Former National Guard director defends millions in sponsorship spending

Former National Guard director defends millions in sponsorship spending
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Indianapolis is one of a few cities to host big races for both NASCAR and IndyCar.

What you may not know is your tax dollars are funding millions of dollars in team sponsorships. But high-ranking members of Congress say the National Guard is simply wasting your money.

The Guard sponsors cars driven by NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and IndyCar driver Graham Rahal. Millions of dollars are spent on the two racing circuits to attract new military recruits. A congressional committee wants a return on that investment.

"Congress has a responsibility to make sure that every taxpayer dollar spent has measurable results," said Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri).

So how much money is spent?

Over the last three years, the Guard has spent $23 million on IndyCar sponsorship and $88 million on NASCAR. The Guard is paying another $56 million this year for racing sponsorships.

13 Investigates wanted to see for ourselves how the Guard uses its presence at big races to reach potential recruits, so we sent an intern to the Indy 500.

"Are you guys just doing games today?" the intern asked.

A man in fatigues shook his head "no."

"What are you guys doing? Are you guys not recruiting today?" the intern asked.

The man asked our intern where she's from. Armed with that information, he promptly went for help. Minutes later, in the shadow of games and pull-up stations, a recruiter emerged.

"I just wanted to know if you guys are recruiting for Indiana or federal or what?" the intern asked the recruiter.

"Yeah, I'm from Indianapolis. I always ask what sparks people's interest," he replied.

The recruiter gives his pitch, but never asks our intern if the racing sponsorships prompted her interest in the Guard.

Millions spent, but no calculated numbers of impacted recruits. That's the complaint that has some fuming at the Capitol.

"Not a single National Guard soldier was recruited during the sponsorship program in 2012 and the program generated fewer than 8,000 leads in 2013," McCaskill said.

"This is one I think that should get the caution flag," said Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin).

"I mean, the facts speak for themselves. The data is very clear. You're not getting recruits off NASCAR!" McCaskill said.

But there are no regrets at the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C.

"I was the individual officer responsible for the in-strength of the Army National Guard of the United States. There's no one else out there on that limb with you," said Lt. General Clyde Vaughn.

For the first time, Vaughn, the three-star general who bolstered the NASCAR sponsorship and started the IndyCar program a decade ago, sat down with 13 Investigates to answer allegations of wasteful spending during a time when the Guard needed to build military strength.

"You know, we were last in the recruiting battles," Vaughn said. "We did something right in some really tough times."

Vaughn says the racing sponsorships worked to increase branding or advertising for the Guard, not to grow net recruiting numbers. He calls that premise absurd.

"I joined the military because I like NASCAR? Give me a break, you know. How many are going to say that?" he said.

Instead, Vaughn argues the return on investment was well worth taxpayer dollars. From 2006-2008, he says the Guard made a historical turnaround in recruiting, with 70,000 enlistments each year.

The payoff for sponsoring some of the biggest names in NASCAR?

"(Earnhardt Jr.) cost like $18 million for us in 2008. Junior, who is an icon in this sport," he said. "The return on investment was something like $182 million."

In fact, the former director says Earnhardt Jr. and the 88 car brought in $75 million from the sale of National Guard-branded apparel, promoting the "citizen soldier warrior."

"I never asked anybody to be able to capture the metrics on how many people it recruited," Vaughn said.

Congressional leaders say someone at the National Guard should have looked more closely at recruiting numbers, especially since the Guard is alone in spending top dollar for racing sponsorships.

Nearly all branches of the military have been looking for ways to boost their ranks. But within the last decade, many of them have walked away from NASCAR and IndyCar, saying it's not worth the money, including the Marine Corps and the Army.

According to an internal memo, the Army said no to sponsorships after finding NASCAR was too expensive, failed "to deliver on its target audience of 18-24-year-old males," and was "no longer providing the desired return on investment."

Vaughn told 13 Investigates he doesn't oppose the idea of putting new recruiting measurements in place, but he says it's unfair to accuse the Guard of wasting millions of taxpayer dollars when he says that money did more to raise national awareness for the Guard than any recent program.

"We were very effective in this in our day. Now are the times different? Perhaps," Vaughn said. "If there's a decision that they're going to pull back, they ought to pull back out of it, but let's don't go and blame somebody for not producing something that's impossible."

The new director of the National Guard Bureau is now doing an analysis of the spending and is expected to report back to the congressional committee.

In the meantime, the Guard is also deciding whether it will maintain the same level of sponsorship next year.