THE PUBLICIST: NASCAR growth is fueled by a finely tuned comms machine

How loud is it? Imagine Ted Nugent in concert at a busy airstrip during a fire alarm. I'm in the pits at the Daytona 500, and the sound of 43 cars screaming down the straightaway is thrilling.

How loud is it? Imagine Ted Nugent in concert at a busy airstrip during a fire alarm. I'm in the pits at the Daytona 500, and the sound of 43 cars screaming down the straightaway is thrilling.

It's one reason stock-car racing is the country's fastest growing spectator sport. Reason two is a stellar PR effort by the sanctioning body, NASCAR. They've transformed a regional pastime into a national dynamo, trailing only the NFL in TV sports ratings. NASCAR's sponsorships and brand loyalties are unsurpassed - race fans are three times more likely to buy products endorsed by their favorite driver. No other sport's athletes can touch that. "NASCAR's PR shifted into high gear when VP Jim Hunter took over in 2001," says communications manager Herb Branham. "He increased full-time staff to 12 as our sport grew exponentially. There are new races in places like LA, Vegas, and Chicago, and our expanded TV contract airs us every weekend of the season." Last weekend's Daytona 500 drew 200,000 spectators, including President Bush. Prior to the race, celebs like Ben Affleck and Whoopi Goldberg turned the driver's meeting into a star-studded photo-op. Nextel, which replaced longtime NASCAR sponsor Winston this year, established its "new attitude" presence by bringing in the Counting Crows to play an open-bar sponsor party. Andrew Giangola, who handles NASCAR corporate PR, locked down cover stories in BusinessWeek and USA Today while showing me around the frenetic Daytona press circus. Countless media outlets scrambled for sound bites in the free-for-all atmosphere of the garages, surrounded by layers of publicists repping sponsors, automakers, and the track. In fact, top drivers, such as Jeff Gordon, have slick PR teams that rival those of any star in Hollywood. The flurry of press conferences, news releases, and press kits is staggering. And the SMTs, coordinated by Alan Taylor Communications (ATC), go full throttle at an infield studio. "We've had success raising NASCAR visibility by getting drivers in front of new target audiences with SMTs in the top-20 markets," says ATC VP Brett Jewkes. "Racers are generally likeable in their interviews, which has led to repeat media appearances." I was surprised to see women comprising a good portion of the audience. I'll explain how NASCAR is reaching out to them, and minorities, next week.
  • Lawrence Mitchell Garrison is an LA-based freelance publicist and writer

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