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Looking for a big payoff for sponsorship dollars? Maybe you should hit the NASCAR racing circuit. For a growing number of auto companies, NASCAR's unique blend of spectacle and cross-promotion translates into higher sales and improved customer loyalty.

NASCAR's name - short for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing - has become one of the most recognized brands in sports. It also has fine-tuned itself into one of the world's most powerful marketing machines.

"I can't think of another venue that delivers as many opportunities to promote your product," said Gary Claudio, manager of The Chevy Race Shop, the Chevy brand team charged with wringing promotional value from Chevy's involvement in motorsports.

Ford figures its market share among NASCAR fans is five points higher than its share among the general public. "NASCAR is a direct avenue to customers," said Torrey Galida, global motorsports marketing manager for Ford Motor Co. "We think we get a greater value for the exposure we receive and the brand image we build, through racing than through other media."

NASCAR long has been the exclusive preserve of the largest U.S. automakers. But that's beginning to change as other manufacturers size up NASCAR's marketing clout. Toyota hopes to test the waters in 1999 in NASCAR's regional Goody's Dash series (see story below).

NASCAR's primary product is auto racing. The organization is privately held by the family of founder Bill France Sr. Its crown jewel is the Winston Cup series, a 33-race series run primarily on oval tracks from New York to California.

Then there are two Triple A leagues. One is the Busch Grand National Series for less powerful versions of the Chevy Monte Carlos, Ford Tauruses and Pontiac Grand Prixes raced in the Winston Cup. The second is the Craftsman Truck series for purpose-built race cars that look like pickups. NASCAR also runs 10 regional series such as the Goody's Dash.

In the mainstream

If you think NASCAR is only for beer-swilling rowdies waving Confederate flags, you're out of date. NASCAR is mainstream entertainment. An average Winston Cup race draws more than 100,000 spectators, and nine of the 10 best-attended sports events in 1997 were NASCAR races.

According to Nielsen Media Research, NASCAR's ratings on network TV have increased 20.8 percent in the past five years, compared with 8.9 percent for the National Basketball Association and 5.6 percent for the National Hockey League. The National Foot-ball League and Major League Baseball both fell.

In 1997, NASCAR's average "regular season" TV rating on both network and cable was exceeded only by the NFL. Then there are perhaps a dozen weekly cable highlight shows devoted to NASCAR racing.

Corny pays

NASCAR has nurtured its brand image carefully. A Madison Avenue whiz might conclude that, distilled to its most basic elements, the NASCAR brand represents corny American values involving family, fairness and teamwork, with a dose of excitement thrown in. But corny pays.

NASCAR says sales of licensed merchandise has increased tenfold since 1990. It operates 10 NASCAR Thun-der retail stores and two NASCAR Cafe restaurants, and NASCAR SpeedPark theme parks are opening in Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach, S.C. The NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway is at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., and five more such arcades are near completion.

NASCAR fans spend money, and research suggests they are extremely loyal. A 1997 study by Performance Research of Rhode Island concluded 72 percent of NASCAR fans buy products of NASCAR participants and sponsors. That was far higher than the loyalty rating for fans of any other sport, and automakers say their data support the study.

That 72 percent loyalty rating is so attractive automakers have taken to sponsoring race cars with service subsidiaries such as General Motors Acceptance Corp. and GM Good-wrench.

Ford has signed a deal to be the official truck of NASCAR. And as it did with the popular Eddie Bauer Explorer, it has taken a stab at co-branding. The 1998 special edition NASCAR F-150 pickup was so successful that, with adjustments in standard equipment, it is scheduled to return in spring.

Automakers have many ways to squeeze mileage from their race programs. There is the standard wine-and-dine hospitality treatment to reward good customers or hard-working dealers. There are programs to promote motorsports themes in regional dealer advertising. Nearly half of Ford's dealers spend their own money to take advantage of them, Galida said.

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