Food City Celebrates Two Decades of Racing Memories At BMS
When Alan Kulwicki captured the checkered flag after the April 5, 1992 NASCAR Cup Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway, it was the first time he had conquered the half-mile oval.
It also was the first time a regional grocery chain had lent its name to the spring Cup event at BMS, giving birth to the Food City 500, which takes place Sunday, March 18.
Over the last 20 years, some of NASCAR’s greatest names have earned the title of Food City 500 champion. That moniker is one of the most coveted in motorsports, as winning an event at “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile” gives any driver an enviable line on his or her resume.
Drivers from Kulwicki to Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon to Rusty Wallace have won the spring NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and since 1992, Food City has been there every step of the way. In fact, the Food City sponsorship is the second-longest event sponsorship in NASCAR.
“Food City has been a tremendous partner,” said BMS general manager and executive vice president Jerry Caldwell. “These days it can be difficult to secure a race sponsor for a single year, yet we’ve been fortunate enough to have Food City with us for 20 years.
“And you know what the best thing about it is? They’re not just sponsors to us… they’re much more. Our relationship has always been a very tight-knit one. Steve Smith, and his father Jack before him, have always been like members of the BMS family. They are a special group of people and I’m honored to be associated with them.”
Much like BMS, which was built on the site of an old dairy farm, Food City had humble beginnings. Food City’s parent company, K-VA-T Food Stores, was founded in 1955 by the late Jack C. Smith, his father Curtis, his cousin Ernest and his uncle Earl. The first store opened its doors in Grundy, Va. Since that time, Food City has steadily grown by acquiring stores of competitors and by expanding into new areas throughout the region.
In 2011, K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc., which currently boasts 104 stores in Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky, ranked 56th in a Supermarket News list of the Top 75 Retailers in terms of sales with $1.9 billion.
As the company continued to grow, so did Bristol and NASCAR. In 1992, the opportunity arose for Food City to put their name on one of the sport’s most popular events.
Steve Smith, Jack Smith’s son and current Food City President and CEO, recalled how the sponsorship came together.
“When we began our sponsorship in 1992,” explained Smith, “Winston was the title sponsor of the Cup Series. Valleydale Foods, which sponsored the spring race, had just ended their title sponsorship at Bristol. We worked through RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company on a proposal to market their products in our Food City stores to acquire the title sponsorship.”
As the event neared, Food City went in to overdrive to promote the event and its title sponsorship. When the green flag fell on the first Food City 500, Smith said his whole company was overwhelmed with pride because of what the moment meant for everyone.
“Our entire Food City team felt a great sense of pride and a bit of awe to be a sponsor of such a prestigious event,” he said. “But we were very excited and full of anticipation as to what this new venture would mean for our company, our associates and our customers.”
Over the next two decades, Food City worked hand-in-hand with BMS staff to promote the races. Through in-store promotions and advertising, Food City helped spread the word about BMS. One of Food City’s greatest contributions, Food City Family Race Night, which actually started five years before the 1992 race sponsorship, has become one of NASCAR’s most highly attended and successful pre-race events.
Family Race Night began as a single event at the Food City on Eastman Road in Kingsport, Tenn. with Terry Labonte and Junior Johnson in attendance, along with the Budweiser show car.
From that humble start, Food City Race Night has grown significantly, allowing fans to see a wide variety of show cars, meet drivers, take part in question and answer sessions with the sport’s biggest names and sample Food City products. And through Race Night, Food City has contributed more than $500,000 to local organizations.
“A large portion of our Food City customers fit the NASCAR demographic and they really relate to and connect with the sport,” Smith said about why the partnership with BMS has been so successful. “They’re loyal to Food City, to Bristol, to the sport, to their drivers and to their products. Like Food City, BMS is completely committed to and focused upon their customers. They have done a tremendous job advertising and marketing their product. They are committed to exceeding expectations for their fans and have continued to improve upon their facilities and events to ensure their fans—and ultimately, our customers—receive the ultimate racing experience.
“Our company understands the mechanics of racing and we’ve tried to leverage our relationship with NASCAR and our vendor partners to create and maintain the excitement for our customers from the store, to the campground, to Food City Family Race Night to the track to provide them with an unforgettable experience here in Bristol.”
While many might imagine the greatest benefit of a sponsorship might involve money or notoriety, Smith says the greatest benefits for Food City are not easily measured.
“While there are a number of tremendous benefits from our sponsorship, the sense of pride it gives our associates, and even our customers as a result of being connected with such a tremendous sports like NASCAR racing and one of the finest sporting facilities in the country, is really a benefit that can’t be measured. I think the commitment and like values that Food City and BMS share also has created a real sense of family and partnership that both of our companies enjoy and something that benefits our associates, our customers and really the region as a whole.”
With 20 Food City 500s in the record book, plenty of hard racing, big wrecks and dust-ups between drivers have taken place since 1992. When asked about his favorite Food City 500 moments, Smith had a difficult time narrowing the list.
“That’s a tough question because we have so many great memories; it’s difficult to single one or two out above the rest,” he admitted. “Certainly Rusty Wallace’s 50th win at the Food City 500, and Jimmy Spencer’s win in the Food City 250 were very special moments for the entire Food City team, as well as our first trip to Victory Lane with Alan Kulwicki.
“Our team has really enjoyed seeing the various drivers win our event multiple times in a row as well, like Jeff Gordon, and Kyle and Kurt Busch. And there’s nothing like the sense of excitement when a driver like Elliott Sadler wins their first race at Bristol Motor Speedway. It’s interesting to note how often a driver who wins the Food City 500 goes on to win the Cup Series Championship. I think that really speaks to the talent it takes to win here at Bristol.”
Although what happens on the track is always exciting, some of Smith’s greatest memories have nothing to do with what happened between the green flag and the checkered flag. For Smith, the friendships and relationships built since 1992 mean more to him than anything that happened on Bristol’s high banks.
“While I have scores of wonderful memories,” he began, “none are more special to me and our Food City team than the special friendships that we’ve forged with the racing community over the past 20 years. Certainly Jeff Byrd and his team, and now Jerry Caldwell, are an important part of our Food City family.
“So are the many drivers that we’ve been privileged to work closely with over the years—Rusty Wallace, Jimmy Spencer, Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt, during our sponsorship of his team. We’ve been honored to stand in Victory Lane alongside many of the greatest drivers in the sport and enjoy countless once-in-a-lifetime experiences as a result of our title sponsorship and special relationship with our friends here at Bristol Motor Speedway. “
Smith hopes the relationship between the two companies continues for some time.
“While no one can ever know exactly what the future holds, our relationship with Bristol Motor Speedway, NASCAR and, ultimately, the race fans, has been very rewarding for our company, our associates and our Food City customers. Hopefully, in the coming years, we can partner with BMS and NASCAR to promote and grow the event to continue to provide the fans with the excitement, anticipation and unparalleled racing action they’ve come to expect from Bristol.”