My Brain on NASCAR: Racing to Broadway and Madison Avenue

col-cathyelliottIt always interests me to learn more about how people view NASCAR from the outside looking in. Recently, I received a little correspondence on that very thing from a most unlikely source, when the script for a musical comedy – a country music comedy, to be specific – found its way onto my desk, all the way from New York City.

I don’t want to get too specific because that wouldn’t be fair to the playwright, but the gist of the story, called Hellcats of the Wheel, is that three friends take a fourth friend, Beth, to see her first stock car race at an unspecified track. The three friends are avid race fans, and the newbie works for a fancy advertising agency and is looking for creative ways to spend her clients’ cash.

Hello, NASCAR.

I’ll be honest; the very first thing I did when I picked up the script was roll my eyes. Being first, a Southerner, and second, someone who has been associated with racing in various capacities for going on two decades, I have to admit I have a certain degree of arrogance about it.

Also, while NASCAR as a sanctioning body may have been conceived in Florida, many folks feel, as I do, that its true birthplace was Darlington, S.C., with the inaugural running of the Southern 500 on Sept. 4, 1950. That day changed everything, legitimizing NASCAR as a bigtime sport offering huge commercial appeal and most importantly, action-packed, thrill-seeking fun.

I resisted the script. Then I read it, and I now have to swallow my pride and say it wasn’t half bad. If I can slog my way through my own snobbery and admit the truth, I actually kind of liked it.

The turning point for me came when, after several pages of “It’s so loud!” and “What’s going on?”, Beth’s friends told her that in order to truly enjoy a race, she needed to pick a side. With 40 to choose from, she was understandably confused but ultimately settled on Kyle Busch in the M&Ms car – “It’s chocolate!” — eliciting groans and some funny lines from fans in adjacent seats.

Where I live, we think of NASCAR as “our” sport, but in the advertising agencies of Manhattan, stock car racing has become serious business. NASCAR has 75 million fans that purchase over $3 billion in annual licensed product sales. Its fans are three times more likely to purchase sponsors’ products and services, and are considered the most brand-loyal in all of sports. As a result, Fortune 500 companies sponsor NASCAR more than any other governing or sanctioning body.

Nationally, NASCAR is the second-highest rated broadcast sport, trailing only the NFL. Internationally, NASCAR races are broadcast in over 150 countries and 20 languages. Would it be cool and highly entertaining to listen to a broadcast of the Daytona 500, entirely in Italian? I say yes!

NASCAR drivers are among the most accessible athletes in sports and appreciate the role their sponsors play. Consumers recognize and relate to NASCAR drivers, making them powerful spokespersons for the brands they represent. NASCAR legends have helped deliver billions in sales to their sponsors over the years – seriously, who wore Wrangler jeans before Dale Earnhardt, and now Dale Jr., said they were cool? — and newly established stars are ushering in a whole new wave of customer relationships.

Race fans are loyal and show up at racetracks in droves. In fact, NASCAR has more of the top-20 highest-attended sporting events in the U.S. than any other sport, with Sprint Cup Series races attracting an average of more than 100,000 fans. Host cities benefit, too, since each event adds an average of $100-$200 million to the local and regional economies.

Concerned at being considered gas-guzzling air polluters at one time, NASCAR established the Green Initiative to measurably reduce its environmental footprint and adopt green technologies, while helping fans, teams, tracks and sponsors find ways to reduce environmental impact in their everyday lives.

Shame on me for looking down my nose instead of through the eyes in my face and using the brain in my head to realize that an innovative show like this might go a long way toward shining a new light on NASCAR for people who previously may have never given it a second thought, or who dismissed it altogether.

Plus, maybe Michael Waltrip would reprise his Dancing With the Stars appearance and take on a cameo role in the show. NASCAR tap-dancing would be pretty entertaining to watch, no matter who you are.

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