Travis Pastrana: This isn't Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s NASCAR any more.... as TP199's color scheme here might show (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Star power...Twitter...Gen-Y....Gen-6...Hispanics....Danica... NASCAR execs are pulling out all the stops to make this sport hot again.
But are cars -- muscle cars or race cars -- really even relevant any more on the American sports scene?
And what about NASCAR's classic 'core fan'? Where does he fit into this new NASCAR game plan -- "NASCAR's vision is to be the premier motorsports innovator, universally regarded as one of the world's most successful sports entertainment properties," as this vision statement proclaims.
Heady stuff here.
Daytona and Charlotte might not have all the answers, but you can't say they're sitting on their tush.
It's been a while since the sport's heady days, that rip-roaring stretch from 1994 through, say, 2007. From the Indianapolis Brickyard 400 explosion, and the rise of Jeff Gordon, and the prime of Dale Earnhardt...through the period of the ill-fated and disliked car-of-tomorrow, and the U.S.' economic disaster.
The sport's high-water mark could well be seen as the 2005-2006-2007 stretch, the dizzying run of sizzling TV ratings and big crowds, rousing sponsorships and titillating controversies.
To breathe new life into the sport, to shake off malaise, to revitalize things, and hopefully to take it all to 'the next level' NASCAR executives have been working on a major six-point game plan, for nearly a year and a half now, really some 2-1/2 years.
What is this game plan, and how well is it working?
NASCAR's Brett Jewkes, the sport's chief marketing coach, has a lot of balls in the air and a lot of computer screens to keep track of (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- pumping up 'driver star power' on the national scene, even investing in new drivers;
-- attacking through social media and its technological links with sponsor Sprint, and through its own now-wholly controlled Nascar.com;
-- increasing the impact on fans of 'the event experience,' trying to make a NASCAR weekend about more than just the racing;
-- working to attract 'next generation' fans in four specific areas -- Hispanic, Gen-Y 18-to-34s, African-Americans, and potential fans 13 and under;
-- and trying to improve and accent 'product relevance.'
All, NASCAR officials say, while working to keep this sport's "core fans" involved. NASCAR defines the heart of those core fans as white males 30-60.
The most obvious part of this game plan are the new 2013 model stock cars.
The 2013s are much more distinct by brand than the common template COTs (which ruled from 2007-2012), and the 2013s are such a key part of this that NASCAR has even created a new logo, calling them 'Gen-6' cars..rather contrived, since the previous five generations are a pretty nebulously defined bunch.
However it is not clear that the Gen-Y 18-to-34s are swayed by street car stylings at all. Cars today for many, particularly younger drivers, are utilitarian, rather than some personal statement. Detroit itself is much to blame for this, of course, with its form-follows-function approach to designing cars.
Just look at the once-classic Ford Taurus or the venerable Chevrolet Impala or the stylistic invisible Toyota Camry, and try to get fired up about firing through the gears of a stick-shift at the next stoplight....
Does anyone even know what a stick shift is any more? Linda Vaughn, where are you?
Is Detroit too late to the game? Is NASCAR too late to the change?
Can NASCAR attract the 'next' generation? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
But there is more, much more, to this game plan than just some new sheet metal.
That's been one of NASCAR's guiding principles for years.
Other People's Money.
Checks flow into Daytona, not the other way.
So it comes as something of a surprise that NASCAR lately has been spending some of its own money -- on helping develop a new group of stock car drivers, finding them and polishing them, and offering them a future in this sport.
Actually it only makes sense, NASCAR investing in its future.
Think young racers like Trevor Bayne and Brennan Newberry.
Trevor, you've heard of. The Daytona 500 winner.
Brennan, not yet.
But Newberry, here as one of NASCAR's new Truck racers, working out of Kevin Harvick's Kernersville, N.C., shops, is what NASCAR wants: a polished, sponsor-friendly, young driver.
It recently took half a dozen of its promising new stars, not the familiar names but new ones, out to Los Angeles to meet some key figures in the entertainment world -- to show them a bit of this 'new look' NASCAR driver. "And they were blown away by these drivers," NASCAR's Brett Jewkes says.
He may be virtually unknown to most NASCAR fans, indeed to most NASCAR journalists. In his two full years on the job Jewkes has worked behind the scenes developing this plan and working to implement its many parts.
When it comes to marketing, NASCAR men have no fear of going over the top. 50 Cent and Mark Martin? If it works, wear it. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Let's back up for a moment.
This 'new driver' project is part of a much larger project, to shape, maybe even reshape, the entire sport in specific ways.
The real genesis of this larger project isn't clear -- whether it was a 'buying' job or a 'selling' job.
But it's here now, and NASCAR teams have been told to get on board.
Two and a half years ago, in a major meeting of the sport's top executives, Jim France, Brian France, Mike Helton and several others locked themselves in a room for five days, to come with a new game plan for the sport.
The over-100 focal points coming out of that meeting, and in related talks with industry sponsors, were trimmed to a more manageable 37. And those have been packaged into six main categories.
Those 37 were put together in a power point presentation dubbed the 'Industry Action Plan,' and before the start of the 2012 season NASCAR executives sat down with race teams to lay everything out, and tell the teams to start focusing on these many points, in their own operations.
A significant goal, naturally, is to attract more high-dollar, big-business sponsors to this sport.
And the cost of this type of racing is so expensive -- say $20 million per team per season just for the racing itself, plus however much more sponsoring companies need to spend to 'activate' that sponsorship.
With that in mind, consider how many teams still have full-time sponsors, companies that haven't 'sold off' race weekends to other smaller sponsors:
Shell/Pennzoil. Miller Lite. Farmers Insurance. FedEx. 5-Hour Energy. 3M. M&Ms. Lowe's. Fastenal. Furniture Row. Aaron's. Caterpillar. NAPA. Target. Menards. GoDaddy.
Even Home Depot, longtime NASCAR stalwart, has been selling off quarterpanels and slowly fading from the scene. And where is DuPont these days?
You get the picture.
Maybe now, a year and a half later, it's time to consider just how well this 'IAP' is working.
And maybe it's curious that it's taken NASCAR officials so long to become willing to lay all this out for media analysis...which Jewkes and his staff did Tuesday afternoon, during a break in the All-Star/Coke 600 week.
Kids under 12 get in free? Well, Matt Kenseth's daughter does. How well, otherwise, is NASCAR handling the 'fan family' situation? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Let's take a step back:
When NASCAR execs decided about two years ago to redesign the sport's PR department and renamed it 'Integrated Marketing,' the objective was obvious: newspapers are all but dead, local TV doesn't mean much at all, print journalism is ancient history. So NASCAR officials are repackaging PR, dropping the PR and going straight to heavy duty marketing.
That may make business sense. Go into any trackside media center and look around -- what was once a national army of journalists devoted to covering NASCAR has been decimated, and only a small cadre remains, surrounded weekly by a host of local area media that will have different faces next week at the next tour stop.
When France decided to assess that situation, he brought in Brett Jewkes ( @BJewkes on Twitter, Brett Jewkes on Facebook ) from Taylor (formerly Alan Taylor Communications, a long-time NASCAR marketing partner). And France wound up accepting Jewkes' analysis and hired Jewkes himself to put it in motion.
So what was once a two-man NASCAR PR operation not so long ago is now a 35-man-plus NASCAR marketing operation, which sometimes seems so large that it overwhelms tour press boxes.
Those who recall the days when NASCAR pretty much 'outsourced' its marketing to R. J. Reynolds, when that company's Winston brand sponsored the sport (for 33 years, until 2004), may be somewhat bemused at the difference in the two approaches to marketing NASCAR racing. (Would it be unfair to compare and contrast the success of each?)
Nothing like a little romance in NASCAR to liven things up.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR may have some of country's most brilliant marketeers.
And stepping over the line is nothing new here.
A lot of this stuff may work, but not everything: Sorry to break with one story line, but NASCAR isn't green.
Engines that get 4.5 mpg?
It sounds like an oxymoron: NASCAR stockers guzzle gas, and those smoky burnouts don't exactly zig green.
Planting trees is fine, but really it sounds somewhat bizarre.
If NASCAR execs wanted to do something that could make a difference, they would have the NASCAR big rig fleet running on natural gas, and promoting it. Jack Roush has been fiddling in that area for a couple of years, but NASCAR execs haven't jumped on board yet.
NASCAR's move to unleaded fuel a few years ago was far behind the curve, so 1970s. A move to LNG would be ahead of the curve, cool, and very promotional.
EFI -- higher tech than old-fashioned carburetors. But can't NASCAR do more? Why did Dodge walk away from this sport? Why did Honda just thumb its nose? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Electronic fuel injection is a very good approach to increasing product relevance. But to be honest it has not been rolled out with very effective marketing (aside from that $25,000 fine on champion Brad Keselowski for complaining that it was 20-year-old technology).
NASCAR's reliance on 1970s-era 358 cubic inch push-rod V-8s may well be cost efficient and certainly visually effective on race Sundays. But it's not 'green.' How many fans have 358 V-8s under the hood of their family cars?
Honda, known for its engines and its racing prowess, just snubbed NASCAR and took its marketing game to Formula 1.
NASCAR just let Dodge/Chrysler get away, and now Honda.
Make that 0-for-2 in major sponsorships.
@theorangecone gets the hook. Some of NASCAR's social media tricks work well, some not so much (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR's social-media/internet game plan is, well, mixed.
The Twitter-verse may be highly amused with the weekly antics of @theorangecone and @nascarcasm and other anonymous marketing figures.
But nascar.com, since NASCAR took it in-house, has been something of a disaster. First, it crashes way too much. Second, the comments section has been disabled...which is odd, since NASCAR, in all this, is priding itself on fan feedback. The image is that NASCAR execs are too scared of fan response to allow it. However NASCAR on Facebook appears a little more open.
To push its 'driver star power' program, NASCAR has invested in a 'driver services' operation, to promote various NASCAR stars as 'brands.' (Wonder how David Ragan, Robby Gordon, Regan Smith and other journeymen are faring?)
However the 'next generation fan' part of this game plan may be one of the most difficult.
For decades NASCAR didn't need to worry about this, because the story line was simple -- father likes NASCAR, takes son to NASCAR races, wives come along, and the circle continues.
But NASCAR's several ill-fated moves to expand this sport's base appear to have backfired here, many moves aggravating classic core fans and working to break the circle.
Taking the Labor Day Southern 500 from Darlington, S.C., to Los Angeles may be the most dramatic setback. But there are several others.
Remember this sport used to play twice at North Wilkesboro Speedway and twice at North Carolina Motor Speedway at Rockingham and twice at Darlington Raceway. Certainly that was overkill in this one market, but the sharp cutback has had ramifications in the core fan base.
One point -- is 'family' still part of the NASCAR vocabulary?
That might sound like an odd question, given all the kids that drivers are so eager to hold on their shoulders pre-race
But maybe this year's marketing pitch is not 'family' but rather 'danger.' For years this sport has seemed perhaps too easy, no worries about death any more, in the wake of NASCAR's amazing safety push. Now, though, speeds are up a whopping five miles an hour, above what some -- like promoter Bruton Smith -- have complained as 'too fast' for good side by side competition. Why faster speeds, if not to add the element of danger?
Sometimes it seems NASCAR may be trying to be too many things to too many people.
Adrian Fernandez, the legendary racer, was a big part of NASCAR's Mexico City push....which for some reason just fizzled out (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR's Hispanic efforts have been admirable since that part of the project was launched in 2005.
The Mexico City project was intriguing, and unfortunately cut too short. Working sponsorships, on both sides of the border, showed considerable potential, particularly Lowe's and Home Depot; however that part of the deal never really materialized in any strength.
However the NASCAR Toyota Mexico series is coming along, as best as can be seen from so far away; and NASCAR took a major step by hosting one of those events at Phoenix International Raceway earlier this year.
A Spanish version of nascar.com is coming (not just a translation of the US website). NASCAR is pushing Univision connections, like the mini-series Arranque de Pasion. And Fox Deportes carries several races live.
On the downside -- the continuing disappointment of Juan Pablo Montoya on the Sprint Cup tour. A man who should be key in NASCAR Hispanic efforts hasn't really done much at all lately. (Should NASCAR executives be taking a more forceful role in this, considering what they have at stake?)
It is unclear what percent of NASCAR fans are Hispanic, and unclear how that percentage has changed over the past few years. NASCAR is rarely good with handing out sensitive numbers like this...unless the numbers paint a very positive picture.
After all that Daytona 500 publicity, NASCAR executives thought Brad Keselowski's tweeting was great for business. So where did that $25,000 NASCAR fine come from that fall? But then it's not like NASCAR not to send mixed messages.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
In the 'youth' part of the 'next generation' game:
What do 'family' ticket packages really look like? Which tracks are more 'family friendly'? How about kids under 12 get in free (with a NASCAR Kids ID card, perhaps, tied into a special NASCAR Kids program of some sort.)
Maybe NASCAR's 'fan zone' innovations should include 'kid zones,' that MacDonald's might know how to implement.
Music is big in this next generation thing, and pretty straightforward: 50 Cent, et al.
Gaming should be too, though it's not clear if NASCAR has a good hand on the new wave of video gaming. Does NASCAR do Steam?
Overall it is not clear how effective NASCAR and its promoters are at selling the 'family' aspect of this sport, particularly given the exorbitant hotel expenses involved in coming to any race. In fact throughout this week's entire 2-1/2-hour abbreviated seminar with journalists on this new game plan, not a word was mentioned about hotel gouging, which is one of the biggest problems facing this sport, especially for families.
Not a word about NASCAR and its promoters using their considerable political clout to produce anti-gouging legislation.
Remember Juan Pablo Montoya: Formula 1 to NASCAR. But what's he done for the sport lately? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However it is the 18-to-34 demographic that is so worrisome.
For years this was the 'muscle-car' generation.
Apparently no longer.
How to get this Gen-Y on board the NASCAR train?
Maybe heavy-duty co-promotions with other entertainment venues, other sports. But such cross-promotions are not specifically addressed in this IAP game plan, for some reason. Maybe Major League Baseball is tired of having NASCAR drivers throw out the first pitch....
Don't think that fining 28-year-old Brad Keselowski $25,000 for using his cell phone was a great idea.
Don't think that fining 32-year-old Denny Hamlin $25,000 for modest post-race comments at Phoenix was a great idea either.
Actually those issues could be part of a much larger NASCAR problem, which this Industry Action Plan for growth doesn't really address -- a little more commonsense here.
Indeed, part of the issue here -- perhaps a big part -- could be what appears to be the considerable schism between NASCAR's competition arm and NASCAR's marketing arm.
Bill France Jr. believed that if the race day product was solid, with good competition, everything else would fall into place.
Well, there may be more to this game than that. But competition has to be the bedrock of this sports business, and too often over the past two years especially on-track competition has been, well, dull.
No matter how sharp and on their game NASCAR's marketers may be, without good action on the track, it pretty much goes for naught.
But then until this week NASCAR execs never really asked for any journalists to weigh in on all this. Wonder if any will?
NASCAR flat blew a great White House opportunity a few weeks ago. Does anyone really know why? Maybe someone should ask the NASCAR vice president for commonsense....when they find him. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)