NASCAR is betting on its driver star power and new Gen 6 race car to keep it up front in the ever-increasing fight for TV ratings and a younger, more diverse audience against the traditionally popular stick-and-ball sports.
It's a race for acceptance NASCAR thinks it can win, and one that will see it compete and beat sports such as football, baseball, basketball and hockey on the Nielsen meters.
Earlier this year, NASCAR launched its largest brand campaign ever to bring its stars and cars into alignment and score new fans.
On Thursday at a breakfast of automotive, marketing and advertising decision-makers at the Detroit Athletic Club, NASCAR senior vice-president and chief marketing officer Steve Phelps addressed the challenges facing the sport of stock-car racing and some new incentives.
He was joined at the presentation by Michigan International Speedway president Roger Curtis, who hosted the event and spoke more on what NASCAR and MIS are doing to change perceptions of racing, while driving tourism and contributing to economic growth in southeast Michigan.
"We found recently that Richard Petty was still the most popular driver," Phelps said of study results. "We have an aging fan base and just have to get younger and more diverse. We have to become more relevant to the times."
Phelps said NASCAR would become more active in social media and in engaging with its fans as the face of communications changes swiftly. "It's a sure way to die ... if you don't," Phelps said.
Right now, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Danica Patrick are among the strongest, most influential faces in NASCAR. Phelps said he was working to use them more and introducing the next generation of drivers to fans at the same time.
"You have to push our drivers' star power," Phelps said. "It's incredibly important. We are getting the helmets off the drivers and getting to know them. Our drivers are the best role models in the world."
Phelps said "green" initiatives, capital investment projects such as the $400 million improvements pegged for Daytona International Speedway and an eight-year TV extension to be signed with Fox would be elements of moving the needle on the NASCAR dial in the right direction.
"Right now, one in four NASCAR sponsors are Fortune 500 companies," Phelps said. "We want to build on that."
Phelps said the new Gen 6 race car had restored manufacturing identity with fans of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota.
"Fans thought the previous Car of Tomorrow all looked alike," Phelps said. "We listened to them and changed. The Gen 6 introduction has been very strong."
In turn, Curtis said his group at MIS had responded to the fans at the track in the Irish Hills, and would continue to listen to them.
"We had the worst traffic (jams) in NASCAR," said Curtis, a fan-friendly and fun president who has in the past dressed as Elvis Presley and mixed with fans at MIS in the infield. "We fixed that. It now takes an hour and a half to clear (race) traffic, not five hours. I think we hit a home run there.
"We also made capital improvements to the facility, the racetrack and the guest services. We've aimed to create lasting memories at MIS for fans. We created a NASCAR festival, not just a NASCAR race, at the track. We want to drive loyalty, trust and credibility with our fans."
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