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NASCAR Revs Up Its Marketing Engine

An aggressive plan aims to speed up stock car racing's drive for a broader audience.

September 05, 2004|Sallie Hofmeister | Times Staff Writer

During the Summer Olympics, NBC consumed millions of dollars' worth of airtime with promos proclaiming, "NASCAR goes Hollywood!"

Actually, today's stock car race is a world away from Tinseltown -- about an hour's drive east in working-class Fontana. But the commercials did speak loudly about the landscape NASCAR is determined to conquer.

The broadcast from the California Speedway, in prime-time on the East Coast, is part of NASCAR's ambitious blueprint to lure new fans in bigger and richer markets.

Already a multibillion-dollar business -- second only to the National Football League in ratings for televised sports -- NASCAR is shifting its focus beyond such race-crazy Southern strongholds as Darlington, S.C., to places where corporate sponsors and television networks can reach a broader audience.

Among the newer locales are tracks near Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas and Kansas City, Mo. In July, 676 acres were earmarked for a track on New York's Staten Island that would put NASCAR in the country's No. 1 media market.

The man behind the wheel of NASCAR is the grandson of William "Big Bill" France, who became a sports legend after he created the stock car racing venture in 1947 on the hard sands of Daytona Beach.

"We're going to be the most aggressive marketers in sports," said Brian France, the 42-year-old who took over as chairman and chief executive a year ago from his father. "We already had a direction. I just want to speed us up."

He isn't limiting his efforts to the grandstands.

At the Fontana racetrack, where 100,000-plus spectators are expected to converge for the Pop Secret 500, Walt Disney Co. will be filming another sequel to its popular 1970s "Love Bug" franchise, this one starring Lindsay Lohan and Matt Dillon as a NASCAR driver of the souped-up Volkswagen. Before the real race cars get the green flag, "Herbie" is scheduled to take a lap around the track.

NASCAR plans to co-produce one movie a year, while increasing the profiles of its superstar drivers by having them appear in TV shows such as "Family Feud," "Days of Our Lives" and MTV's "Cribs."

Purists fear that France's expansion drive could offend loyal fans and dilute the sport's down-home feel.

But France said he was balancing tradition with progress. "We hope we're going slowly enough so we don't alienate our core fans on the way to bringing in new fans," he said in an interview at NASCAR's Century City offices. "No one likes change, so there's an apprehension."

And when it comes to fans, they don't come more devoted.

The 32 tracks that hold NASCAR races typically sell out weeks in advance. Some devotees drive hundreds of miles in campers and million-dollar motor homes for a weekend outing at the track. Some rough it in pup tents.

Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon has a good sense of fan loyalty. "When you meet someone and they have me, my car, my sponsor and my number tattooed on their back, it blows your mind," he said. "Your fans feel like they know you. You're part of their lives."

That loyalty translates into big dollars. Fans spend an estimated $2 billion a year on NASCAR merchandise. They are three times more likely than other sports fans to buy products of corporate sponsors, who pay as much as $20 million a year to back a winning team and driver. In all, NASCAR boasts the biggest pool of sponsorship money in sports, nearly $1 billion a year.

Coca-Cola, for one, sold an additional 55 million bottles a month of its soft drinks after it began sponsoring NASCAR, according to Harris Interactive, a market research firm.

"There is nothing like it in sports marketing and advertising in general," said Mark Schweitzer, head of marketing at Nextel Communications Inc.

His company became NASCAR's biggest sponsor this year in the most expensive sponsorship deal in history. At an estimated cost of $750 million over 10 years, Nextel replaced R.J. Reynolds, which ended its 33-year sponsorship of NASCAR's Winston Cup series because of the soaring costs.

Such sponsorship deals have played a crucial role in keeping NASCAR's athletes wholesome and family-friendly. France said many professional athletes in other sports had no incentive to be well-behaved because they enjoyed rich, long-term contracts that were guaranteed.

By comparison, a NASCAR driver is an independent contractor and can pull down $10 million to $20 million a year in salary, sponsorships, prize money and merchandising. Drivers say their survival depends on the respect of their sponsors, which finance the cost of putting their state-of-the-art cars on the track.

"It boils down to the dollar," said top NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, an El Cajon, Calif., native whose main sponsor is the Lowe's chain of home-improvement stores. "Lowe's doesn't want someone as a spokesman with a drunk driving record or a drug problem. They have an image to uphold. At an early age, if you want to survive, you learn to put on a corporate hat and be responsible."

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