SBJ/September 4 - 10, 2006/This Weeks News

NHRA targets casual fans with playoff system

The National Hot Rod Association’s shift to a playoff format in 2007 has some sponsors pumping their fists and others scratching their heads.

Playoffs will be used for four series,
including Top Fuel.
While the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” crowd is wondering what’s wrong with the NHRA’s current product, the Countdown to the Championship is designed to attract the casual fan as well as a broader base of sponsors.

“This is going to give sponsors the opportunity to drive more awareness and for corporate America to get on board,” said Ben Reiling, director of motorsports marketing for Coca-Cola.

Coke brands Powerade (title sponsor through 2011), Dasani (official water) and Full Throttle (official energy drink) hold partnership positions.

Reiling said the NHRA first presented the idea of a playoff format to him in May. The idea gained momentum as NHRA President Tom Compton spoke with a close circle of confidants, leading to its eventual announcement last week in Indianapolis.

Here’s how the Countdown works: After the first 17 races, the top eight drivers in the points standings for each of NHRA’s four pro drag racing categories advance; the others are eliminated from the championship hunt. The points will be adjusted, and the next four races will determine who moves on to a final four for the last two races. A champion will be crowned at the season-ending event in Pomona, Calif. The races themselves will carry on as before.

The stages will be called “Countdown to Four” and “Countdown to One,” but the NHRA will not break off those pieces for sale because it wants to protect Powerade’s title sponsorship, said Gary Darcy, the NHRA’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

The format will present some new opportunities, though. The NHRA is looking for presenting sponsors for the two $100,000 Countdown bonuses, which will be awarded to the winners of the Top Fuel and Funny Car series. Naming rights for qualifying sessions also will be sold.

Mostly, though, Darcy hopes the Countdown will be a platform from which to increase activation among sponsors and draw more non-endemic companies to the sport.

“That’s a real push for us,” Darcy said. “We have an initiative to move into some nontraditional categories, to work with some new partners.”

The format immediately drew comparisons to NASCAR’s Chase for the Nextel Cup, which rankled Compton and some of the sport’s supporters. Compton pointed out that playoffs were around long before NASCAR’s Chase, which is in its third season.

Fred Simmons, the drag racing marketing manager for General Motors, said he was concerned about the comparisons being made publicly. From USA Today to the Los Angeles Times, headlines and lead sentences compared the Countdown to the Chase.

“That’s part of the concern already and it’s been voiced by a number of people,” Simmons said. “But we’ll have to wait 15 months and see how it turns out.”

Simmons, like Lucas Oil founder and owner Forrest Lucas and most other sponsors, had no idea that a playoff was in the works until last week’s announcement. But they, like Anheuser-Busch’s Tony Ponturo, see the potential for growth.

“It’s sure to heighten fan and media interest around the NHRA and its business partners,” said Ponturo, A-B’s vice president of global media and sports marketing.

The concerns expressed by sponsors are the same as those associated with the Chase: A large group of sponsors might feel left out if they don’t make the playoffs. Then again, winning has its privileges — namely, exposure.

“Certainly, sponsors want to maximize their exposure because they have plans in place for the whole season,” said CEO Wally Hayward, whose Relay Sports & Event Marketing brought U.S. Army into drag racing. “You just have to work with TV to make sure the focus isn’t entirely on the final teams.”

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