When Toyota Motor Corp. decided to tackle the American full-size truck market, they faced a dilemma. Long known for manufacturing small, reliable, fuel-efficient vehicles, Toyota knew it would have to do something significant to convince U.S. truck buyers they had something to offer. "We are a late comer in the full-size truck market. Obviously, Ford and Dodge have been building them for decades," says Les Unger, Toyota's National Motorsports Manager. "We wanted­ to increase the awareness of our full-size truck, the Toyota Tundra, and increase buyer consideration and, by extension, sales."

Part of Toyota's solution was to turn to the race track: In 2004, the company became title sponsor of a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race, the Toyota Tundra 200, in Nashville. To hear Unger describe it, the sponsorship was an ideal chance to accomplish the myriad goals Toyota had set.

First, Toyota promoted the event heavily through regional advertising in order to tell local consumers about the Tundra, a vital objective for the region's dealers. Those same dealers used the event as an easy platform for reaching potential customers, both at the race - where they displayed a fleet of Tundras - and away from the track through event-related incentives and sweepstakes.

Just as important for the company, says Unger, was its ability to use the Toyota Tundra 200 to thank employees at five nearby factories and to wine and dine important customers and other VIPs. "We had what we think was the largest NASCAR hospitality venue of any event," says Unger. "There were between 8,000 and 9,000 people in our 10 acres of hospitality tents. It was a huge success."

Obviously, Toyota is not the only company that sees sports as a powerful way to reach and influence current and potential customers. Sports and business are so enmeshed it's hard to believe golfers like Tiger Woods and tennis stars like Serena Williams ever played in shirts without corporate logos. We only vaguely remember when the Orange Bowl was just that, instead of the FedEx OrangeBowl, or when the L.A. Lakers played in the Forum instead of Staples Center, or the Seattle Mariners' diamond wasn't set in Safeco Field. In all, more than $6 billion was spent on athletic sponsorships of varying types in 2003, according to the consultancy A.T. Kearney. And each year, that number grows by about nine percent.

Kathleen Joyce, the editorial director of Promo magazine, a Connecticut-based publication that covers the promotional­ marketing industry, believes com­panies are simply trying to tap into a driving force in American culture. "The cult of celebrity is so powerful, whether you're talking about Hollywood personalities, political personalities, or sports personalities, that brands are trying to borrow whatever equity they can from these people to make themselves relevant to the audiences that follow those celebrities," she says. "For brands, it boils down to what enhances your relationship to the consumer and what brings you new consumers."

Joyce points to NASCAR as one of the most compelling examples of why companies look to be associated with sports. Its ­devoted fans, she says, make corporate sponsors salivate - and write big checks. "If you can find a way to transfer or borrow some of the loyalty fans feel toward ­NASCAR and its drivers," she says, "if you can attach some of that to your own brand, there's a very significant financial value to that."