With full grandstands and modernized facilities such as Atlanta Motor Speedway shown here,
Far away from the rumble of high-octane-fueled V-8s and talk of spoiler heights, Goodyear's latest tire, and common body templates, a group of 38 men and women in New York are doing high-dollar business for NASCAR. The concept of NASCAR operatives working in New York City may be hard for some die-hard fans to imagine, but hours away from the nearest racetrack, big business is done in a nice, yet nondescript office on Park Avenue. This office has changed the face of stock car racing.
"The average fan probably doesn't know about the office," says Andrew Feit, director of alliance marketing for NASCAR. "We kind of reopened the office in 1998, and our mission has been the same: Facilitate corporate interest in the sport."
That new Nextel deal? While it was Mike Helton and Bill and Brian France who fronted the news conference, it was the folks working on the front lines in New York who secured the deal.
When R.J. Reynolds announced publicly that, despite having a five-year deal to sponsor the Winston Cup Series, the company would be willing to leave early to allow NASCAR to find a new title backer, the folks in the New York office went to work. In a sense, Winston's announcement was a liberating moment for NASCAR, and more important, its New York office.
Though NASCAR officials would have never said it publicly at the time, the reality was that being backed by a cigarette maker severely limited the advertising efforts of the series. The sport couldn't be marketed directly to kids or teens, and other restrictions on the promotion of tobacco brands proved to be a hindrance to the overall growth of the sport. These restrictions became all the more apparent at a time when major national publications and news programs were paying attention for the first time.
Within weeks of the R.J. Reynolds announcement, major corporations were identified as potential sponsors, and in a matter of months, NASCAR officials stood before a jammed room at the NASDAQ market in Times Square to announce the Nextel package, worth an estimated $750 million over the life of the deal.
NASCAR's New York office works to bring corporate involvement for teams and for the sancti
Seemingly overnight, the NASCAR fan base knew there was an office in New York.
"I think it validated the New York office," says Brett Yormark, NASCAR's vice president of corporate marketing. "I think it validated the sport."
It was a major step for the office, which since 1998 has been working well out of the bright lights of NASCAR, but doing significant work for the sport in general. Yet, long before the folks in the office were able to convince Nextel to come on board, they had to set out to convince those in the sport that they were friends, not foes.
The idea to open the Park Avenue office was raised by Brian France in the mid-'90s, when racing was starting to capture the attention of the national media. It was, he thought, important to be near Madison Avenue where many of the advertising deals were done.
More importantly, the sport needed to be represented on the same footing as football, baseball, and hockey. That's because early on in the current boom in racing, NASCAR officials struggled to overcome the perception that racing only appealed to folks in the Southeast. The difficulty in doing so was hampered, in part, by the fact that there isn't a big-league track real close to New York.
For example, a marketing executive for the National Football League can easily plop the CEO of a major national firm into a car and within minutes be at Giants Stadium to see, hear, and feel pigskin action.
Pocono Raceway is near the city, no doubt, but it's still a two-hour drive on a race day. Nevertheless, it was important to have a presence in New York. "Having the office in New York puts a Brooks Brothers suit on the NASCAR brand," says Craig Tartasky, chairman of the International Sports Summit, an annual event held in the city. "It gives them proximity. They now have the ability of networking on a daily basis, rather than doing road shows on a quarterly basis." It's not been a walk in Central Park, though.
Brett Yormark, NASCAR's vice president of corporate marketing.
Being there made sense from the point of view of the sanctioning body, but not immediately to the team owners, track operators, and others involved in the sport.
At the start there was a general sense among participants in the sport that NASCAR's office was there to divert money to the sanctioning body's Daytona Beach, Florida, headquarters and away from the pockets of competitors.
"Our constituents took a wait-and-see attitude," Yormark admits. "As we gained momentum, as we started bringing in tangible new business prospects, we gained credibility. And just like any job, you've got to prove yourself."
That's easier said than done. Realizing they had to win over the teams and tracks first, Yormark and his colleagues set out to convince them they were all partners, rather than adversaries. Before knocking on Madison Avenue doors, Yormark and his teams pounded the pavement at track garages around the country.
Moreover, the NASCAR office has one rock-solid mandate: Any company that comes into play as a corporate backer must first have a deal with a team, track, or other related business. This, Yormark says, was to assure the teams that NASCAR wasn't there just to raise money for the corporate coffers.
It took a few deals with companies such as Old Spice, which were clearly made to help teams, for the insiders in the sport to understand and begin backing the New York efforts. In 1998 Yormark's team put together a deal with Old Spice to back driver Tony Stewart and be a sponsor on the Joe Gibbs-owned car. Old Spice had no financial ties to NASCAR at the time, and did not become an official sponsor, indicating to teams that the organization was working for them, as well. "When we started hitting some deals that were not taking money from the garage, rather we were putting money into the garage, the attitude changed," Yormark says.
Andrew Feit, director of alliance marketing for NASCAR.
But with the New York office, the thinking is that by luring a company into racing, be it either as a team sponsor or some other promotional platform, NASCAR will benefit as well. The results, of course, can be difficult to quantify. And not all companies go right into team sponsorship without providing some financial benefit for NASCAR. For example, larger companies may opt to back a team and also become an official sponsor of the sport, thus delivering a direct financial gain for the sanctioning body. For example, UPS backs Dale Jarrett's car and is also the official express delivery company of NASCAR.
Keeping with company policy, Yormark declined to discuss any figures regarding how much money flows through the office. But based on some of the deals, it's a significant figure.
Home Depot and UPS are just two of the companies that have been educated and convinced they must be part of NASCAR. And, in keeping with the mission statement, they became team sponsors before working with NASCAR directly.
Six years ago, the folks at Home Depot, having constantly heard about the interest in racing from their employees, headed to New York for Yormark's NASCAR 101 training.
Soon after, Home Depot was behind Joe Gibbs' team and driver Tony Stewart and became an official status sponsor of NASCAR. "I think the New York office is a hidden gem," says Hugh Miskel, director of event marketing and community relations for the home-supply chain. "They service the team, the sponsors, and the track, to whom they feed leads, so they serve a really good purpose from both an educational perspective and sponsor management."
For an outsider, it might seem odd for an Atlanta-based company such as Home Depot to go to New York-rather than Daytona-for a NASCAR education. But for a company that has been dealing with the broadcast networks and other major media outlets in the big city, it wasn't strange at all.
And that's exactly why NASCAR officials wanted to be in New York in the first place-to level the ground between the sport and the traditional stick-and-ball operations already there.
An office dedicated to marketing can help make the connection between the sport's droves o
"We use them for two reasons," Miskel says of Yormark's team. "They're sort of an outreach for other sponsors, and there are introductions to other companies or comarketers. The other piece is the idea portion. We tell them, 'If you see an idea that might be implemented, tell us.' They're also surveying all sports, not just racing."
"We go out and identify companies," Feit explains. "We go in and sell the sport. Before we can sell an opportunity, we've got to sell the sport. If a guy wants to spend $2 million, we put opportunities in front of him."
In what has been one of the smartest moves, NASCAR found Yormark, a New Jersey native who had no contact with auto racing before he interviewed with company officials. But while Yormark lacked stock car experience, his background was steeped in experience with traditional sports on Madison Avenue that more than made up for the racing experience shortfall.
Indeed, having a guy like Yormark on the front line has helped from the start. Before he joined NASCAR, Yormark worked with a couple of NBA teams, including the New Jersey Nets and the Detroit Pistons. At one point in his career, he managed broadcast sales rights for several NBA, MLB, and NHL teams.
So, when Yormark walks into the doors of many corporations as a NASCAR salesman, he does so with some familiarity with those he's trying to lure in.
"The fact that I came from a stick and ball [industry] gave me some credibility when I was reaching out to corporate America," Yormark says.
He joined an office of just three people, who until then had little experience in marketing a sport that is radically different from any other when it comes to sponsorship. How so? The New York Knicks will continue to play at Madison Square Garden whether or not Nike provides free shoes to one or all of the players. But with NASCAR, the failure to land a major sponsor can-and has-sidelined a team for good. There's an inescapable link between the corporation and a team's participation that simply does not exist in other sports.
Yormark and his team in New York used his credibility to get companies involved. Today, some of the biggest corporations in the country are NASCAR backers of some sort. Besides Home Depot, the New York office was responsible for getting UPS, Nabisco, Outback Steakhouse, Dominos, and the U.S. Army into NASCAR, where they've all taken on a variety of sponsorship positions.
No doubt, though, the Nextel deal is by far the biggest in the history of the sport.
"We didn't go after the Nextel deal any differently than the others," Yormark explains. "The only issue was that we asked for more." Dollars aside, the deal for a title sponsor to the sport's top series was important. NASCAR officials set a few parameters for the next sponsor. They wanted a company that could market the sport on all levels, one that had a broad consumer base, and one that was an activator, meaning it searched for a variety of ways to land new buyers.
There were about six companies that fit the parameters, including such giants as Visa and McDonald's. As the record book shows, Nextel won out. Now, thanks to the Nextel deal, the spotlight has grown brighter on the NASCAR folks in New York.
"We started from nothing, in 1998," Yormark says. "The office didn't do anything. We've been able to generate a lot of enthusiasm and facilitate some deals. It's continued up to this point. Nextel was a great validation of what we do in New York. If there were any skeptics out there, they should be gone now."