When the green flag dropped on 1999, NASCAR faced a daunting
challenge: maintaining the sport's current rate of acceleration.
In 1998, NASCAR's 50th-anniversary season, cable and network
television ratings reached an alltime high. Moreover, attendance
at events has increased by more than 50% over the past five
years and retail sales of merchandise has grown by a staggering
1,000% since 1990. "It's surprising in a sense," says Bill
France Jr., the sanctioning body's president. "But we honestly
feel that no sport has anything over NASCAR."
Several factors have made auto racing the hottest sports
property around. For one, the corporate model of NASCAR is
different from that of most other sports leagues and franchises.
Founded in 1948 by Bill France Sr., NASCAR is a family-owned
business that uses drivers who are independent contractors
funded by corporate sponsors. One consequence of this is that
racers own their image and cut individual marketing and
licensing deals. Jeff Gordon, for instance, the top driver who
amassed more than $9 million in prize money last year,
supplements his income to the tune of a reported $5 million
annually through the sale of merchandise adorned with his
At a time when sports fans have become increasingly disenchanted
with professional athletes, NASCAR's popularity has been
bolstered by the drivers' probity. If for no other reason than
alienating sponsors would sound the death knell on their
careers, NASCAR drivers have steered clear of headline-grabbing
trouble. What's more, a career behind the wheel can easily span
two decades (without a change of teams every few years) so fans
have plenty of time to build loyalty.
Most important, though, the sport has left its--ahem--provincial
reputation in the Carolina dust and has targeted mainstream
America. With a clever, aggressive marketing plan that would
make the NFL jealous, NASCAR has penetrated urban markets,
affixed its logo on everything from a country music album to a
special-edition Barbie doll, and is even developing its own
cartoon series that will air on Fox in 2000. More to the point,
a recent Nielsen survey showed that nearly 40% of racing fans
are women and that NASCAR consumers are better educated, younger
and wealthier than they were five years ago.
Not that NASCAR's cultural sea change has come without the cry
of dissenting voices. Particularly vexed are the lifelong fans
who reminisce about the sport's brawling, renegade days when
fans knew the drivers personally. More pretty boy than good ol'
boy, Gordon epitomizes the sport's changing face and is
routinely booed by old-time fans at events. But the growing
pains have hardly been sharp. "We like to say the sport will
never move so fast it will forget where it comes from," says
George Pyne, NASCAR's vice president of marketing. "Right now,
our goal is to reach racing fans 365 days a year, 24 hours a day
through all channels and points of sale."
It's a tall order.
"Right now, our goal is to reach racing fans 365 days a year, 24
hours a day."