SBJ/September 5-11, 2011/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Drivers fanning out to promote Chase

After seven years of taking all the drivers who qualify for its postseason to New York for a media blitz, NASCAR is shifting its promotional strategy to focus on the markets where those drivers will race.

The sanctioning body will scatter the 12 drivers who qualify for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup across 12 markets. Each of the 10 tracks hosting a race will have a Chase driver make an appearance during the next two weeks, and the two remaining drivers will go to New York and Bristol, Conn., for a media tour and appearances on ESPN.

The change is one of the first visible shifts in the sport’s public relations strategy since it overhauled its communications division and hired Brett Jewkes, a former Taylor executive, earlier this year.

The sport’s top executives hope that by taking drivers to the 10 host tracks they will be able to drive ticket sales and raise awareness of the Chase locally in a way that benefits TV ratings.

“Everyone who’s heard about this has said, ‘Boy, that makes a lot of sense,’” said NASCAR chief marketer Steve Phelps. “It should give us great coverage and visibility as we enter the playoffs. We think this will get buzz on both a local level in those markets but also nationally.”

The in-market appearances are slated to begin this week when Carl Edwards travels to New Hampshire on Sept. 6, Kyle Busch appears in Dover on Sept. 7 and six drivers visit the White House to meet President Obama. The final driver appearance will take place in Charlotte on Sept. 20.

Each race market has the ability to decide how it wants to use the driver it’s assigned. For example, Texas Motor Speedway is focused on raising awareness of its races among young people, so it plans to host a pep rally for defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson at a high school in nearby Roanoke, Texas.

“We want high school kids to test the product, taste it,” said Mike Zizzo, Texas’ vice president of media relations and a former communications official at NASCAR. “It’s great to bring Jimmie Johnson to town and talk to them about the Chase.”

NASCAR changed its public relations efforts around the Chase in part because of scheduling changes it made this year. It previously opened the Chase in New Hampshire, and the sport’s leaders thought it could raise visibility for that event by taking drivers to New York for a media dinner similar to what the Masters golf tournament once did.

This year, though, the sport is opening the Chase season in Chicago. That shift combined with a sense that it was becoming increasingly difficult to book driver appearances in New York led NASCAR to consider other options.

Phelps said the sport will track local media exposure and attendance to measure the effectiveness of the new strategy. After it collects and reviews that data, NASCAR officials will determine whether to take a similar approach in 2012.

“We’ll be able to measure this pretty quickly,” Phelps said. “Giving the tracks an opportunity to get some driver participation in their marketplace as we head into the Chase is a great way to reach out to that community, and I think it will pay dividends.”

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