SBJ/November 5-11, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NASCAR learns from ‘Tomorrow’ for car rollout

When NASCAR rolled out the Car of Tomorrow in 2007, everyone rebelled. Drivers didn’t like it, teams didn’t like it and, most importantly, fans didn’t like it.

As NASCAR once again prepares to roll out new cars in 2013 — cars that trade the current homogeneous look for the showroom model designs of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota — its marketing, communications and competition divisions are doing everything they can to avoid a repeat of the negativity that engulfed the Car of Tomorrow. In fact, it is trying to use the new car to boost business and fan interest through its marketing and advertising.

Ford became the first maker to introduce its new cars to the media early this year.
FORD DESIGN STUDIO
The effort, dubbed “Project Ignition,” began early this year when Ford became the first manufacturer to unveil its new cars to media, continued through driver testing last month at Talladega and extends into Monday when the sanctioning body, for the first time, will take members of the media to wind-tunnel testing of the new cars in Concord, N.C.

“We believe this can really energize our fan base, drive tune-in and attract new fans,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketer, who described the new car as “one of the last levers” the sport can pull to engage fans. “Every asset NASCAR has will direct attention to this car.”

Phelps said only a third of NASCAR fans know that the Sprint Cup Series will feature the new car next year. The sanctioning body hopes to change that in the coming months. It will feature the new cars of each manufacturer in its season-ending parade in Las Vegas next month, it plans to develop advertising spots specifically around the new car that will air on Fox, ESPN and Turner, and it is considering an Olympic torch relay of sorts where the new cars are driven from the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte to Daytona Beach, Fla., for the Daytona 500.

NASCAR plans to have behind-the-scenes reports on how it developed the car on its new digital platform, NASCAR.com, which will debut in January. Its media partners also are planning to do reports on it and make production changes around it. Fox, which will broadcast the first race of 2013, is looking at new in-car camera positions, exploring ways to provide new audio of the cars, designing a new graphics package, and reviewing the way it frames multiple cars in a pack to highlight the speed of the car and the different body shapes of the new cars.

“We’re enthusiastic and fired up about the new car because we’re NASCAR fans,” said Eric Shanks, Fox Sports co-president. “It’s really rare that you get such a visible new product for the fans in any sport and we’re looking to really reboot our production to match the product on the track. From the first time the cars go on the tracks, fans in the stands and at home are going to see a real difference.”

But building fan awareness isn’t the only thing that NASCAR has to prepare for as it rolls out the new car. It also has to be sure its teams and drivers are on board with the new designs.

Teams and drivers largely led the negativity that hurt the Car of Tomorrow in 2007 and 2008. NASCAR spent five years developing the car in hopes of making a safer vehicle that reduced driver injuries. The resulting car was a radical departure from the prior stock car that required an entirely new chassis. Because of that, teams had to scrap their existing line of cars and spend money on new ones.

Fans didn’t like the standardized look of each car, and drivers became frustrated with how it handled on the track.

Mike Mooney, The Marketing Arm’s vice president of motorsports, said there weren’t any communication miscues in advance of the Car of Tomorrow’s unveiling, but that NASCAR’s message that the car would lower costs and improve driver safety got lost when the drivers began to complain.

The negativity that surrounded the Car of Tomorrow in 2007 prompted NASCAR to do more outreach to teams, drivers and fans. In recent years, it has begun holding quarterly meetings with drivers and team executives. It has increased the size of its industry services division and been more proactive in fielding requests from competitors. It also created a fan council that it surveys regularly to find out what changes fans would like to see in the sport.

It was those surveys and conversations with its manufacturing partners that led NASCAR to redesign its cars for 2013. Phelps said the sanctioning body has been communicating regularly with teams about it and has emphasized the opportunity the new car offers.

Unlike the Car of Tomorrow, the new car doesn’t require new chassis, so it won’t require the major expenditures teams made in 2007, and drivers have generally been pleased with tests of the car. But driver satisfaction today doesn’t guarantee satisfaction next year. The different body shapes between Fords, Chevrolets and Toyotas opens the possibility for teams to gain an aerodynamic advantage on the track, and that could undermine the parity NASCAR has tried to achieve during the last few decades.

Phelps said NASCAR’s research and development team has worked hard to be sure that’s not the case, and he doesn’t anticipate any driver complaints this time around. NASCAR can implement fines if it deems a driver’s comments “materially damage the sport,” but Phelps said that won’t be necessary.

“That’s not an issue,” he said. “The teams are on board. The auto manufacturers are on board. The drivers are on board. … This is a seminal moment for us to put butts in seats and drive viewership.”

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