Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Members of NASCARs young brigade, such as Ryan Newman (12) and Kurt Busch (97), can
Bill Elliott can look back to his successful run for the Winston Million in 1985 as a time of change during his racing career. The Elliott clan, Bill and brothers Ernie and Dan, claimed R.J. Reynolds million-dollar bonus that year by winning three of four designated races, but it wasnt simply the money that changed the way the Elliotts operated. Unprecedented attention from the media began to cut deeply into Elliotts time spent working on his car that season. The crush became so bad that Elliott needed armed guards in order to work on his record-setting Thunderbird.
You wont find many Winston Cup drivers today who actually work on their cars, but even more attention is focused on the sport. Instead of preventing drivers from tuning their engines or crawling under their cars to adjust the suspensionas Elliott and a few drivers still did in the mid-80sthe demands of the sport today might force a driver to be late for a personal appearance, a television interview, or a commercial shoot.
In a world of stock car racing where corporations once feared to tread, marketing terms like demographics and target audience are now part of the Sunday afternoon vernacular. And nowhere is marketing success more prevalent than in the wave of young drivers who have swept into the forefront of NASCAR.
When we came into this deal we didnt have any money, Elliott says.I dont take that as being a negative. I learned what I had to learn during my era. Ive been able to adapt throughout the years. Im very happy today. Thats evolution. Guys are going to come in here and push you out. Thats part of it. Thats the part weve got to understand.
Their namesDale Earnhardt Jr., Elliott Sadler, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Casey Atwoodhave become familiar to even casual fans of the sport. The oldest of the group, Earnhardt Jr., will turn 28 in October, while Atwood, the youngest, is 22.
Tony Stewart redefined rookie success in 1999 when he won a record three races and finished fourth in Winston Cup points for Joe Gibbs Racing. The trend toward young, successful drivers goes back even further, though, to Jeff Gordons success as a 22-year-old in 1993, when he was Rookie of the Year. He won twice the next year and new fans began to flock to the sport because of Gordon. In terms of marketing and appeal to younger, never-before-reached markets, Earnhardt Jr. has picked up where Gordon left off and single-handedly redefined success in the marketplace.
Youthful vigor on the track hasnt equated to positive PR off the track, however. Two of the most successful rookies ever in NASCAR, Stewart and Harvick, have been two of the most volatile drivers off the track. Harvick, who won twice, finished ninth in points, and was Cup Rookie of the Year in 2001, has had several well-documented flare-ups this season, as Stewart did in 2001. This season a young, articulate, well mannered driver has combined the best of both worlds. Jimmie Johnson is not only saying and doing the right things off the track, hes winning on the track at a pace ahead of even Stewarts rookie campaign. By the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, the midpoint of the season, Johnson had won two races and was in fourth in points.
Johnson personifies the young, aggressive, winning driver that teams have searched for since Gordon lowered the bar in terms of when to expect success in the sport. For his sponsor, Lowes, which joined Hendrick Motorsports at the beginning of this season, Johnsons ability to win quickly has meant a reversal of fortunes. The company spent five seasons as a sponsor before reaching Victory Lane in a Cup point race with Richard Childress Racing and driver Robby Gordon in last seasons finale at New Hampshire. Lowes languished in the shadows of NASCAR success while rival Home Depot hit the jackpot in 99 with Gibbs and Stewart, a combination that produced 12 wins in three seasons.
There are parallels between Johnsons success this season and Stewarts in 99: Both drivers moved to the Cup series after having modest success in the Busch Series, both came from outside the NASCAR realmStewart, an Indiana native, came from open wheel racing, and Johnson, a Californian, came from off-road racingand both landed with established Winston Cup teams. Their personalities, however, differ as much as the fiery orange and placid blue that make up the primary colors of their respective sponsors.
Home Depots Hugh Miskel, director of sales development, says Stewarts occasional public relations problems are outweighed by the benefits of exposure gained by the company. You sort of have the philosophy that if you finish in first or in flames, as long as theyre talking about you on Monday morning at the water cooler, you have to view it as a success, says Miskel.
Earning exposure is the name of the game in marketing. When a company is shelling out $10 million or more per year in sponsorship money, getting noticed is of primary concern. Getting noticed in Victory Lane is the ultimate goal. Companies look for drivers who can perform on the track and behave like a gentleman away from it. Still, young drivers are largely unproven in the major leagues, sometimes with little or no success in a stock car, and even less experience facing a media swarm.
First, you dont know what they can really do in the Cup series, in the top series, says Max Muhleman, president of IMG/Muhleman Marketing. Then they have their own personal risks. Some of the risks are just like those we see in other major league sports, frankly, where a lot more money than theyve ever had before comes their way, and they have how-do-they-behave risks. The other risk, of course, is the one of not being able to do what you expect them to do.
Stewart and Johnson did nothing to set themselves apart in the Busch Series, with Stewart going winless and Johnson winning just once, so both sponsors relied on other mechanisms of evaluation. In aligning with Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart, Home Depot relied on Gibbs reputation for success and his ability to deal with people. Lowes used the same strategy with Hendrick Motorsports and Johnson, relying on Jeff Gordons assessment of Johnson.
While those two situations paid off quite well, with two of the top seasons ever by Winston Cup rookies, many risks remain in choosing unproven stock car drivers. For every Johnson theres a Jason Leffler, who dropped back to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this year after spending an unsuccessful 2001 in Winston Cup with Ganassi Racing. For every Stewart, theres a Scott Pruett, a road-racing veteran who was unsuccessful in his attempt to cross over to stock car racing with Cal Wells in 2000.
Miskel insists that Home Depots primary motivation to get involved in NASCAR came from the companys employees, and the company has used its association with Gibbs and Stewart as a tool to boost morale internally while at the same time giving employees common ground with customers. The impact, buoyed by Stewarts success, has been better than expected.
I think there is some uncertainty going into any sponsorship as far as what the return is going to be, says Miskel. The early success of the program exceeded our expectations and has created a very positive umbrella effect over the entire program, which is going to allow it to do more both internally and externally, whether its (NASCAR) products in our stores or entertainment of customers. And that has and can have a very positive effect on our business overall. I think the outlook for us is very positive, because the on-track performance has been a bonus to everything else weve put in place. ... It has only enhanced everything weve done.
NASCAR drivers have traditionally been considered in their prime when they reach their mid-30s. So, how can a driver such as a Jimmie Johnson or a Tony Stewart not only win early but also be consistently competitive, while some of the sports top names didnt find consistent success until later in their careers? Primarily, the new guys are getting into good equipment quicker than did their predecessors, who had to pay their dues before getting an opportunity in a top car. And with the number of quality sponsors involved todaysponsors who provide the money for successful venturesthere are simply more good cars out there.
Then theres the Gordon factor. Gordons early successhe was Winston Cup champion soon after turning 24changed the dynamics of the sport, paving the way for young guys whove followed. With more quality rides available, and with team owners more willing to take a chance on a young driver, due to Gordons success, the result is more young drivers in the limelight.
Virtually every sponsor is hoping to find the next Jeff Gordon, says Tom Cotter, managing director of CMI Cotter Group, a marketing firm with close ties to the sport. Because of his success were seeing a lot more young guys going for it. There are probably a lot of fathers today coaching their kids in go-kart racing and mini-sprints rather than Little League.
As the Jeff Gordons and Jimmie Johnsons and Tony Stewarts reach Victory Lane, NASCARs fan base expands into new territory. While Major League Baseball considers contraction and the NBA comes to grips with a future without Michael Jordan, major league stock car racing is reaching an unprecedented number of households, thanks primarily to a billion-dollar television package now in its second year and, yes, thanks to a new wave of young drivers.
Even Sports Illustrated took notice earlier this year, putting Dale Earnhardt Jr. on its cover, an undeniably rare placement for a NASCAR driver. With Earnhardt Jr. reaching the pages of People magazine and appearing on MTV, and with Gordon making appearances on popular talk shows, NASCAR has become mainstream in America, appealing to a cross section of fans, especially young ones. A Britney Spears movie based on NASCAR is even in the works.
NASCAR had traditionally appealed to older adults, say from the late 20s, maybe 30 on up, says Cotter. But theres a whole huge marketing segment of people who have billions of dollars of marketing power, billions of dollars of buying power, that NASCAR has not been at the top of the mind with those people. Having a driver like Jeff Gordon, who appears on the cover of magazines they may read, or more lately Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is appearing on everything thats hip, thats attracting a lot more media attention in the media of a particular demographic type. Its hard to escape NASCAR. Thats how you breed new blood to take over the reins of fandom in this sport.
As the fan base grows, the sport benefits in several ways. The interesting thing is both of the cola companies are in it and they have one of the youngest demo skews of anybody, Muhleman says. Theyre interested in demographics down to 12 years old, which is a lot younger than motor oil or something like that. As the demographics improve, the sponsor net gets wider.
The End Result
Sponsors, meanwhile, have become increasingly impatient in recent seasons, as the demand to win correlates directly with the amount of money spent. Silly Season, NASCARs annual period of driver changes and rumors of driver changes, experienced a spring renewal this year, earlier than ever before, primarily because of impatient sponsors and the pressures team owners face.
There seems to be a lot more immediacy now, says Cotter. The price of sponsorship has gone up so dramatically in recent years, there is not as much patience to wait for a program to come around and start showing benefits and increasing sales of whatever product a company has.
There used to be, Plant the seed and well wait for sales to rise. Now its much more immediate, We want to start seeing increased sales over the next two quarters, and there has to be measurement mechanisms put in place. The reason for that is racing has gotten expensive. Its on the radar charts now, not as just throwing away a couple of million dollars and saying, Well see what happens.
It remains to be seen whether the current youth movement will be a lasting trend or a passing phenomenon; whether twenty-something drivers will be leading the sport or merely following experienced veterans. In every other major sport, after all, athletes typically are most productive before age 35. Should stock car racing be any different? Of the 19 different winners last season, five were 30 or younger, and five of 11 winners were 31 or younger during the first half of this season. Second-year driver Kurt Busch was 23 when he won at Bristol during March of this year, joining Johnson, who was 26 when he won at California, his first Cup victory.
Six winners last year were over 40, however, and five were 40 or older during this seasons first 17 races.
Obviously weve all been given great opportunities and great equipment, says Johnson. A few of us have some great coaches to learn from, so were all making the most of it. Dont be fooled. The veterans, theyre on their game; theyre up front battling and winning as well.
The driver leading the point race during much of the first half of the season was 45-year-old Sterling Marlin, a veteran in his 17th full season of competition. The point race by midseason produced an even mix of drivers in the Top 10five were over 40 and five were 31 or younger, including relative youngsters Gordon, Johnson, Stewart, Kenseth, and Busch.
Busch compares it to being a high school studentwhich he was just six years ago. Youre always going to have the elder statesmen and the younger statesmen, he says. Its similar to high school where youve got freshmen coming in (and) they think they know everything; theyre going to get on the varsity football team and do their own deal. Then, of course, youve got the veterans there who know how things are and theyre going to put them in their place. Youre always going to have that confrontation between old and young, I guess, and its a fine balance all the time just getting along with everybody.
Muhleman sees the sport going through a normal transition and not a profound, landscape-altering trend toward younger drivers, as Marlin, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, and other over-40 drivers near the end of their careers.
Its always going to come back to who can win, says Muhleman. The guy whos got five or 10 years, but not 20, under his belt and has got real talent and a good team is always going to be dominant. Theyre going to win with all things being anywhere near equal.
Its a cycle, really, that sometimes has not been as obvious as other times. Right now its a very obvious thing. These guys are going to get old. In five years, theyll be five years older. I dont mean to be facetious, but Jeff Gordon is 30 and hes not included with the young guys anymore. I mean, it seems like yesterday (Dale) Earnhardt and everybody was calling him Wonder Boy, and now, while hes not Pops yet, hes not ever mentioned as a younger driver. Isnt that amazing?