Interview: George Pyne



NASCAR has evolved from a Southern regional sport, derided by the other sports fans, to become the second most-watched televised sport, behind NFL games.

But NASCAR COO George Pyne says the sport still doesn't get the media coverage it deserves. Pyne talked to about the sport's "new kid" status, how the organization handles its brand messaging, and what it's doing to win over the metropolitan market.

Q. NASCAR's fundamental proposition has been that it is both entertainment and a sport. How is the company perceived when people are discussing it?

A. There are two critical elements that make our brand attractive. One is the competitive, exhilarating aspect on the racetrack. But our competitors can obviously make the same claim. Where we differentiate our brand is the sense of belonging and family that is unique to NASCAR. The people involved in NASCAR are genuine people you admire. Those are the key ingredients of our message, which we try to convey, in an authentic way, to as broad an audience as possible.

Q. Stock car racing has a storied past, and NASCAR has been around for a while. When did the organization expand beyond being a regional sport and hit critical mass?

A. Our product became better distributed in the late '80s when it went on television on a regular basis. We weren't on television until 1988, and even then, it was just on cable on The Nashville Network, which no longer exists, and ESPN. In the mid-'90s, we began taking our product to different marketplaces, like Chicago, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. That was a way to expose our product live to consumers. This, combined with the distribution on television, really gave us an opportunity to showcase the product to a broader audience. In 2001, we went from cable broadcast to network broadcast, which was another big boost for the sport. We also began broadcasting worldwide. We now broadcast in 150 countries and 22 languages, and we had our first [official] points race in Mexico City a few weeks ago.

Q. With such an extended focus over many countries, does the NASCAR branding message travel well? Or do you need to localize your promotional efforts depending on the country or region?

A. People want to feel part of something. So, in order to enable that, you do have to put a local flavor in it. We have drivers from all over the country, which helps. But the "family" message really resonates with the wide spectrum of people. When we went to Mexico City, the promoter said to us, "Wow, NASCAR has a lot of heart."

Q. How do you feel the sports media coverage of NASCAR has evolved?

A. We have room to grow. Being the new kid on the block, we face some challenges that others don't. This weekend, we may be the largest attended and most watched sporting event on television on Saturday and Sunday [for the Food City 500 event]. But if you open today's USA Today, we're on page 16. Why is that? When we go into a market and talk to a local radio station or newspaper, we can make the case that there are millions of fans in that marketplace. The problem is the media may not have people on staff know what they're looking at and can explain the sport in a compelling way. There is a national shortage of motor sports writers. It's easier to cover a football or baseball game than a race. Because all [novices] can do is describe that cars are going around a circle and report who won. But there is really so much more beyond that - fabrication, engineering, crew performance, and aerodynamics. Those are the things that make NASCAR a compelling team sport. The challenge we have is [education], and we're working on it every day. We have great motor sports trades, but the resources have not been dedicated to cover the sport at local newspapers and radio stations. Our trade and beat writers are outstanding, but we just need more of them.

Q. You had a promotional event in New York City where you had drivers race around the city. Are there more plans in place to use these types of promotions in under-tapped markets?

A. Absolutely. We hired a grassroots marketer in the New York office who goes out and looks for opportunities [like that every day]. And we're going to add more staff to do those sorts of things. We're the second highest-rated TV sport out there - behind football - and we accomplished that without the coverage that's commensurate with that standing. But we're not drowning in our tears because we believe that's an opportunity.

Q. NASCAR recently held a PR conference for writers, its PR agencies, and PR professionals from the drivers and sponsors. What was the point of it?

A. The point was that we're all in this together. We've all come across different opportunities, so it was a time to share ideas. With my NASCAR hat on, I want to have my drivers out as much as possible. From the driver's standpoint, they want as many positive stories about them as possible, because it gives a real benefit to their sponsors. The idea is to get together once a year to exchange ideas and to see how we can help each other.

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