Too Tough To Sell: Marketing Darlington a tricky situation

I couldn’t help smiling just a little bit when I saw Darlington Raceway’s advertising campaign for the 2012 Bojangles Southern 500.

Most of the promotional materials featured Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who traded quite a bit of paint in the closing laps of the race before “stepping outside to settle things man to man,” which in this particular case involved Harvick dashing across pit road after the race, seemingly intent on applying his fist to Busch’s head. Kyle avoided this by simply driving away, knocking Harvick’s abandoned No. 29 Chevy aside in the process.

Darlington Raceway (DR) billed this year’s event as a “rematch,” which made some sense but also took some nerve, as unsportsmanlike conduct on the track is not generally NASCAR’s publicity tool of choice.  Actually, it was pretty impressive that DR got away with it.

Since it is practically impossible for me to distance myself from the infamous Lady in Black after working there for so many years, now that it’s race week I couldn’t help but remember a few of the advertising campaigns I conceived over the years that never saw the light of day.

The first featured a clean-shaven, nattily dressed guy sitting in a grandstand seat, methodically moving his head from left to right and back again.

The voiceover: This is your brain.

In the next shot, the poor guy is looking rather wild-eyed. His hair is standing on end, his J. Crew is askew, he has some 500-mile shadow on his face, and I seem to remember suggesting we add a little drool at the corner of his mouth. Just to be authentic, you know.

The voiceover: This is your brain on Darlington.

Ixnay on that one. I guess looking like you’ve just come out of a day of wind tunnel testing may not have been considered too appealing to potential ticket buyers.

Another idea was the Darlington Cookie Company. This campaign panned over a tray of identically-shaped cookies and slowly named them one by one

The voiceover: Sugar cookie … oatmeal cookie … peanut butter cookie …

You get the idea.

The final shot featured a wacky-looking cookie, bigger on one end than on the other — you might even say it was egg-shaped — with a bite taken out of it and teeth marks still visible.

The voiceover: One tough cookie.

This was back in the day when the 1 1/2-mile tracks — AKA “cookie cutters” — were getting a lot of media attention, not all of it positive. Suffice it to say that the Darlington cookie campaign were judged unpalatable. It isn’t nice to pick on those more uniform.

My final stroke of self-perceived brilliance featured head shots of four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) superstars: Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. A graphic listing their combined total of victories, pole positions, top five finishes and championships ended with the voiceover, “and zero wins at Darlington.”

Then a big hairy hand brandishing a rubber stamp came down on their head shots, branding them LOSERS in big block letters.

Since then, Rusty went on to make the first-ever Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field and ended his career on a high note. Junior has received the Most Popular Drive award a gazillion times in a row. Kenseth has won a NSCS championship, and Stewart has won three.

It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but the LOSERS campaign was judged as … well, a loser.

When you get right down to it, Darlington Raceway, one of the most famous, beloved and enduring pieces of NASCAR’s history, falls into the category of things that are so cool they almost sell themselves; no additional assistance is required.

But those ingrained habits, and one thing DR often has to deal with, is ageism. So I’m offering the use of advertising campaign number four, free of charge.

Voiceover: Darlington Raceway; She’s younger than Cher.

Catchy, right? I have a really good feeling about this one …

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