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Volume 21 No. 10

In Depth

America’s premier stock-car racing series has been controlled by the France family since its founding in 1948. But as NASCAR’s 70th anniversary season opens with this weekend’s Daytona 500, it comes amid rumblings over what the future could hold for the sanctioning body and its major track operators: International Speedway Corp., also controlled by the France family, and Speedway Motorsports Inc., controlled by the Smith family. 

 

Could NASCAR be sold and its track operators merged or even included in such a deal?

 

The France family has controlled NASCAR since it was founded 70 years ago. Lesa France Kennedy (left) is CEO of ISC and Brian France is NASCAR chairman and CEO.
Photo: Getty Images

While NASCAR said in a statement that it is not for sale, recent developments have fueled the speculation and it’s been a topic of major discussion along pit road and among motorsports observers. Several NASCAR and ISC executives have taken on dual roles at both companies; the Smith family and NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France have been linked to possible involvement in a bid for the Carolina Panthers; and ISC’s president indicated during a recent earnings report that the company is open to consolidation in the sport.

 

Liberty Media’s $8 billion purchase of Formula One two years ago showed the interest in sports content, and with many companies having a lot of revenue on their balance sheet, a number of institutional investors could be interested in NASCAR.

 

Meanwhile, many believe a sale or major consolidation is the best hope for a sport in dire need of reimagining and innovation. It could result in a far more unified operating structure, allowing for dramatic changes to scheduling, ticketing, marketing, revenue distribution, media strategies and cost controls.

 

“NASCAR has a very loyal following and it’s good media content value, so I can see people being interested in it if it ever came on the market,” said Sal Galatioto, president of Galatioto Sports Partners, whose firm is involved in sports property sales but has not typically done transactions in NASCAR. He thinks a media company would be the most likely suitor, but added “who knows? It could be anyone.”

 

Comcast is a name that often comes up in the garage area. The company is already one of NASCAR’s most important partners, serving as both a media rights partner and title partner of NASCAR through its NBC Sports and Xfinity brands, respectively. NASCAR is such an important investment for Comcast that several people from the sport, including new NBC Sports broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr., were interwoven throughout NBC’s Super Bowl pregame show this month. Many sources inside the sport believe that Comcast sees great value in owning the content and in its future distribution. Comcast officials did not respond to requests for comment.

 

SportsBusiness Journal talked to about two dozen executives inside and outside of NASCAR about what a sale of the sport would look like. Given the sensitivity of the topic, many agreed to speak only on background.

 

For starters, what assets would be included?

 

Experts estimate that a sale of NASCAR and its two main track operators, SMI and ISC, could fetch between $3 billion and $5 billion. A media company would be the most likely suitor.
Photo: Getty Images

If NASCAR were sold on its own, a buyer would be getting the promotional, rule-making and rule-keeping arm of the sport. The sanctioning body has its own digital media network; negotiates major pacts for the sport, including media rights; and oversees the sport’s charter system. The sanctioning body doesn’t own teams or tracks, though the France family has a controlling stake in ISC, which has recently seen its stock price hit its highest level in nearly a decade. 

 

However, the two companies had sought in the past to stress that they were separate in order to stave off antitrust concerns, dating back to the Ferko vs. NASCAR lawsuit in 2002 and Kentucky Speedway’s lawsuit against NASCAR in 2005. That underscores why the recent combined roles of four executives — Daryl Wolfe, chief sales and partnership officer; Eric Nyquist, chief communications officer; Paula Miller, senior vice president of human resources; and Craig Neeb, chief innovation and development officer — indicate a shift in strategy that has raised eyebrows.

 

Both ISC, which owns 12 tracks, and SMI, which owns eight speedways, are publicly traded. During an interview with SportsBusiness Journal last year, SMI President and CEO Marcus Smith denied any interest in selling the corporation.

 



But during ISC’s fourth quarter earnings call last month, ISC President John Saunders said that company’s executives have “always said that we’re certainly open to further consolidation in the sport, but I caveat that as … ‘at the right price’ so that remains a strategic priority for the company.” However, he added that “nothing is being contemplated at this time.”

 

The structure of NASCAR means that a sale of NASCAR by itself would be less desirable, albeit cheaper, than buying the tracks and NASCAR at the same time. ISC and SMI control the vast majority of the sport’s current 38-race annual schedule, so that structure would limit the power a new buyer of NASCAR would have. On the other hand, buying both track operators at once in addition to NASCAR would likely unlock new opportunities. Another possibility would be buying NASCAR and ISC but not SMI if the Smith family did not want to sell.

 

Still, the opportunity to own a historic property would make NASCAR an attractive target in any event.

 

“Given the extensive analysis we’ve done on NASCAR and ISC, if there was in fact a sale we think that a buyer would be inheriting not only an amazing business, but an iconic sports property. Truly a one-of-a-kind piece of Americana,” Andrew Kline, founder and managing director of investment bank Park Lane, said in an email, adding that he’s not aware of any pending negotiations.

 

So, how much would NASCAR sell for?

 

Estimates from the executives interviewed varied and are complicated by the fact that the sport would sell for more if the tracks were included. With the tracks included, estimates have typically ranged from $3 billion to $5 billion. By comparison, F1 sold for a combined $8 billion between equity and assumed debt, but no tracks were included in the sale.

 

Extrapolating from EBITDA figures, ISC’s enterprise value is $2 billion, according to Yahoo Finance, while SMI is worth $970 million.

 

The sale rumors also come amid a white-hot start to the year for mergers and acquisitions in global business, as a total of $273 billion in M&A has been conducted thus far this year, according to Dealogic data cited by the Financial Times — the busiest since 2000. They also come as NASCAR nears the midway point of its 10-year media rights deals with Fox Sports and NBC Sports, which bring in a combined $820 million a year through 2024.

 

France family members serving in official roles in the sport include NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France, ISC CEO Lesa France Kennedy and ISC Chairman Jim France. Brian France sold his stake in the company more than a decade ago, The Wall Street Journal reported last year. France Kennedy’s son, Ben Kennedy, recently took on a new role at NASCAR as general manager of the Camping World Truck Series. Multiple sources noted that Ben Kennedy’s appointment may signal that the France family intends to groom him for a future leadership role and could mean the family intends to remain in the sport. But others in the sport aren’t convinced that this is a surefire indication of the family’s long-term planning.

 

Meanwhile, as the Smith family mulls a possible bid for the Panthers, speculation has risen about whether a sale of SMI would help family members raise funds for an NFL venture. But when he was bidding to land an MLS franchise last year, Marcus Smith said that an MLS team would be “just one more facility; it’s not something that would prevent us from operating our core business.”

 

Bob Caporale, chairman of Game Plan, which advises on buying and selling sports teams but has been involved in only one deal in NASCAR, said he thinks that a new structure in NASCAR could help unlock value. He even suggested a model similar to stick-and-ball leagues, where the teams own the league itself.

 

“What’s struck me as unique about NASCAR when compared to the pro sports leagues is that there’s no ownership between NASCAR and the teams — it would seem that it would make a lot of sense,” Caporale said. “There could be a lot of value created in a new structure.”

New grandstands and entrances are among the many changes included in the $178 million renovation of Arizona’s ISM Raceway.
Photo: ISM Raceway

NASCAR tracks continue to reinvent themselves, highlighted by major renovations that will debut this year and elevate the fan experience at ISM Raceway and Richmond Raceway.

 

Both tracks are owned by International Speedway Corp. and represent ISC’s largest refurbishments since the track operator’s $400 million overhaul of Daytona International Speedway that wrapped up in 2016.

 

While the ISM and Richmond projects have several differences, they’re both geared toward modernizing old-school racing venues and creating newfound, unique forms of access.

 

For example, as drivers go out for pre-race ceremonies at Richmond Raceway in September, the track is looking at having them walk through a new infield alleyway surrounded by fans rather than walking on a traditional, elevated stage.

 

When the winner of ISM Raceway’s fall NASCAR race near Phoenix pulls into Gatorade Victory Lane, fans with infield passes will be able to go into the previously restricted area to help the driver celebrate.

 

“As with Daytona Rising, the capital investments at ISM and Richmond show our strong commitment to our shareholders, the sport, and our fans and their at-venue experience,” Joie Chitwood III, executive vice president and chief operating officer of ISC, said in an email. “We are excited to see the improvements at both properties come online in the fall and the response from our stakeholders.”

 

Following the Daytona upgrade, which provides a $15 million EBITDA lift for the corporation annually, ISC unveiled a plan for fiscal years 2017 to 2021 that allocates $500 million for capital expenditures.


ISM is dubbing its new branded entrances as “canyons.”
Photo: ISM Raceway

ISM’s $178 million project, which is expected to bring in an $8.5 million to $9 million lift to the bottom line for ISC annually, is a more comprehensive renovation touching all areas of the facility. Richmond’s renovation is more limited for now with a $30 million effort focused on the infield.

 

Among the fresh features at the 54-year-old ISM Raceway will be a new 42,000-seat grandstand that overlooks a newly changed start/finish line and is positioned to give fans shade from the desert sun. Similar to Daytona’s “injectors,” the track will have two branded entrances that it’s dubbing “canyons,” one of which has been sold to track naming-rights partner ISM Connect, and the other of which is still being sold. The work also includes new elevators, tunnels and concourses; free Wi-Fi throughout the facility; and several hundred digital screens.

 

The track landed a separate presenting partner for the renovation, which is called the ISM Raceway Project powered by DC Solar. DC Solar is providing solar lighting panels for the renovation, solar-generated charging stations for personal devices, and 10 solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles. It also will name the track’s new midway fan activation zone.

 

Richmond and ISM will both have spacious new garages that will allow fans who bought an infield pass in addition to their grandstand ticket to enter on one slightly elevated end that overlooks the cars and crews below. Currently, the vast majority of garages at tracks have openings just on one side, so this change is designed to give fans fresh access.

 

Derek Muldowney, president of ISC’s design and development group, said the garages are the next evolution from the upgrades that were done several years ago to Daytona that placed glass windows with open slits at the backside of the garage for fans to look in and get autographs.

 

Bryan Sperber, president of ISM Raceway, said the garages, and the plan to allow fans to go into the new victory lane after races, underscore the fixation on added access.

 

“The atmosphere in the fan zone will be very different than what our fans have experienced,” Sperber said. “One of the things I challenged our team on with this whole project is historically our victory lane [celebration] is the moment when our hero wins the event — and yet it’s fenced off and the fans don’t get a chance to celebrate. So I wanted to address that.”

 

Sperber said the project is on time and on budget. Milestones from recent weeks included workers installing glass panels in the track’s new suites. One part of the project that was already done by last November’s race weekend was the Curve hospitality club that features plush seating and includes food and beverage. Admission to the club costs about $1,100 for two days during the spring NASCAR race weekend, about $1,400 for three days during the fall NASCAR race, and about $400 for the annual Verizon IndyCar Series race.

 

For the upcoming spring race, Sperber said the track may install five to 10 seats in the new grandstand so people can experience what the new area will look like when it’s finished by the fall.

ISM is working with Rossetti and Phoenix-based DLR Group as architects, while Okland Construction and Barton Malow are the contractors.

 

A significant boost to ISM Raceway’s goal to enhance the fan experience came in the form of a 10-year track naming-rights deal with ISM, a Pennsylvania-based digital advertising company. ISM is outfitting the track with a Wi-Fi network and 300 to 400 new digital screens. It’s also working on projects such as creating digital and audio content related to the new infield tunnel that will be geo-targeted to play on the track’s app as a fan walks through the tunnel.

 

Richmond Raceway has put the focus on its infield and infrastrucure as it continues a $30 million project.
Photo: Adam Stern / Staff

At Richmond, track President Dennis Bickmeier drew inspiration from visits to stick-and-ball venues such as T-Mobile Arena, Children’s Mercy Park and AT&T Stadium. While ISC could have undertaken a larger project for Richmond, ISC’s Chitwood suggested to Bickmeier that they start with the infield. That’s because the track, which opened in 1946, had dated infrastructure such as drainage and electrical wiring that needed updating before anything more extensive got underway.

 

With the plan to focus on the infield in hand, Richmond’s renovation will include the previously mentioned new garages; a new infield tunnel that has five to eight times more space than the old tunnel; a new media center; new infield fan zone areas with corporate activation opportunities; two new suites built into the garages; and a new VIP club that includes an accessible roof directly overlooking a redesigned Gatorade Victory Lane.

 

In addition to the new layout of the garages, having a premium area that will be right in the mix of the celebration in victory lane is an example of what Bickmeier, who comes from a background in Major League Baseball, tried to incorporate from what he saw at stick-and-ball venues.

 

“In so many stadiums and arenas, so many players are walking by a hospitality area when they’re coming out of a locker room. Well, the garage is our locker room,” Bickmeier said. “We’ve really challenged our team with, ‘OK, we have the assets — now how do you think of pre-race completely different now?’ We have this new entertainment hub in the infield, and we’re going to have a built-in audience because we’re going to sell a lot of infield tickets, but how do we do it more like the stick and ball guys?”

 

Richmond’s spacious new garage area will give fans better views of the cars and crews.
Photo: Adam Stern / Staff

Richmond will now be able to fit significantly more people in its infield; the track previously sold 1,200 to 1,500 pit passes but will be able to fit closer to 10,000 people in the infield after the work is finished. It currently costs $50 for a pit pass and an extra $50 for driver introductions. The new infield pass, which has to be in addition to a grandstand ticket, will include both those experiences but only cost $70. The new premium infield club area overlooking victory lane is being dubbed “V-VIP” and is designed for smaller groups, while the two new suites are for 30 to 60 people. Admission to V-VIP costs $1,200, while the track says it is not releasing prices for the garage suites because the assets may be tied to sponsorship deals.

 

Richmond is working with DLR Group as architect, HG Design Studio as civil engineer and Barton Malow as contractor.

 

The renovation at Richmond is part of a wider revitalization project for the track that includes reviving its amphitheater, getting more involved in the community and adding more non-raceday events that it can host in its 60,000-square-foot indoor exhibition hall, the only such building of its kind in ISC’s 12-track portfolio. The track has five billboards plastered around town to raise awareness, is adding a street team to do on-the-ground grassroots marketing, and is steadily releasing news and video content to keep people excited about the project.

 

“At a time here in Richmond where there’s a lot of really positive things going on from a construction standpoint with companies moving here, for us to be part of that conversation is what we needed,” Bickmeier said. “And we’ve been in the conversation.”

While ISM Raceway and Richmond Raceway undergo major renovations that will be completed this year, several other tracks have smaller projects that will make their debut this season.

New loge-box offerings in Las Vegas will give customers a smaller hospitality option.
Photo: speedway motorsports inc.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

The track has the most expansive refurbishment going on of any of Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s eight speedways. LVMS is redesigning its four clubhouses that sit a level below its suites on the main Section 2 grandstand. The track is adding two loge-box offerings on its Petty Terrace for premium customers who want a more intimate and private surrounding with indoor and outdoor options. It’s also adding a social pavilion at the Petty Terrace, where fans will have access to amenities such as phone chargers, Wi-Fi, a large central bar and unique food.

Atlanta will be among the SMI tracks to add restart zone bars in the grandstands.
Photo: speedway motorsports inc.

Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway

Both tracks, in addition to LVMS, will build new restart zone bars a couple dozen rows up in their grandstands. After adding seats in the early 2000s during NASCAR’s boom period, tracks in recent years have been taking out grandstand seats and repurposing the areas to focus on premium experiences. The restart zone bars, which will have indoor and outdoor areas and naming-rights deals, are the latest example of that trend.

 

“With all the attention that the restart zone has got in the last couple of years, we thought it’s a key point where a lot of action happens and when you’re in that area, you feel the power of the field getting on that gas and the rush of it,” said Mike Burch, chief strategy officer of SMI. “And now that you’ve got stage racing, you’ve got a guaranteed three [restarts], so we said, ‘What can we do to take advantage of the energy around this location and make it a destination?’”

Martinsville Raceway

The short track nicknamed “The Paperclip” will remove seats from the top of its Bill France Tower between Turns 3 and 4 and those above the press box between Turns 1 and 2. It also plans to expand the number of gates at its front entrance from eight to 30. Track President Clay Campbell last month told the local Martinsville Bulletin newspaper that in part because of drops in attendance, executives decided to take out some of the seats at the highest rows “to make it easier on our fans so they don’t have to climb 10 stories to get to seats.”

 

Revamped grandstands are among Darlington’s plans.
Photo: Darlington Raceway

Darlington Raceway

The historic track, nicknamed “Too Tough To Tame,” will get a highly welcomed investment this year that will be based around upgrading its grandstands. International Speedway Corp. has commissioned an approximately $7 million project titled “A Better Darlington” to spruce up the South Carolina venue, which has seen a resurgence in recent years tied to the success of the throwback theme that’s held there during NASCAR race weekend. The project includes renovating what will be newly smoke-free grandstands; new crossover gates to allow fans to walk from the grandstand onto the track for pre-race activities; and new “Wall of Honor” banners that will adorn the grandstands and honor past winners at the track.

 

For tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway, camping is a growing revenue stream.
Photo: texas motor speedway

While NASCAR venues have grappled with lower grandstand attendance over the last decade, one area of the business that is booming heading into 2018 is camping, according to track executives.

 

In a sport known for its Americana ethos and appeal to outdoorsmen, NASCAR is unlike its stick-and-ball brethren in that families and friends routinely camp in and around tracks for days around NASCAR race weekends. In response, several tracks have rolled out promotions, activities and themed camping areas to accommodate this increasingly reliable revenue stream.

 

Auto Club Speedway near Los Angeles has 2,300 RV camping spots, including 1,900 in its infield. The track has a 97 percent renewal rate with infield campers and a 500-person waiting list for infield camping. It sold out of infield camping for this spring’s NASCAR national series race weekend last November and is close to selling out the other 400 spots located outside the confines of the track.

 

“Really when it comes down to it, it’s the fans — they’re the ones who create the atmosphere,” said Dave Allen, president of Auto Club Speedway. “Are they watching the race the whole time? No. Are they having a good social time? Yeah.”

 

To help celebrate its 20th anniversary last year, Auto Club introduced a “Neon Nineties” infield theme. That included activities such as having the hundreds of campers who bring bicycles participate in a “pedal party” where they decorated their bikes with neon lights and glow sticks and rode through areas of the venue, including the track’s backstretch. Auto Club also has a 5,000-square-foot pop-up Vons grocery store in the middle of the infield to serve campers. Allen said the pop-up version offers products at usual in-store prices and “becomes the main artery of the infield.”

 

At Watkins Glen International in New York, the staff has created about a half-dozen themed camping areas that fans can choose from depending on the atmosphere they’re seeking. The track, which has close to 5,500 camping spots, has one area that’s designed for families; it has earlier quiet hours and is patrolled more often by security. The track last year added a millennial camping area, which had lower ticket prices, concession coupons and drinking games.

 

“[International Speedway Corp.] is looking at this as a good segment to grow the sport because we’re seeing 20-year-olds buy camping experiences,” said Michael Printup, president of Watkins Glen International, who added that the millennial area nearly sold out. “We see 10 kids come, bring a tent and have a ball; they’re there partying, and they’re just there having a good time.”

 

The camping trend has encouraged new camping options such as tiny houses at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Photo: indianapolis motor speedway

Additional twists on the camping experience include tracks offering “glamping,” or glamorous camping, which is a premium experience that comes with tents and amenities. WGI recently added “glamping,” and it’s charging $750 for four cots, $800 for two twin beds and $950 for one queen bed. Bristol Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently signed on to experiment with Try it Tiny’s Tiny House Hotel, which is a downsized version of a house that’s dropped off at your camping space. Bristol is charging $2,500 for a five-night package around its spring race weekend. IMS’s package for the Indiapanolis 500, which includes four general-admission tickets to the IndyCar Series race, costs $3,000 for the weekend.

 

At Texas Motor Speedway, the track typically has tens of thousands of campers each NASCAR national series race weekend, with the high-water mark being 40,000 several years ago, said President Eddie Gossage. Gossage made headlines last November when he told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he opposed trying a two-day NASCAR show at his venue because “there will be no camping,” which “is the one revenue stream that is increasing.” NASCAR’s race weekends for its premier series typically span three days.

 

Gossage said that given the increasing recognition of the value of campers, the track this year is going to start a program where it will go around to campsites during the course of the weekend and give out superlative awards for things like “best use of a tiki bar.”

 

“It’s something all tracks are enjoying good success with,” Gossage said of camping. “It’s part of the tradition and culture of NASCAR.”

The first season without Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel was always going to be a massive test for NASCAR, but the sport is working on several new marketing strategies that make a priority out of promoting the sport’s stars.

 

On top of a 2018 marketing campaign and new fantasy game both launching this week, NASCAR is working with social media executive Gary Vaynerchuk’s VaynerMedia on a new partnership to promote the sport and its personalities.

 

The sanctioning body is coming into the new year with four major strategies: Utilizing insights from a revamped data division; elevating star power; deepening fan engagement; and keeping an eye on emerging and new platforms that can be leveraged.

 

“We’ve talked about leading with digital and social first the last couple years, and I think ’18 is going to be great because we’re continuing to challenge ourselves to do more and do it with more relevance than we’ve done in the past,” said Jill Gregory, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of NASCAR. “Not that anything we did in the past was incorrect, but we have to keep up with the changing engagement of the fan base.”

 

For its 2018 campaign, NASCAR will adopt a strategy it tested during last year’s playoffs in which it will split the year into sections, or what it’s terming “chapters.” Sections will include Daytona’s Speedweeks; the West Coast swing; NASCAR Salutes; and the Kids Drive NASCAR campaign. Gregory said the segmentation will allow NASCAR to be more nimble with its messaging. If a storyline develops later in the season, it can be incorporated into an upcoming chapter’s marketing.

 

While NASCAR switched to a social-first approach in recent years, it will continue to have an advertising presence on rights holders Fox Sports and NBC Sports on top of sharing spots digitally. Spots to start the season will include one around the revamped fantasy game; one around the Hashtag 500 giveaway contest that NASCAR is bringing back after a one-year hiatus; and driver profile vignettes.

Star power will be at the root of all NASCAR marketing this season; the sanctioning body says internal data shows that fans are more engaged when they have favorite drivers. But the sanctioning body is putting an increased focus on building star power both with drivers and with other personalities in the sport such as crew members or spotters.

 

NASCAR formalized its driver marketing group and star power initiative in 2011 and over the years since has worked with drivers to get them to show more of their personal life and into media that aligns with them. But last year, after the sport had realized Earnhardt was retiring, NASCAR started talking with VaynerMedia in a bid to take its star power efforts to the next level. After determining that the two sides would work together, the New York City-based agency embarked on a listening tour around the NASCAR industry, talking to teams and drivers to figure out how it can help.

 

Gregory said VaynerMedia brings an outside-the-fishbowl perspective of how and what the sanctioning body should market. The agency has dabbled in NASCAR before, as it produced Budweiser’s well-received farewell ad to Earnhardt at the end of last season. NASCAR is still finalizing exactly what the partnership will look like and hasn’t formally announced it, but it outlined the venture to industry executives during last week’s marketing and communications summit in Charlotte.

 

“We all work day in and day out with the NASCAR season, and one of the things they’ve been able to do that’s really great is remind us how compelling some of the things we do every week can be,” Gregory said. “It’s that fresh perspective of, ‘Hey, you should look at this because it’s driving engagement and eyeballs for people who don’t have as many things going for them as you guys do.’”

 

Other key initiatives for NASCAR this season include greater use of pop culture influencers — both in terms of getting more of them to races and getting them to share more content of the experiences from their own social media accounts — and using data to identify which subsets of the fan base NASCAR has the best chance of growing and engaging. NASCAR also streamlined its content efforts into one group, headed up by Evan Parker, managing director of content strategy. Gregory thinks this will help NASCAR be more strategic and prolific with the video and written content it produces.

Chevrolet starts a major strategy shift with the Daytona 500, as the manufacturer switches its lead brand in NASCAR’s premier series from an everyman’s car in the SS sedan to the more premium Camaro ZL1 coupe.

 

Since NASCAR is the largest motorsports series in the U.S., car manufacturers have long looked to stock car racing as a platform to push their most mass-appealing cars. Ford, one of NASCAR’s other manufacturers, promotes its Fusion line, while Toyota promotes its Camry.

 

Chevrolet’s new NASCAR entry closely mirrors the street version.
Photo: Chevy Racing

But with Chevy discontinuing the SS, which costs around $47,000, company executives decided now was the right time to push a more aspirational and pricey, yet logical, brand for the sport in the Camaro ZL1, which costs closer to $62,000.

 

Chevy will market heavily around the move, and has plans in waiting for when it scores big wins.

 

“With the SS being phased out, it was time to look for a new flagship for the Cup Series,” said Jeff Chew, Chevrolet Racing’s senior manager of strategic planning and operations. “It made great sense with the success, prominence and sportiness of the [Camaro] brand to carry that over into Cup.”

 

Some of Chevrolet’s top teams and drivers in NASCAR’s premier series include Hendrick Motorsports, highlighted by seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and rising star Chase Elliott; and Chip Ganassi Racing, with five-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race winner Kyle Larson.

 

Chevrolet has activated the Camaro brand in racing for years, but it’s either been in the NHRA drag racing series, road racing or lower levels of NASCAR, including the Xfinity Series. This year marks its first year in the Monster Energy Series, which last year averaged 4.1 million viewers a race and routinely brings in tens of thousands of fans each race day.

 

Similar to what Toyota did last year when it introduced its new version of the Camry in the Monster Energy Series, Chevrolet made a concerted effort to make its new NASCAR car mirror the street car to the greatest extent possible. For example, the NASCAR entry has the same shape, grill indents and headlight indents as the street car. Like NASCAR entries, Camaros are two-door coupes with front-engine V8s, rear-wheel drive and manual transmission.

 

“This is the best we’ve done,” Chew, who has been with Chevy since 1982, said of making the NASCAR entry mirror its street version. “It’s uncanny that we’re able to utilize so much of the design attributes [of the street Camaro] and still maintain the [aerodynamics] package that we needed [to be able to succeed on track].”

 

The manufacturer will have an increased off-track activation focus on the Camaro to mirror the new focus on the track. That will include a greater presence of Camaros at Chevy’s at-track activation display, including the next step up from the Camaro ZL1, the Camaro 1LE, which is even closer to a true race car and costs about $70,000. The Detroit-based manufacturer will also show off pieces of the Camaro that SS owners can buy to upgrade their vehicle and make it closer to the performance of a Camaro.

 

Because Camaro is more of a premium offering, Chevy does not typically include the brand in its linear TV advertising, and that will continue to be the case in NASCAR. However, the ZL1 will serve as the pace car for all tracks that count Chevy as their official vehicle (the ZL1 served as the pace car at some but not all Chevy tracks last year). And Chevrolet’s official social media account for its racing program, Team Chevy, will pump out content all year long around the Camaro, like Chevy-aligned NASCAR drivers talking about what they like about classic or new Camaros they own.

 

Todd Christensen, Chevy’s advertising and marketing manager of performance vehicles, said that on top of the basic metric of race wins, he’ll use the metrics of opinion, consideration and awareness to judge how successful the switch to Camaro is.

 

“Racing is really one of the marketing tools in the toolbox, so we use the on-track presence as a way to gain exposure for Camaro,” Christensen said. “Now all of a sudden I’m having Camaros on track in front of millions of people every weekend in a competitive environment while gaining more opinion, consideration and awareness — that’s what I’m after.”