Corporate Case Study: Outreach effort has NASCAR on fast track to growth

With a strong balance of in-house staffers and agency ties, NASCAR's comms efforts are overcoming stereotypes and winning a host of new fans and corporate partners from coast to coast.

With a strong balance of in-house staffers and agency ties, NASCAR's comms efforts are overcoming stereotypes and winning a host of new fans and corporate partners from coast to coast.

NASCAR holds at least one advantage over "establishment" sports such as football, basketball, and baseball - you can't strap a reporter to a linebacker and show him the thrill of the game. But you can belt him into the passenger seat and let him feel the track at 200 mph. And you'd better believe he's going to take an interest in your sport after that. Otherwise, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing has some natural obstacles to overcome. There are no home teams, which means no paper in the US has a local obligation to cover it. (Even the lowly Royals can count on daily attention from The Kansas City Star.) Nobody debates whether basketball is really a "sport." Reporters tend to be fairly ignorant of stock car racing. The recent adoption of a complicated points system doesn't help that. And for much of the public, NASCAR is still synonymous with "southern," "white," and maybe "shirtless." Those impressions aren't entirely unfounded. The sport traces its roots to the Prohibition-Era South, when liquor smugglers would turn their cars into racing machines to elude the law. Such drivers were soon participating in more formal (and legal) races organized by Bill France Sr., grandfather of current NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France. That tradition was formally incorporated as NASCAR 53 years ago. These days, Dukes of Hazard stereotypes don't really stand up when faced with the sport's numbers. In terms of television viewership of sports, NASCAR is second only to the National Football League. It's also the third-ranked televised sport in Boston - about as un-Southern a US city as there is. Of the markets with the biggest viewership on a week-to-week basis, Chicago, New York, and LA are consistently in the top five. And 40% of NASCAR fans are women. Part of that can be attributed to the sport's natural allure. Who doesn't like watching cool cars zip around a track at speeds we'll never achieve? And who didn't play with MatchBox cars as a kid? But the cool factor only takes you so far. NASCAR's media team has put great effort into expanding the sport's profile in the past 10 years. And it's happy to take the credit for its creeping success above the Mason-Dixon line. Bringing the sport to major markets "One of [my] missions is to reach out to major markets that aren't covering NASCAR consistently to [help] them understand how their viewership or readership has changed over the past 10 years," says Ramsey Poston, MD of consumer communications. "NASCAR is a national sport with fans from coast to coast, but there may be a lot of station managers or editors who might not have recognized the change. We want to show them the demographics." Poston, who came aboard in April after six and a half years with Washington, DC-based Powell Tate - one of NASCAR's many firms - reports to VP of communications Jim Hunter. Now in his fourth year with the group, Hunter, who was unavailable to comment for this article, has overseen some initiatives that may be responsible for much of those changing demographics. Poston points to diversity - among drivers, pit crew, and audience - as one of NASCAR's greatest and oldest challenges. The communications office puts serious effort into overcoming it. "We have an on-track initiative to help prepare and educate minorities and women to be drivers and crew members. Then we have off-track initiatives which seek to identify job opportunities within the industry, and we have our marketing and fan-outreach initiative in which we like to make sure every American is a NASCAR fan," he says. Safety is a big issue, too, particularly after the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt, the sport's biggest star. "We have a fairly new [research and development] office whose mission is to continue to examine and improve safety," says Poston. "That is something we talk about a great deal." A small army of firms helps spread the word. Powell Tate handles issues management; Alan Taylor Communications out of New York tends to the top 20 media markets; and Anachel Communications in Manhattan Beach, CA, helps with entertainment outreach. There are 22 people in NASCAR's own PR office, making for a hefty communications team. Just this February, the team rolled out a media-only website that feeds stories to and answers questions for anyone covering the sport. "Our feedback shows that [the website] has been extraordinarily helpful," Poston says. Strong corporate ties Another advantage NASCAR enjoys over establishment sports is its relationship with corporate America. Consider this: When Major League Baseball announced earlier this year that the logo for Spiderman 2 would appear on bases during games leading up to the film's summer release, cries of greed and commercialism from the sport's "purists" were so great, the plan was scrapped within 24 hours. But in the world of NASCAR, being a purist means buying only the brand of detergent that endorses your favorite driver. In fact, NASCAR fans are three times as likely to patronize businesses that sponsor the sport than those that don't. In this world, there is no stigma of corporate relationships. To capitalize on that fortunate state of affairs, NASCAR recently opened a business communications office in New York. As director of business communications, Andrew Giangola heads the effort to promote NASCAR and its sponsors in the business pages. "Sponsorship is part of our DNA," offers Giangola. "Fans understand it's not an inexpensive sport - tires, fuel, chassis, engines. Cars take a great deal of money to run. So if you're a Tony Stewart fan and Home Depot is investing in your driver, you'll likely shop at Home Depot. If you're a Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. fan, you'll drink Budweiser." But even with that kind of corporate pull, Giangola still has to overcome biases and misconceptions among the business media. Josh Chaffin, a DC-based political reporter with the Financial Times, recently wrote an article about NASCAR for his newspaper's weekend edition. He admits coming into it with some preconceived notions. "I had this sort of stereotypical, 'This is a Southern redneck thing,' for lack of a better term," he says, "but they were very effective in presenting it as more than just a regional Southern sport. It's a very robust phenomenon and a robust business." Chaffin didn't get his own personal joy ride, but he got to see the sport up close. "[Giangola] took us through the infield," he recalls. "We met a lot of the teams, spent time with them, went into the trailers, and watched the races from the pit. We had pretty incredible access." Among NASCAR's other important guests of late was President George W. Bush, who made quite a campaign stop out of his appearance at the Daytona 500. This came as no surprise to anyone who follows politics - "NASCAR dads" are the new soccer moms and are a treasured demographic that can help win you the White House. But as much as Poston and his colleagues appreciate the attention, they'd just as soon scrap the "NASCAR dad" label. In the end, it's just another way to stereotype their fans. "Political scientists must be careful about how they define our overall fan base," says Poston. Of course, if it keeps US presidents coming to the track, one imagines even the guys at NASCAR could learn to embrace a little stereotyping. PR contacts VP of communications Jim Hunter MD of consumer comms Ramsey Poston Director of business comms Andrew Giangola Senior manager of PR Mike Zizzo PR agencies Anachel Communications, Alan Taylor Communications, Powell Tate

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