The Green Flag Is Up

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The blue and white car banking the Daytona International Speedway track at 165 miles per hour on February 13 was not sponsored by one of the circuit's usual suspects. Alltel-the cellular, Internet, and local phone-service provider-was the name fans saw emblazoned across the roof and side of the car each time it pulled into the lead position in the season's first NASCAR Busch Series Grand National race. Though the driver wiped out in the 65th lap, Alltel is still elated with its choice to back the team, and the following week sponsored an entire race, the Alltel 200.

Alltel is no anomaly among NASCAR sponsors. It is just one of several high-tech companies, including Lycos, Philips, 3M, and BellSouth, that have woken up to the power of NASCAR, particularly to the attractive demographics of its fans. Gone are the days when automotive parts, beer, and tobacco companies were the only sponsors on the track. NASCAR is now one of the country's top spectator sports: The Winston Cup race draws 15 to 17 million viewers annually.

And they've come a long way from being considered, in the words of one ad agency exec, a "very bubba kind of crowd." They are now a diverse, affluent bunch: half of those going to races have household incomes in excess of $50,000 a year.

Fan demographics have changed dramatically since the mid-'90s, as new race tracks have opened outside of the sport's traditional stronghold in the Southeast, television networks have expanded their race coverage, and drivers like Jeff Gordon-who are slicker, less down-home, and more media-savvy-have joined the NASCAR ranks. And car-racing fans are more educated than in the past: those with at least a college degree comprised 22 percent of the pool in 1998, an increase of 18 percent from 1995. Female fans have grown 5 percent since 1995, currently comprising almost 40 percent of NASCAR enthusiasts, a greater percentage of women than in any other sport.

As the demographics have grown, so too has the sponsor list. Alltel got in-and on-the car two years ago when it learned that 71 percent of the households in its wireless service areas are also fans of the sport. Half of NASCAR devotees now use a cell phone, according to Performance Research in Newport, Rhode Island. That's 10 percent higher than the average U.S. citizen, according to a study by NFO Worldwide Research. Alltel expanded its involvement from associate-level to full sponsorship this year, which allowed its logo to cover a car and adorn the team members' uniforms, as well as other ancillary promotional opportunities.

"Alltel is in a growth spurt right now, and we felt that with that strong of a tie, we really needed to leverage it," says Denise Nieves, vice president of marketing communications. The company spent $14 million in advertising across all media in the first 11 months of 1998, according to Competitive Media Reporting, compared to $4.1 million for all of 1997. Alltel's sponsorship of the race and the team may have cost as much as $2.75 million, according to information from NASCAR's rate card.

Lycos, too, is sponsoring a team for the second season in a row. "It allows for a tremendous amount of pure brand exposure on television," says Jim Hoenscheid, Lycos' director of brand marketing and promotions. And, he adds, "NASCAR fans are an extremely loyal and wired audience."

Loyalty is the word most companies used when asked their reasons for sponsorship. According to Performance Research, 72 percent of NASCAR race attendees say they almost always or frequently buy a sponsor's product rather than choose one from a nonsponsor company. That is the highest rating for any sport: tennis has a 52 percent loyalty rating; PGA golf, 47 percent; and the NBA, 38 percent.

And the fans really are wired. In 1996, 12 percent of those attending a race said they had access to an online service; in 1998, that had quadrupled to 53 percent. By contrast, 31 percent of the entire country uses the Internet, according to Cyber Dialogue. Last year, NASCAR.com was ranked 43rd on Media Metrix's list of the top-50 fastest-growing sites among at-home Web users. On race Sundays, the site has hosted as many as 261,000 unduplicated visitors, according to NASCAR Online. A survey of its users revealed that 63 percent spend 2.5 hours per week on the site, and spend 86 percent of their time on sports sites on NASCAR Online.

Philips Consumer Communications also began sponsoring a team last year. "It fits into several clusters we're targeting. Their fans are younger, more affluent, and have higher educational levels," says Stephanie Petrucco, marketing and communications director. "NASCAR fans have a higher propensity to use cellular and pagers." One-quarter use a pager, according to Performance Research. And NASCAR's large share of female fans was also attractive. "One of the reasons Philips went into it was because wired and unwired phones are largely a female purchase," says Bruce Schwartz, a rep from ad agency Dugan Valva Contess.

3M has sponsored a NASCAR series for several years, but last year the company expanded its involvement to reach professionals likely to influence the purchase of high-tech products made with 3M materials. "We're able to tap into something that's of interest to them in terms of avocation and get them thinking about it in terms of their vocation," says Patricia Bartley, manager of communications development and planning for 3M. The company also plays to NASCAR's wired fans by allowing Internet users to download electronic Post-it Notes, a new 3M product, from the Web site of driver Randy MacDonald, who consults for the company.

NASCAR fan numbers are growing quickly, which is attractive to any sponsor. "We wanted the fan base to be very broad, because the Internet is expanding rapidly," says Lycos' Hoenscheid. Says John Griffin, director of communications for NASCAR, "I think as all these new technology companies have developed, they're looking at new ways to promote their brand, and are seeing other companies doing well. They're just now dipping their toes into our sport."

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