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Automakers Race to Get NASCAR Fans’ Attention

When Jeff and Jimmie, Carl and Kyle, and Dale and Danica rolled into Michigan earlier this month, 100,000-odd fans, a few million TV viewers, and megabucks of automakers’ advertising and marketing money came with them.

NASCAR, America’s dominant racing series, is flush with the success of its new car, which has rewarded Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota with exciting races since it debuted in Daytona in March. Chrysler withdrew from NASCAR this year after Roger Penske’s racing team dropped its Dodge brand to race in Fords this year. Chrysler is expected to re-enter the series when it has a deal with another competitive team.

“NASCAR’s reach is unlike any other form of racing. It has 75 million fans — one-third of the U.S. adult population,” Jamie Allison, Ford’s director of motorsports, told me last week. Ford’s research shows that more than a third of the people planning to buy a car at any given time are NASCAR fans.

“It makes sense to be part of a sport that’s closely followed by millions of American fans,” said Leslie Unger, Toyota’s national motorsports manager. “NASCAR’s fan base is very brand-driven and loyal.”

There was trouble in the fan base in the past several years, though. The Great Recession and an unpopular car design cut into attendance at races, TV ratings and sponsorship money.

NASCAR and the automakers created a strategy to revitalize the sport in a meeting at the Westin Hotel in Detroit in 2010. The automakers wanted race cars with technology and designs more like the cars they sold.

“We got back to the idea of stock car racing,” said Kim Brink, NASCAR vice president of marketing.

They early results are promising. The new car-insiders call it “Gen 6” because it’s the sixth-generation car in NASCAR’s history — looks a lot like the automakers’ production models. NASCAR also updated its technical formula to more closely resemble production models. Its cars now have fuel-injected engines that run ethanol biofuel.

“Demonstrating that the vehicles on the track are relevant to what we have in the showroom is very important,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet boss of motorsports and performance vehicles. “The TV ratings and attendance this year show movement in the right direction.”

NASCAR says the average race weekend draws 100,000 fans. The TV broadcast of its showcase event, the Daytona 500, drew more viewers than the two NCAA Final Four basketball games. Eight of the first 13 races this year met or exceeded last year’s TV rating. The first 13 races averaged 7.7 million viewers.

After a four-year decline, sponsorship money — what companies and organizations pay to have their brand on a car or event — has recovered to 8 percent above 2008 pre-crash levels, Brink said.

“Automakers get out of NASCAR what they put into it,” consultant Jim Hall said. “If they have a good plan for how to use NASCAR, it can be good for the brand and very helpful for consideration” by buyers.

“Race fans arrive early and spend lots of time at the track,” Campbell said. “The races provide a great opportunity to interact with owners of our vehicles and other brands.” Every track features an area like a carnival midway, where manufacturers stage events and showcase their vehicles and technology. Drivers — many of whom have feverish fan bases — also interact with fans at the manufacturers’ exhibits.

Toyota took owner appreciation to new heights with a hospitality area at selected races this year. Any fan with a Toyota, Lexus or Scion key fob gets free soft drinks, snacks and a comfortable seat.

“Customer awareness, consideration, shopping and purchases all rise with success in NASCAR,” according to Ford’s research, Allison said.