DARLINGTON, S.C., March 14, 2001 - The Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 this weekend at Darlington Raceway is the newest offspring from the marriage of motorsports and marketing. It hasn't always been a loving relationship. In the early days of stock...
DARLINGTON, S.C., March 14, 2001 - The Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 this weekend at Darlington Raceway is the newest offspring from the marriage of motorsports and marketing.
It hasn't always been a loving relationship. In the early days of stock car racing, marketing experts turned up their noses at racing and dubbed the cars nothing more than high-speed billboards. While that assessment may have an element of truth to it, the billboards have gotten a lot more popular and auto racing has evolved into a mighty marketing machine.
A look at photos from the early days of NASCAR stock car racing show the sides of cars adorned only with numbers - 4, 25, 52, 71 and so on. It wasn't long before the drivers - who were usually the owner and chief mechanic as well - found they could get a little financial help by allowing businesses to put their company names or products on the side of the car. Gasoline brands, car dealerships and auto makes soon appeared on the sides, rooflines and hoods.
The marketing effort remained at that modest level until Carl Kiekhaefer fielded a team in the 1950s racing the very powerful Chrysler 300. Kiekhaefer saw NASCAR as an opportunity to reach potential customers for his outboard boat engines. Kiekhaefer introduced several new concepts to Winston Cup racing, hiring the best drivers and fielding the most powerful cars of the era for his multi-car team. At a time when most cars were towed or driven to the track, he bought enclosed transporters and used the sides to promote his boat engines.
Kiekhaefer did make a name for Mercury Outboard engines, but he also learned what can happen if a team is too successful. At one point, Kiekhaefer's team won 16 straight races and the fans began to boo. Worried that the backlash might hurt his brand instead of help it, he decided to seek marketing exposure elsewhere.
The spread of brand names and logos continued in motorsports to the point where today's race car can have as many as two-dozen contingency decals on a single front fender. And then there are the rear fenders, hood, deck lid and pillars, not to mention the hauler and driver and crew uniforms.
Looking beyond the race teams, we now see logos and company names on trackside billboards, in programs, and on the speedways themselves, such as Lowe's Motor Speedway. And when NASCAR comes to town, a whole city springs up in the shadows of the track to showcase the latest in home improvement tools, recreational products, all-terrain vehicles, and cars and trucks.
At one point, sponsorships were concentrated in motor oil, tobacco and beer. Today, the list includes home products, cellular service, coffee and soft drinks. The NASCAR Web site lists 35 official sponsors, including the "official" card, cookie, supermarket, sports beverage and conversion van. No wonder. Research has shown that NASCAR fans are very loyal to the companies involved in their sport.
Savvy marketers have also learned that stock car racing has value beyond the track. They are now using the sport to promote their products in advertising and at the point of sale - in stores, restaurants and gas stations. General Mills, for example, offered die-cast models of Dodge Intrepid R/T race cars in specially packaged boxes of Cheerios.
"Racing is an emotional sport and the fans develop emotional bonds with the drivers, teams, manufacturers and sponsors of the cars they support," says Lou Patane, Dodge Vice President for Motorsports Operations and Mopar Performance Parts.
"Dodge and the Dodge Dealers are taking a very deliberate approach with the Winston Cup program. This is more than a tactical effort," insists Patane. "This is a long-term, strategic program linking the Dodge brand with its customers. This is 'relationship marketing' at its best - developing a bond among the people who design and build Dodge cars, the people sell and repair Dodge cars, and their customers at the local level."
Dealer Carl Galeana agrees. "I think it's 'Showcase on Sunday and sell as the year goes on.' Having the Dodge brand in the spotlight is huge."
Owner of Galeana's Van Dyke Dodge in Sterling Heights, Mich., and immediate past president of the Dodge Dealers Advertising Association, Galeana was part of a small group of dealers who visited the spring race in Atlanta two years ago to check out the possibility of helping Dodge return to NASCAR Winston Cup Series racing.
"We were pretty cynical as a group," recalls Galeana. "We were not sure we wanted to get involved with NASCAR racing."
Galeana says they visited the track, watched the race, toured the pits and met some of the people involved with the sport. What really impressed them, though, was a walk through the parking lot.
"When we saw all the trucks and cars in the lot, many of them with special brand identification on them, we realized there are lots of products you can sell to NASCAR fans. The fans are very brand loyal, not car loyal.
"And we saw a lot of people wearing Mopar T-shirts, and even remnants of the old days when Dodge was racing in NASCAR," says Galeana. "They are still loyal to their brand. When word got out that Dodge might be coming back to NASCAR, people called and said 'Please come back.' I was overwhelmed by that."
While the Dodge program to build a car for the Winston Cup Series was getting a lot of attention, the company was quietly developing a winning marketing program. "They've done a great job," says Galeana.
One example of the program is Dodge advertising during motorsports broadcasts, especially those featuring Winston Cup race activities. Sometimes the placement turns out to be very fortuitous. For example, right after Bill Elliott put down his pole-winning run for the Daytona 500, the first ad to appear showed lots of red apples falling from a tree. A narrator said the new lineup of cars and trucks from Dodge includes "one very bad apple." At that moment, what appeared to be the very same No. 9 Dodge Intrepid R/T fell from the tree and raced its engine.
Joe Topor III, general manager of Topor Motors, Chickopee, Mass., says the Dodge return to NASCAR Winston Cup racing has given his people something to talk about when NASCAR fans come to the dealership.
"NASCAR fans love to talk about the races," says Topor. "Everyone seems to have their own interpretation of events and they like to talk about them with others. Before the Dodge return, we had nothing to talk about with these customers. Now we do. We're involved with the sport they love."
Topor Motors added a special section to their Web site to promote and sell Dodge Motorsports wearables and other merchandise. The dealership also covered a parts delivery truck with signage encouraging customers to check the Web site or visit the showroom to see the motorsports merchandise.
The Topor showroom now includes motorsports flags, and the dealership bought several hundred boxes of Cherrios with the die-cast Dodge race cars. The boxes were used in a display and given to interested visitors over a period of about a month.
Dealer Galeana says the biggest impact has been internal - with the dealership's own employees. "They feel they are a part of something," he says. "Morale is sky high because of that. I can't imagine what's going to happen when we win a race."
This week in Dodge racing history:
* 3/19/67 - David Pearson benefited from the late-race misfortunes of two other racecars to win the Southeastern 500 at Bristol International Speedway. Running third with less than 10 miles remaining, Pearson moved to the lead after one car cut a tire and the other blew and engine. It was the first win of the year for the defending Grand National champion. Pearson's Cotton Owens-prepared 1967 Dodge averaged 73.937 miles per hour.
* 3/23/69 - Once again, late-race mechanical problems paved the way for a Dodge to win the Southeastern 500 at Bristol International Speedway. Bobby Allison won the race, driving a 1969 Dodge. It was the second win of the season for Allison and the first Grand Nation win for car owner Mario Rossi.
* 3/20/77 - Richard Petty won the Atlanta 500 at Atlanta International Raceway in Hampton, Ga. His Petty Enterprises Dodge started from the pole position and led the race on five occasions for a total of 112 laps.