Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Friday hailed a $50,000 public investment in a NASCAR race car as an effective way to brand Maine to a national audience – if only for one race. Democrats quickly blasted the move as a “monumental waste of taxpayer dollars.”

The state of Maine is paying for the branding effort with $15,000 from LePage’s contingency account and $35,000 from the state tourism budget, according to Doug Ray, spokesman for the Department of Economic and Community Development.

At a news conference in Portland, state officials and local businesses unveiled the Maine-branded race car, which will be driven by 20-year-old Fort Kent native Austin Theriault in a Sept. 20 NASCAR Nationwide Series race in Kentucky.

“Maine” is emblazoned beneath an image of mountainscape, trees and moose on the hood of the blue race car.

The driver’s side features a lobster and a lighthouse, while the passenger side features a moose, trees, fall foliage and blueberries. On the rear bumper is an image of a red sign that says “Come in. We’re open.” Both sides feature the “Open for Business” slogan LePage placed on signs near the Maine-New Hampshire border.

LePage said Theriault embodies Maine’s work ethic and will be a great ambassador for the state. He’s hoping viewers will be compelled to visit the state and businesses will relocate to Maine after seeing the car and getting to know the driver behind the wheel.

“We’re proud to have a small part in this,” LePage said at a Portland news conference. “It tells the rest of the world that we’re open for business. I suspect you’re going to see 50 states doing the same thing.”

Maine Democrats aren’t so sure.

“We’ve already seen how Governor LePage’s ‘open for business’ sign worked out,” said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. “This waste of taxpayer dollars might get LePage more news coverage, but it won’t create any jobs.”

State officials said it was a wise investment, especially since Maine native and former NASCAR driver Ricky Craven will be calling the race.

Given the more than 1 million viewers who typically watch NASCAR races on TV and the thousands of people in attendance, the state is only paying 3 cents per impression, according to George Gervais, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.

In addition to the race, there are three out-of-state events at which the car will be featured, Gervais said, and the state is working to bring driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of NASCAR’s biggest stars, to Maine.

Theriault was signed in April to drive three races for the JR Motorsports team co-owned by Earnhardt. The VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 in Kentucky on Sept. 20 will be the last of those races.

“I think there’s a lot of value in it for the state of Maine,” Gervais said in an interview.

With LePage up for re-election, the announcement, which comes less than two months before Election Day, drew criticism from the campaign of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic nominee.

On Thursday, David Farmer, Michaud’s senior adviser, said the branding effort was an election-year ploy to connect with NASCAR fans in Maine. “I think it is very clear that this is more about Gov. LePage’s re-election than it is about the state of Maine,” he said.

LePage pushed back against that notion in an interview after Friday’s news conference.

“My name is not on the car,” LePage said. “It’s unfortunate that Mike (Michaud) wants to take a small view of the state of Maine.”

The campaign of independent Eliot Cutler on Thursday didn’t address the possible political gamesmanship.

For Theriault, the marketing effort is about endorsements – but not political ones.

“It’s an endorsement of the companies and the work ethic in this state,” he said. “It’s an endorsement of the people.”

Theriault’s business attorney, Frederick Lipp, would not disclose how much money is being contributed by the 10 Maine businesses who are helping to sponsor Theriault with the state. However, he noted that it costs roughly $200,000 per race to run a NASCAR team and that most of the sponsorship money came from the private sector.

Major per-race costs on the Nationwide Series, according to NASCAR’s website, typically include engine leasing, equipment such as tires, along with travel and lodging at racing sites and payroll for the crew.

Private sector sponsors include: Bangor Savings Bank, Colby Company Engineering, Daigle & Houghton Trucks, G&E Roofing, Kepware Technologies, Tim Varney & Co., Southern Maine Chrysler Dodge Jeep, Daigle Oil Co., Hogan Tire and Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine.

Sarah Emily Colby, the chief executive officer of the Portland-based Colby Company Engineering, which employs 25 people, noted the historic nature of the branding effort. She is from Mississippi, which she called the “heart of NASCAR country.”

“Austin, one of the reasons we were so interested in supporting you is that we think you are an excellent representative of our small-business community,” Colby said. “You’re a hard worker. You’re a hard-charging competitor. I really appreciate the positive attention you are bringing to Maine.”

Theriault approached the state about sponsoring the car after he secured investments from Maine companies. He hopes it will encourage people to visit, live and invest in Maine.

“I know sometimes it can seem a little bit out there, but in this economy you have to try things that either have never been done or do things that are outside the box,” he said.

With taxpayers’ money being invested, he feels an added pressure to perform well.

“It can be stressful to be the first person to do something, but we’re looking forward to making this a success for the state because there’s tax money involved,” he said.

Most NASCAR teams draw from a variety of sponsors, including large multinational corporations, but Theriault’s car is being branded with local businesses.

Public spending on racing sponsorship has been attempted before, sometimes with dubious results. In 2012, Virginia paid to rename a race in Richmond as the “Capital City 400 presented by Virginia Is for Lovers,” the state’s marketing slogan.

At the federal level, the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard all have sponsored racing teams at one time or another, but have dropped the programs because they are costly and of questionable effectiveness in spurring new recruitment.

Next year, the National Guard, which has sponsored a NASCAR and IndyCar team for years, will end its investment in the sport. In May, USA Today reported that despite a $26.5 million investment in a NASCAR team in 2012, not a single person was successfully recruited that year as a result of the sponsorship.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings