With just a few days to go before the green flag goes up at Daytona International Speedway, Fox Sports is revving up a promotional campaign designed to position the most prestigious event on the Nascar calendar as a Super Sunday of sorts for auto racing fans. Designed to appeal to hardcore stock car enthusiasts and Daytona 500 newbies alike, the Fox initiative looks to get a lot of mileage out of on-air talent like Gordon Ramsay and Homer J. Simpson.
As part of the Daytona Day promotional blitz, Fox has enlisted Chef Ramsay to whip up six recipes and a lethal pitstop cocktail for racing fans looking to elevate their party game beyond the usual burgers-and-dogs fare. Among the items on the bellicose Brit's menu are pulled pork sliders, sweet potato tater tots and a chocolate cake topped with a bacon, bourbon and butterscotch frosting. On the booze front, the host of "MasterChef Junior," "Hell's Kitchen" and a number of other Fox culinary-competition series has whipped up what amounts to the poor man's speedball in the Daytona Destroyer, a potent blend of Southern Comfort, Jägermeister and Monster Energy drink.
In a video that clocks in at a little over six and a half minutes, an uncharacteristically chill Chef Ramsay walks hungry Nascar fans through the eight-hour process that renders a humble pork butt into a squadron of party-ready sliders. Fox has edited the presentation down to a two-minute clip that it has authorized its local affiliates to air during their morning news shows.
"Along with driving straight tune-in, another subset of the campaign is to get the Daytona Day concept into circulation," said Robert Gottlieb, exec VP-marketing, Fox Sports Media Group. "The Daytona 500 is an event that reaches beyond avid fans to more moderate and casual viewers. So the idea is, have a party, invite some friends over, and use the race as an excuse to get together."
If Mr. Gottlieb's intention to "sort of replicate the Super Bowl Sunday experience" with the Daytona race may strike Nascar agnostics as a bit of a reach, the popularity of the race suggests otherwise. According to Nielsen, which dubbed Daytona "one of America's top 10 'can't miss' sporting events," last year's broadcast averaged 11.4 million viewers and a 6.6 household rating, making it the most-watched, highest-rated auto race of 2016. (By way of comparison, last year's Indianapolis 500 averaged 5.89 million viewers and a 3.9 household rating.) But if precedent is anything to go by, Fox may well expect a ratings spike this Sunday; by dint of sheer coincidence, the network has posted higher Daytona ratings in every odd-numbered year going back to 2009.
The Daytona Day campaign officially kicked off earlier in the month, when Fox aired a custom "Simpsons"-themed tune-in clip during its coverage of Super Bowl LI. The 20-second teaser, which featured an animated Dale Earnhardt Jr. and former racer and current Fox Sports analyst Jeff Gordon, was seen by as many as 111 million viewers. Another Daytona promo, which aired in the fourth quarter of the Pats-Falcons thriller, included cameos by the likes of driver (and once-ubiquitous Super Bowl ad spokesperson) Danica Patrick and "Dawson Creek" and "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23" alum James Van Der Beek.
Once word got out that the "Simpsons" spot would air during the Super Bowl, the show's executive producer James L. Brooks assumed oversight of the animation, Mr. Gottlieb said. The maestro also wrote the ad copy.
Fox also has a good deal of off-air marketing in play, including a race-day promotion with UberEats. The meal-delivery service on Sunday will ferry free food to Daytona Day house parties in core Nascar markets like Orlando, Atlanta and Houston. Other Daytona marketing partners include Comcast Xfinity, which is also the title sponsor of Nascar's minor league circuit, and Smithfield Foods.
The impetus behind the effort to "eventize" the Daytona 500 is in many ways a byproduct of Fox's coverage of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup. "From a marketing perspective, we discovered that if we promised an experience instead of just a soccer game, people would reposed to that," Mr. Gottlieb said. "You don't need to know the intricacies of the 4-4-2 formation or how many touches Megan Rapinoe had against Australia to have a good time. If you're a casual fan, it was a communal thing, a party thing. You could paint your face and go to a bar and have as good a time as the real die-hards. So that sort of broadening of the overall appeal is what we'd really like to accomplish with Daytona Day."
Sunday's race marks the first under Nascar's new sponsorship deal with Monster Energy. The beverage brand in December signed on as the official backer of Nascar's premier racing series, a position that had been held by Sprint since 2004. According to insiders with knowledge of the financials, Monster wrangled a sweet deal for the entitlement sponsorship, agreeing to pay around $20 million for the right to attach its name to the 36-race series, which marked a 60% discount compared to its predecessor's annual $75 million payout.
The Coca-Cola Co. owns a 16.7% stake in Monster.
If there are plenty of storylines for fans to monitor during Sunday's race -- two-time Daytona champ Dale Earnhardt Jr. will take the wheel for the first time since sustaining a concussion last July, and Michael Waltrip will suit up for his very last race -- at least one development has left some Nascar purists fuming. Rather than a continuous 200-lap endurance test, Daytona will be broken down into three discrete stages (60/60/80). Along with providing additional opportunities for drivers to earn playoff points, the breaks in the action will also gift Fox with a few extra commercial pods.
Nascar's experimentation with the Daytona format comes as the sports struggles with ongoing seasonal ratings declines. Since 2010, the average draw for a televised Nascar cup series race is down 24% to just north of 4.37 million viewers, and while no sport is wholly immune to Nielsen shrinkage, the loss of nearly one-quarter of the national TV audience is a bitter pill to swallow. (Ironically, TV also accounts for Nascar's greatest show of stability; the sport's current $8.2 billion rights deal with Fox and NBC doesn't expire until 2024.)
While there's no telling how the first Daytona 500 under the new format will resonate with viewers, it appears as though Fox and Nascar at the very least will luck out on the meteorological front. Sunday's forecast for Daytona is 70º and sunny, with not even the slightest chance of rain falling on the asphalt. Meanwhile, hunker-down-in-front-of-the-TV weather is in the works for much of the Midwest and Northeast, which should put a damper on the sort of pre-Spring Fever conditions that more or less decimated last Sunday's broadcast viewership. (The Big Four nets on the night averaged a miserly 0.8 rating in the key TV demo, which translates to a little over 1 million adults 18-49.)
Fans tuning in to Sunday afternoon's race can expect the usual volume of auto ads from the likes of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, as well as a heady mix of messaging from beer brands, soft drink purveyors, wireless companies, film studios and quick-service restaurants.
Fox's pre-race coverage starts Sunday at 1 p.m. EST, and the race should get underway at around 2 p.m.