Nascar Breaks Out Tough-Guy Image in Time For Daytona 500

New Spot Proclaims: 'For Every Celebration, A Brawl'

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Nascar has always been a "contact sport," said Chairman-CEO Brian France, and as it Nascar aggressively embraces its hell-driving image, it's poised to come out swinging with a new campaign on tomorrow's Daytona 500.

The average broadcast TV audiences for Nascar's flagship Sprint Cup races dropped in three of four years since 2008, according to Nielsen. But Mr. France still negotiated a lucrative $2.5 billion, eight-year TV extension with Fox that jacks up annual rights fees through 2022. He's poised to cash in again if ESPN and Turner renew their deals this summer.

In the same feisty spirit, Nascar is launching its largest brand campaign ever, with ads playing up the sport's two-fisted history. "For every celebration, a brawl," notes a spot from Ogilvy & Mather slated to debut during Fox's telecast of the Super Bowl of stock car racing tomorrow.

Family-owned Nascar has been hammered by the economic recession, but it now boasts more Fortune 500 sponsors than in 2008. Hertz and others have joined this year.

On the track, Nascar has an outspoken young Sprint Cup champ in Brad Keselowski. After a four-year dry spell, the most marketable driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., returned to victory lane in 2012. Media magnet Danica Patrick got things rolling by taking pole position at Daytona.

Meanwhile, Nascar is jettisoning its hated "Car of Tomorrow" in favor of "Gen-6" Toyota Camry, Chevrolet SS and Ford Fusion cars that look like the models consumers buy in showrooms. That pleases automotive sponsors whose motto is: "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday."

Off the track, Nascar gambled by buying back its digital rights from Turner and taking over management of in 2013. It also draws roughly 100,000 fans to events and often generates the biggest TV numbers of any league outside the National Football League. Ad Age sat down with Mr. France to talk about its prospects on the eve of the Daytona 500.

Why did you switch agencies late last year?

We went from a smaller, more regional agency to Ogilvy. We're seeing a really neat, fresh look at our image campaigns and our messaging. So that's turned out to be as we had hoped, a real big positive.

Why Ogilvy?

Ogilvy has given us a different breath of reach. The Jump Co., St. Louis, did a very good job for us. This batch is better for us now.

Danica Patrick joining Nascar brought media buzz. But is it put-up-or-shut-up time on the track?

The ultimate proving [ground] is not how marketable you are -- but how you can compete. I think she would say the same thing.

There are 29 drivers in the new campaign. Why?

[The campaign] is going to have a bigger focus on the drivers as part of the creative. They're going to be featured. To build their star power in a stronger ways... It will feature them in clever ways. It's designed to bring out their personalities and identities.

Will Nascar take more of a boys-will-be-boys approach to drivers brawling?

From time to time we over-regulate things. When we catch ourselves, we remind ourselves it's a contact sport. Guys sometimes need to settle in their own way. And that's not a bad thing for us.

Is Nascar's outlaw, moonshine-running history a key part of its brand appeal?

Our style of racing is contact. It's not Formula One…We like, and our fans like, the fact that if you have a faster car that's ready to race, you can move somebody out of the way to get by. And that's O.K.

In 2012, average broadcast audiences for Sprint Cup races fell 15%. Why?

We knew we had the Olympics and some other strong programing condensed in the schedule…But we're pretty consistent. Our interest level is going the right way. People are consuming it differently. Online numbers are up.

Are TV advertisers and sponsors coming around in this economy?

Sponsors in general still make very careful decision about whatever they do. So that probably remains. But the car manufacturers are going to do more, a lot more, and their business is such that they can and should. Secondly, they like their position with the new car. My sense is they'll do a lot of things to take advantage of that.

How much money did you leave on the table by buying digital rights back from Turner?

A lot. We're still partners, in a way. We gave up the guarantees of the relationship. We still intend to do very well with the rights.

Are the big annual increases in your Fox deal due more to value of Nascar? Or live sports?

Both. It's a very good time to have premium sports content.

Will you open bidding on ESPN/Turner deals to others?

Our first option is to renew with the incumbents. They helped us get to where we're at today. That's our first goal -- but it doesn't always work out. The good news is there's an awful lot of interest for the best sporting events.

What role will Nascar play in planned Fox Sports 1?

Fox hasn't formally announced what they're going to do…We've historically been very helpful to cable operators. Back in early ESPN days, when they didn't have hardly anything else of quality live programming, we were their mainstay franchise. And they would agree with that.

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