Pedal to the metal

While at the Daytona 500, Michael Bush got a bird's-eye view of how NASCAR's PR operation has grown exponentially in the past few years

While at the Daytona 500, Michael Bush got a bird's-eye view of how NASCAR's PR operation has grown exponentially in the past few years

After completing his final practice run the day before the 49th annual Daytona 500, racing's Super Bowl, Kasey Kahne exited his hauler to a growing mob of fans looking for autographs, pictures, or a chance to pat him on the back. He stood there for 15 minutes, surrounded by about 30 people, signing, smiling, and talking to every one of them.

While such a scene may be rare in other sports, it's just another day at the track for NASCAR. In most sports, there's a distance between the action and the fans. But letting fans get up close and personal is key to NASCAR's approach to growth, as are its fan-expansion efforts and heavy use of media relations.

Spend 10 minutes in the infield or garage area of the Daytona International Speedway during race week and it's crystal clear that NASCAR, with the occasional help of sponsors and partners, gives its fans more access than any other sport. At any time, fans can be found rubbing shoulders with the drivers, getting inside an actual race car at the Toyota Live! exhibit and smoking the tires, or lounging on the track itself on race day, scribbling messages on the start/finish line to their favorite drivers or loved ones.

Jim Obermeyer, NASCAR's MD, brand and consumer marketing, says one of the goals and challenges in 2007 is to grow the fan base outside the South and Southeast, while continuing to please core fans.

"We want to deepen our connection with fans and expose them to the opportunity for more race attendance," he says. "And we're looking to expand our fan base in new [locations] and segments focusing on a few key areas [including New York and LA]."

Obermeyer says the challenge is to make sure fan-expansion efforts neither compromise NASCAR's heritage nor alienate longtime fans.

"Our core fans grew up with this as a Southeastern American sport," he says. "As we're doing more things to mainstream it with celebrities, adding manufacturers, and adding media partners that broaden our exposure and appeal, we [must] be careful that too many changes don't disrupt the course."

Those two worlds are highly visible when strolling through the infield. In certain areas there are motor homes in the seven-figure price range. In others, you'll find old pickups with makeshift viewing platforms built on top of them.

Pursuit of new fans

NASCAR launched its "Go to a race. See things differently" TV spots during the Daytona 500. Obermeyer says the spots are aimed at avid fans, but are being used to explain the strategies of the sport to newer ones.

"This is a different focus strategically," he explains. "In the past, we highlighted drivers. This year, we are looking at NASCAR culture and connecting it back to the track experience."

To target new fans, NASCAR is utilizing street tours and viewing parties, which involve bringing people to various locations to view a race. For example, ESPN ran a viewing party for the Daytona 500 at the ESPN Zone in Manhattan.

Media relations is the other tool NASCAR is relying on. Ramsey Poston, MD of corporate communications, says prior to the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, the relationship between NASCAR and the media wasn't just bad, it was hostile. "The department was small," he says. "And as a sanctioning body, it didn't say much or have good media relationships."

Poston says the biggest challenge for his department, which has grown from seven to 25 in six years, is educating the media and prospective fans.

"A lot of decision-makers, producers, and editors didn't understand the sport, know how to cover it, or have the resources to cover it," he explains. "As well as we think we've done, there are still too many people out there who don't understand NASCAR or have misconceptions. It requires getting on airplanes and visiting editors and decision-makers across the country to explain the sport."

The misperception of NASCAR being just a Southern sport still exists, notes Poston, but the department is chipping away at that.

"It doesn't get on my nerves anymore," he says. "It's what I wake up to every day. This is our challenge, why we have this department, and why it's the size it is. We have residual offices in New York and LA for pure PR. We want to make sure our core fan base always gets the news about the sport, but then it's about how you shift gears and get to those new fans, reporters, and editors."

NASCAR works with PR agencies Alan Taylor Communications and Rogers & Cowan.

Telling the business story of NASCAR and providing PR support to sponsors is the primary focus for Andrew Giangola, director of business communications at NASCAR. At Daytona, he worked to secure coverage for stories about Toyota entering the Nextel Cup series and the nearly 15 different campaigns breaking that weekend.

"We come three or four weeks after the Super Bowl and a lot of the writers have done their sports marketing stories," Giangola notes. "We pitch the angle that the number two-rated sport is kicking off its season with significant corporate involvement and corporate activation, versus the Super Bowl that tends to be more one-off ads."

Corporate support

With over 100 Fortune 500 companies involved in the sport and a fan base of 75 million, NASCAR is second only to the NFL. Last year's dip in TV ratings and track attendance had some claiming the bloom had come off the rose. In one report, a CMO of a NASCAR sponsor said 2007 would be a key year, and while there was nothing to fear, another year like 2006 could change that.

Some like Dean Kessler, director of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series for Sprint Nextel, are not concerned. He says ratings are cyclical. Sprint Nextel is the title sponsor of the Nextel Cup Series.

"I think you'll see a nice incline [in ratings] with ABC and ESPN coming back to cover [it]," he says. "You have to look at it on an aggregate basis, rather than year-by-year. We're pleased with [how] the sport is progressing, the markets we're in, and the exposure we get."

Sponsors take part in the race

Sprint Nextel

Presence: Title sponsor of NASCAR Nextel Cup Series; ran the Nextel Experience; branded jumbotrons; signage throughout the track.

What it means: Dean Kessel, NASCAR Nextel Cup Series director for Sprint Nextel: "The partnership lets consumers experience our products in a way you can't in other areas."

Office Depot

Presence: Official office products supplier of NASCAR; official sponsor of the 99 Office Depot race car; branded products in media center; held speed dating event.

What it means: John Lebbad, senior director, marketing strategy: "Fans understand if the sponsor wasn't there, their favorite team wouldn't be racing."

Toyota

Presence: Four cars in the race; ran Toyota Live! and Tundra Prove It tour; distributed ice to campers via the Ice Tundra.

What it means: Les Unger, national motor sports manager Toyota Motor Sales, USA: "It's [an] opportunity to interact, interface, and reach out and touch fans with mobile marketing and product displays."

Domino's Pizza

Presence: Official pizza of NASCAR; official sponsor of the 00 Domino's race car; trackside display within corporate village.

What it means: Ken Calwell, chief marketing officer at Domino's: "This setting provides us with some of the best consumer interaction we have throughout the year."

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