar said it will earn royalties from MBNA's issuance of the custom-designed credit card.

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