Don Graham

By Jim Luikens


One of the most prestigious racing team sponsors in all of the IHRA is the US Navy. However, this sponsorship won’t be found on a leading Top Fuel or Pro Modified entry. Instead it can be found on a 1991 Corvette that competes in Super Rod and a matching 2000 Undercover Dragster Quick Rod entry. This is the story of how Don Graham landed, and keeps, one of the highest-profile sponsorships imaginable using a pair of sportsman cars.

55-year-old Don Graham has a simple motto: Do Ordinary Things Exceptionally Well. During the day this unassuming resident of Willard, Ohio has been a financial planner for the past 27 years. No problem if you’ve never heard of Willard, most people haven’t. For the geographically challenged it is roughly 16 miles south and west of Norwalk in northwestern Ohio.

This seemingly isolated location however, has not prevented Don from amassing a staff of nine and a customer base of 3000 clients for his successful business. A few years ago he hosted a client appreciation event during the Sunoco World Nationals and 400 of his clients showed up. The success that his firm enjoys has been transferred to his racing team as well.

Don operates his team using the same principles that he has used in building his business. He says, “See what you can do for your client and then give them more than they are expecting and do it in a form that has measurable results.” This is a formula that has proved as successful for Don behind the steering wheel as it has behind the desk.

Everybody has to start somewhere and for Don that consisted of paying his dues for six years as he learned the ropes of drag racing. Ever a dreamer, he realized that his then-current situation would not allow him to compete in the fashion that he desired. As a result he decided to stay out of drag racing for a few years. This would allow him to build up his business as well as his finances to properly fund the kind of program that he envisioned.

Since returning to racing 18 years ago Don has used continuous advancement to upgrade the way that he presents himself and his team at the track. Don’s professionalism and fastidious attention to detail came to the attention of Navy Chief Sheldon Cary, who is the chief Navy recruiter in northern Ohio. During a conversation with Don one day Chief Cary, who was impressed with Don’s operation, wondered what it would cost to use Don’s racing operation as a backdrop for recruiting at one event.

A mutually agreeable price was reached and preparation for the big event began. Don reinvested Chief Cary’s money into a program that was impressive and successful behind anyone’s imagination. He used the money to purchase team shirts emblazoned with the Navy logo, prizes for interactive contests to be held in his pit area and much more. The end result was a very professional and productive presentation far beyond what could have been expected for the budget available. The success of that original trial venture led to the current three-year program that Don now enjoys with the Navy.

At each event now Don’s pit area is staffed by two naval personal at all times to answer questions and make meaningful connections with the Navy’s prime candidates, 17 to 27 year olds that are mechanically minded. Each Navy person has a schedule of on-time and off-time to work in Don’s pit area because for many of them this is the first time that they have been introduced to the color, noise and excitement of professional drag racing.

When anyone is at the races for the first time the natural inclination is to be overwhelmed by the spectacle and to want to experience it up close and personal. But each recruiter needs to remember the reason that they are there. Scheduling specific on duty time allows them to be more focused during their tour of duty in Don’s pit as well as to get to know the sport better during there off-time. Each Navy person is accountable for their time and must balance the experience of being at the event with the responsibilities of the reason that they are there.

Using a system such as this allows the Navy to achieve the desired measurable results while elevating the method used to obtain those results above reproach. It is a true win/win situation for the Navy as well as for the Naval personal. They have a chance to broaden their horizons as well as be introduced to a recruiting method that is new, exciting and productive.

The Navy and its personal however, are not the only ones that have benefited from this relationship. Don has also received many opportunities from his relationship with the Navy. He typically does 10 to 15 off-track speaking engagements each year for the Navy and was, in fact, named their 2002 Civilian Support Person of the Year. Earlier this month he had a chance to fly with the Navy’s elite Blue Angels, a once in a lifetime opportunity if there ever was one.

So let’s review. How do you obtain the sponsorship of your dreams? By doing ordinary things exceptionally well and by delivering more than your client expects in a form that is measurable. This is the formula that Don Graham has used and it can work just as well for you.