SBJ/April 29-May 5, 2013/Leagues and Governing Bodies

NASCAR gains traction with L.A. strategy

Zane Stoddard, who heads NASCAR’s Los Angeles office, was in the process of pitching an original Web series to a digital production company two years ago when he got an email with video of a teenage race car driver named Dylan Kwasniewski. The footage was gripping.

It told the story of a 15-year-old whose quest to reach NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series was continuing despite the fact that his father, the former president of Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Casino, had recently committed suicide.

Forget the original series, Stoddard thought. He picked up the phone and called Larry Tanz, CEO of Michael Eisner’s digital production studio Vuguru, and told him he wanted to shelve the original programming ideas NASCAR had pitched Vuguru and develop an unscripted reality show on Kwasniewski instead.

Dylan Kwasniewski, the star of “Flat Out,” caught the eye of NASCAR’s Zane Stoddard.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
“This is the Ryan Sheckler of NASCAR,” Stoddard said, comparing Kwasniewski to the skateboarder whose reality show became MTV’s highest-rated program in 2007.

Vuguru, which was behind the breakout Web series “Prom Queen” that drew 30 million viewers, had never developed an unscripted show, and Tanz was skeptical of the idea. But he changed his mind after he learned more about Kwasniewski.

“We were captivated by the story around Dylan,” Tanz said. “We figured if we were going to try something new and take a chance, who better to do it with than NASCAR. It just seemed like a good bet.”

NASCAR and Vuguru produced a webisode on Kwasniewski, 17, and AOL early this year bought the series. The show, which is called “Flat Out,” will be announced this Tuesday during an AOL upfront presentation to advertisers. AOL plans to begin airing episodes this fall on its AOL On Autos and AOL On Sports channels.

“Our users really respond to stories about remarkable and real people,” said Karen Cahn, general manager of AOL On Original Video. “When we learned about Dylan’s story, it’s pretty remarkable. He’s had a huge amount of success at a young age, and he’s trying to balance racing with being a teen. We think our readers will love to learn about him.”

The deal with AOL for “Flat Out” is the latest in a series of successes for NASCAR’s Los Angeles office. Since Stoddard joined NASCAR in 2010 from the NBA, the sport has garnered more than 200 million impressions a year through entertainment programming and media coverage. The number of impressions is up from 20 million a year before he arrived.

The increase reflects a change in strategy at NASCAR’s Los Angeles office. When the sport opened the office in 2000, it focused on getting NASCAR exposure in movies and succeeded in being featured in box office successes like “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “Cars” and an IMAX film that ran nationwide. The Los Angeles office also arranged occasional driver appearances on TV.

Under Stoddard the office has flipped those priorities. He’s pushed staff to get drivers and the sport into TV shows, award broadcasts and digital programs first and made movies a secondary focus. The early results of the new strategy have been evident everywhere from NASCAR-themed episodes of “American Pickers” to a NASCAR story line in the show “The Glades.” The office also has sold nine original projects since 2011.

“The gestation time for feature films is two to three years, and they’re difficult to plan around,” Stoddard said. “It’s just that we’re investing our time into things that more readily address our strategic priorities, and television has a quicker turnaround.”

Stoddard’s emphasis on TV is taking on new importance as he pushes the Los Angeles office, which has eight employees, to concentrate on pitching shows, movies and integrations that fit with the sport’s recently developed industry action plan, which is focused on appealing to kids, attracting Gen Y fans and developing Hispanic and multicultural followers.

The office has had some early success with those efforts. Before Nickelodeon’s “Kids Choice Awards,” it successfully pitched the network on adding Danica Patrick to its “Favorite Female Athlete” category. She won the award last month and appeared at the event, allowing NASCAR to get one of its star drivers in front of the kids it hopes to convert into fans in the future.

Another effort ahead of the March race in California also succeeded in getting the sport exposure in kids programming. NASCAR brought Trevor Bayne and four other young drivers to Los Angeles prior to the race and took them to meetings with top executives at CAA, MTV and Disney, companies that Stoddard described as “three of the most influential in entertainment.” Bayne went on air with Radio Disney during the visit and impressed executives enough to have them invite him to be a presenter at the Radio Disney Music Awards last Saturday.

“The entertainment business understands the attributes of our sport — speed, danger, rebellion, independence — but they don’t have as much of a personal affinity for it as they do with other sports, so we have to take our story to them,” Stoddard said. “Those are examples of us doing that.”

As NASCAR has looked to reach Hispanic and Gen Y audiences, it has looked beyond TV to digital programming. It developed a Spanish-language digital soap opera for Univision.com that features a female race car driver caught in a love triangle with a pair of racing brothers. The three, five-minute episodes will air online and then re-air on Univision May 5, giving NASCAR a chance to put its sport in front of Hispanic viewers.

Stoddard and his group will continue to work on other shows and movies. He said they have four movie projects and seven TV projects in development, including an animated TV show and two multicultural programs. NASCAR is continuing to work with a writer on a biographical movie about Bill France Sr. that could feature Vince Vaughn, and it’s working with TNT on an unscripted show about Richard Childress and his grandsons, Austin and Ty.

“We find ourselves with the need for our business to find new audiences,” Stoddard said. “Everything comes off of that.”

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