My Brain on NASCAR: The world of promotions

Cathy Elliott

Cathy Elliott

By Cathy Elliott

Just a couple of days prior to the race at Richmond International Raceway on April 30, I got an email from Jon Keller. Jon works for a global PR firm called Zeno, which according to its website, is “an independent, entrepreneurial team of visionaries, experts and achievers.

“We love to see our work break through and disrupt thinking, perception and markets,” the description continues. “First, we explore the roots of people’s emotions and motivations, then we apply that insight to our thinking and to the ideas we generate for clients.”

In this particular case, the disruptive breakthrough involved generating ideas about Busch beer, the primary sponsor of 2014 Monster Energy Cup Series Champion Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Chevy. Race fans who stopped by Busch’s activation kiosk in Richmond could enter for the opportunity to win a million bucks, if Harvick takes the checkered flag at the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 20. Not a bad payoff just for dropping your name into a box.

NASCAR and the speedways that hosts its events are no strangers to the world of promotion. Sadly, the days when raceway staffers, from the guy who cut the grass right on up to the directors of public relations and marketing, would cruise around town, sticking signs in the ground on sticks, or hammering them onto light poles or any other empty surface just begging to be filled with a crafty sales pitch.

According to Eddie Gossage, the president of Texas Motor Speedway, “A poster on a telephone post worked in 1950 and it still works. You still stop at a red light or a stop sign, and there’s a pole with a poster on it. Barber shop, convenience store, whatever; it still works … but you also have to have a satellite feed over here now.”

(On a side note, at Darlington Raceway we once did a promotion which, although simple in concept, was pretty nasty in execution: Eat a stick of butter, win a pair of race tickets. The promotion was scheduled to last three hours, or until the tickets were gone. We ran out in under half an hour. Fans; you gotta love ‘em.)

When it comes to promoting its athletes, NASCAR beats other professional sports like a dusty rug, with 75 million fans who purchase over $3 billion in annual licensed product sales. NASCAR fans are three times as likely to try – and buy – sponsors’ products and services, and are considered the most brand-loyal in all of sports.

As a result, Fortune 500 companies like Stanley, Axlata and O’Reilly Auto Parts, plus blue-chip brands including Mars, Miller-Coors and Shell, sponsor NASCAR more than any other sports governing body.

This doesn’t even factor in the individual team and driver sponsorships. Who can forget those TV commercials featuring Tony Stewart working the drive-through at Burger King (insert your own joke about Tony’s personal Whopper consumption here), or Kasey Kahne being stalked by those three obsessed housewives?

Then, although I have tried for years to block it out of my mind, there was Michael Waltrip all dressed up like Elvis complete with a pompadour and sequined jumpsuit, doing the booty dance to promote NAPA’s know-how … or, in this case, knowing-how NOT. I’m pretty sure we’ll never see Tom Brady doing that.

We’ve had Gillette’s Young Guns, some of whom looked too young to shave, and the current Coca-Cola Racing Family, promoting America’s top-selling sugary soft drink by jockeying for position in rolling chair races.

Silly? Absolutely, but smart, too. Even now, in a time when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, the UNC Tarheels are national champions and LeBron James just might lead his Cleveland Cavaliers to a second consecutive NBA title, nationally NASCAR remains the second-highest broadcasted sport, trailing only the NFL. Internationally, NASCAR races are broadcast in over 150 countries. The sport’s brand-loyalty quotient is off the charts.

We’ve come a long way since the days when Clay Earles promoted his Martinsville Speedway by driving around town with the track’s phone number and race date painted on the side of his car. These days, each track has at least one year-round pace car of its own, all spiffed up with fancy rims, vinyl wraps and light bars.

Times have changed, but one thing has stayed the same. From Busch beer to Breitling watches and silly stunts to serious business, as far as its fans are concerned, whatever NASCAR is selling … we’re buying.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations for Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR; Desktop 500; and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough to Tame. Contact her at

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