Miss Madison Racing team members work to get the Oberto/Miss Madison ready to go racing at the 2014 Madison Regatta. The largely volunteer team has won 17 races and five national championships while carring the Oberto Sausage Company’s colors the last 16 seasons. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)
Miss Madison Racing team members work to get the Oberto/Miss Madison ready to go racing at the 2014 Madison Regatta. The largely volunteer team has won 17 races and five national championships while carring the Oberto Sausage Company’s colors the last 16 seasons. (Courier file photo by Mark Campbell)

The partnership between the Oberto Sausage Company and Miss Madison Racing will come to an end after this season, ending an association that has been one of the most successful in the history of the sport.

Oberto and Miss Madison have won 17 races and five National High Points championships over a 16-year run that began in the summer of 2000. Only Budweiser, Atlas Van Lines, Bardahl, Ellstrom Manufacturing, Pay ’n Pak and Thriftway have more wins as a sponsor than Oberto and only Budweiser was been with a single team longer.

“Oberto has made a strategic decision to focus their efforts differently. They’ve been in our sport for 40-plus years, but as things change, focus changes. Their brand has changed,” Miss Madison President Charlie Grooms said. “(Boat racing) doesn’t make as much sense as it used to so they have elected to really re-focus ... I’m sure it’s a tough decision but they want to make it a smooth transition. So how it will actually transition I think is still up in the air, but we will transition away from Oberto.”

The decision to end the sponsorship actually came this spring but Art Oberto, the company’s founder and senior CEO, refused to allow the partnership to end abruptly and opted to personally underwrite the team financially this year. That means that the Miss Madison will carry the name Oberto for one final season.

The end of the partnership was not something that came as a surprise to Grooms. Recent financial issues within the Oberto corporate structure, including a change in distribution, signaled a shift in the company’s priorities. Last year, the company dropped the popular “Oh Boy!” tagline from its products and went through a major redesign that led to a new paint scheme for the Miss Madison itself.

As a result, Grooms has been busy preparing himself for this day and said that the team is prepared to move on.

“I’m not totally blind, this didn’t just happen last night,” Grooms said. “When a major shift in distribution with Frito-Lay happened several years ago, you could see it coming. So we had put some feelers out and there are a number of sponsors who have asked what we wanted to do. So we’ll play those out and see if we can find the right fit for us. But regardless, we have zero intention of going anywhere except at the level we are at right now.”

The Miss Madison team was founded in 1961 and for the first 15 years did not seek major corporate sponsorship. Starting in the mid-1970s the team began obtaining sponsors for west coast races and went to full-time sponsors in the 1980s, starting with American Speedy Printing and then Holset.

Grooms was at the forefront of the team’s sponsor searches in the 1990s, which included Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Jasper Engines & Transmissions, DeWalt Tools and eventually Oh Boy! Oberto. He is confident that the next sponsor is right around the corner.

“We’ll make every opportunity to capitalize on the base that Art and the company has given us,” Grooms said. “In 15 years I’ve not had to be in this position, but now is a time where we couldn’t be in a better position from a team’s prospective. There are some challenges inside the sport, so we’ll focus on those things but we have plenty of other things to offer.”

Grooms believes the Miss Madison team is in a perfect position to make such a switch. Not only is the team coming off of its fifth national championship, but its ability to sell itself and its sponsor is second to none.

“From my perspective, we positioned ourselves not only on the race course, but on the beach. We understand what it takes to make it work from a sponsor’s prospective. And that’s not necessarily winning heats, although that helps,” Grooms said. “We can gain a sponsor access into a number of things that are ancillary to the racing itself, whether it’s boat shows, whether it’s other events ... Our merchandising is phenomenal. We’ll make more in merchandising than a lot of teams will make in sponsorship for a year.

“We’ve really done our homework well and I know that we’re prepared and we’ll see where it plays out. I’m comfortable and I’m confident that we’ll find some partner that wants to play.”

As for the season ahead, the Miss Madison team plans on carrying the Oberto name through all five races, but Grooms was quick to point out that should a new deal come about, the team is ready to move on.

“Oberto has given us the free rein to do what we want. It’s strictly up to us. Out of respect, we’re not going to do anything that would be contrary to their best interests,” Grooms said. “However, this is a transition and they fully understand if something were to transpire that would be in our interests as well as theirs, then we’ll move on it. I’m going to cover their butt, they know that. But they also know that I’m going to cover mine. It’s been a great relationship, but now we play out the season and see where it goes.”