The visage of Adrian Fernandez, one of Mexico’s most famous sports stars, on a mammoth TV screen at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez course in the heart of Mexico City, at the start of NASCAR’s Mexico 200 (Photo: Donald Miralle/Getty Images for NASCAR)
NASCAR AND DIVERSITY: SECOND IN A FIVE-PART SERIES ON NASCAR’S PUSH TO CHANGE THE FACE OF STOCK CAR RACING
(Parts three, four and five are below)
By Mike Mulhern
Now NASCAR has been a coast-to-coast, border-to-border sport ever since Big Bill France Sr. took his men up to Watkins Glen in 1957 and then out to Los Angeles and Riverside in 1958.
Detroit in the 1960s made NASCAR glamorous and glitzy, with Fireball and Fearless Freddie and Junior and the Randleman Rocket.
R. J. Reynolds, during the 1970s and 1980s, with crucial support from ESPN and big, new non-automotive corporate sponsors, gave the sport depth and breadth in the American sports psyche, and a much broader reach—into every home with TV.
And all that laid the base for NASCAR’s explosive growth since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway milestone in 1994 and the mammoth network TV breakthrough of 2001.
But today NASCAR faces a new and different challenge in its continuing charge to keep expanding.
—There are now more than 100 million non-white Americans. That’s one in three.
—The Hispanic and Asian segments of the U. S. population are growing 10 times as fast as the non-Hispanic white segment.
—The median age of non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. is 40. The median age of Hispanics is 27.
The bottom line here for NASCAR and its marketers?
Joe Gibbs’ NASCAR hauler on the road to Mexico City (Photo Credit: Ruby Ludolph/UPS)
Over the past few years the country itself has become much more multi-cultural, as the various ethnic groups disperse across America.
However the clearest front lines for NASCAR’s Hispanic initiatives still run from Miami’s Homestead Speedway to LA’s California Speedway, and that means Homestead’s Curtis Gray and California’s Gillian Zucker are down in the trenches, in their fight to put more fans up in the stands and increase TV market share for NASCAR racing in those two major American markets.
NASCAR’s TV ratings are way up in Los Angeles, so Zucker, who runs California Speedway/Auto Club Speedway for the France family’s International Speedway Corporation, must be doing something right.
The media has been so focused on just ticket sales to the track’s two major NASCAR weekends, and the too many empty seats, that maybe it’s been missing the bigger picture: NASCAR isn’t playing at California Speedway just to sell tickets to a couple more Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck races but rather to see the sport to the broader market as a whole.
In that respect, Zucker’s work, particularly in the Hispanic areas of the market, must be paying off. And more than 20 percent of the country’s minorities live in California. In fact in California minorities are the majority, nearly 60 percent of the population. (In Texas too minorities are the majority, making this an issue also for Bruton Smith’s Texas Motor Speedway.)
NASCAR’s Mexico City venture, just dropped from the racing calendar, has been one of the focal points of the sport’s Hispanic initiative. (Photo Credit: Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
“The thing is not about selling out our races but really about introducing our sport to a market that is relative new to focusing on NASCAR,” she says. So she’s been pushing fans to write her directly about what they want to see at the track: [email protected]
“I’ve been here three years now, and it continues to grow, and one place we have made monumental strides is in the Hispanic community in Southern California. And we’ve engaged this community…but not by waving a magic wand and creating NASCAR fans, because it takes time.
“We’re starting to see the proof of our efforts. Certainly during the last race we were seeing tickets sales in the thousands for our Hispanic packages.”
Juan Pablo Montoya (L) with Adrian Fernandez at NASCAR’s Mexico 200 at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)
At least Zucker can clearly target the Hispanic population in Southern California.
Over in South Florida, Gray, who runs the mod-designed, almost Art-Deco Homestead track for the Frances, says “We have unique challenges, and definitely opportunities, in Miami, and in all of South Florida, because it’s such a diverse market.
“We have Colombians and Brazilians and Venezuelans and Dominican Republicans and Puerto Ricans and Haitians and Cubans….and they’re all different cultures, and they live in different areas, and like different types of sports, and even different types of racing.
“So it’s finding out how to reach those very, very targeted markets of each culture, each nationality. But it is exciting.”
While Zucker can hit a few key Los Angeles area electronic media, Gray has a potpourri.
Gray, one of NASCAR’s many key players who came up through the sport’s R. J. Reynolds’ sports marketing program, says “Juan Pablo Montoya has really helped us in reaching the Colombian market, the South American market.”
However, Montoya may not reach all Hispanics, Gray points out: “You can’t assume that just because he speaks Spanish that all nationalities of Hispanic orient are going to follow Juan Pablo Montoya.
“But the good news is he speaks Spanish, so we’ve got that piece covered.
“And we have a little more opportunity than, say, Phoenix and California, because they’re predominantly Mexican, where we’re more diverse. We have a lot of Colombians who live in South Florida…and a lot of Colombians will fly up to South Florida, to do a lot of shopping, and they love Miami, and now they can also take in a NASCAR race with Juan Pablo.”
The Miami market is more than just palm trees and balmy weather for for NASCAR: Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)
Miami may be the gateway to the U.S. from South American, but the largest country in South American doesn’t speak Spanish, but rather Portuguese. “And that adds another big challenge,” Gray says. “They have their own newspapers and radio stations and live in particular areas, like Key Biscayne and Pompano.
“But we know where that fan base is, so we can target those markets, those restaurants…
“So there is a lot grassroots promotion and education here.
“You have to educate them before they can become fans.
“Take me – I’m not likely to go to an opera…unless you give me a reason to go to the opera. So we’ve got to give these fans a reason to come to a NASCAR race. We know once they get here they’ll love it.
“So we look at that potential fan base and how it’s family-oriented, how it likes festivals….well that makes NASCAR a natural fit. So we go to the DJs and the community leaders, and get them involved in the sport, and get them to say ‘Hey, it’s a cool sport.’
“And we go to the schools, to show teachers how motorsports can be a great teaching tool – geography, math, science. So we’re trying to bring motorsports in the curriculum.”
Zucker, in fact, has her ‘NASCAR 101’ hauler exhibition that she sends to schools in the Los Angeles area.
Antonio Perez (L), one of NASCAR’s promising Hispanic drivers, at TV’s ESPY’s, with soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo (Photo Credit: Manny Poveda/NASCAR)
Gray and Zucker, and other NASCAR promoters, have a corporate hook too – NASCAR sponsors have their own interests in marketing to these demographic segments too. “All the major sponsors at our track are very interested in the Hispanic market,” Gray says.
“Ford, Coke, Sprint all have Hispanic initiatives they go through us at the track to implement. And we can use our ‘championship’ weekend to help.
“So this is an exciting place to be to try to reach the multi-cultural Hispanic market.
“As we diversify this sport, we want to hit all potential markets and grow this sport in many different directions.
“And this sport may be becoming more ‘local’ as this economy shakes out. We will always be ‘national,’ but right now we definitely want to reach out harder than ever in our local markets, because people are more likely to be staying home.”
Los Angeles has two Cup tour weekends; perhaps Homestead-Miami would be even stronger in the NASCAR universe if it had two Cup weekends.
Gray, from Winston-Salem, says he just wants to focus on the championship weekend: “We have never really had a championship event like other major sports have. So our focus is building this (November) championship event first, to make it something very special, not just in our sport but around the world. We want this championship event to be recognized around the world.
“After that, we may look at a second event.”
Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2007 victory in Mexico City at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is one of the highlights of NASCAR’s Hispanic initiatives (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Hispanic market, of course, is not monolithic, and it is quite different in Los Angeles than Miami.
“When you think marketing, you really have to look at the market you are in,” Zucker says. “And in Southern California the majority of our Hispanic marketing is geared toward Mexicans; we target both first and second generations. And the vast majority of Hispanics we target are bilingual. But if you reach out to them in Spanish, they feel special, which is why we do so much of our marketing in Spanish.
“The average ticket purchase is a little larger than what you would normally see; we target a lot of marketing toward families, with four-packs.
“They look to role models they are familiar with, and take a lot of their leads from people they are familiar with, like news sources they are familiar with. So we use KMEX, which is the number-one rated news station in the U.S., in either English or Spanish.
“When I first came here, when we first started with them, the first thing was to introduce them to the facility and to NASCAR. So we had a number of business people and personalities come here to see. From there they’ve been able to develop a plan with us to integrate us into the community. For example, they have been doing 10-second and 30-second snippets about NASCAR on their news and sports programs. Maybe tires, maybe restrictors plates, tidbit facts to help them better understand the sport.
“From there, we’ve branched out to festivals and community outreach and ticket pages….and now we’ve really targeted marketing: ‘Come see an event.’”
Adrian Fernandez—as one of Mexico’s biggest sports stars, NASCAR has squandered a great marketing opportunity (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
One of Zucker’s more interesting marketing gambits was ‘Juan Montoya has a secret,’ a marketing campaign last season.
And she has Hispanic food at the counters too.
“It’s important to remember, though, that depending on what market you’re in, you have to speak differently to the Hispanic audience,” Zucker says. “It isn’t one-size-fits-all.
“But we are already seeing success. We saw some tremendous success for our (February) Auto Club 500.
“This is a key market and a growing market. What really caught my attention when I first came here, with our show cars and our fitness programs in schools, I would look out and see just how many kids were there. And we found that 80 percent of the teenagers in southern California public schools are Hispanic.”
Of course there’s more to Gillian Zucker’s NASCAR marketing in Los Angeles than just the cut-and-dried. Hey, here’s Hollywood: Mike Helton, NASCAR president, socialite Paris Hilton, driver Denny Hamlin and Zucker, the president of California Speedway’s “Running Wide Open in Hollywood” event at Avalon (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hence cross-promotion, like last fall’s Spanish festival at the track, which attracted a lot of first-generation Hispanics. The goal was to increase the frequency of the Spanish market to the Fontana, and some 60,000 people attended. Zucker is doing that again this October, trying to create a more personal relationship with that market at the track level.
“For a first-time event you couldn’t have asked for more success,” she said. “We’re using area stores to help reach that market too, which gives us exposure in Hispanic stores—which helps us find Hispanic sponsors interested in becoming more involved with us.
“We began with an education plan, which has created cross-promotion with media and our events, and now this new level, with sponsors showing interest in what we’re doing.
“When we do all this we see that coverage of our event increases significantly, because people aren’t coming in thinking ‘I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what to cover, I don’t know anyone here, I don’t know what to do.’
“Now when they come, they know us, they know who we are. When they have a question, they have somewhere to turn.
“And when people come to our events, we have people at guest services who speak both English and Spanish.
“As you see the Hispanic population grow in Southern California, you want to see its affinity toward NASCAR grow too.
“These are not ‘Hispanic initiatives,’ this is ‘bi-lingual marketing.’
“If you go to our website — http://www.autoclubspeedway.com/espanol/ —you’ll see it. Our website has both.
“It’s incredible the page views we’re getting on our Spanish language pages.”
She says this year page views have increased 56 percent over the previous year and ‘unique visitors’ have increased over 100 percent.
Juan Pablo Montoya and his striking wife Connie Freydell on the red carpet prior to the Juan Pablo Charity Gala in Miami. But NASCAR is squandering Montoya’s talents and marketing appeal because his race team simply isn’t getting the job done. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
One perhaps curious criticism of Zucker’s LA marketing game plan concerns the Hollywood angle, the Paris Hilton angle, the downtown LA parties. That Zucker is too much Hollywood….that Zucker perhaps doesn’t market strongly enough to the local Inland Empire area that surrounds the Fontana track.
That criticism angers Zucker: “The only people who complain are people who are not from here. If you live in Southern California, Hollywood is just part of it.
“And to say we don’t market enough to the local area is the most ridiculous statement you could possibly imagine. If you would go through the thousands of things we do for the local community….like the promotional programs with the 260 Stater Brothers grocery stores: some 7,000 people won race tickets for the Auto Club 500 paid for by vendors for Stater Brothers, and that’s all local marketing, 100 percent. And we work so hard at that.
“But what people who are not from the Inland Empire may not realize is that your media comes from LA – it’s an LA TV station, an LA radio station that tells you what’s going on. We have to market in Los Angeles.
“So we need to look at this as all one region.
“When we do something geared toward Hispanics, or with Jimmie Johnson geared toward San Diego, or something with Jeff Gordon geared toward Hollywood…..does not mean that’s the only thing we do. It’s just that when Paris Hilton shows up, people think that’s all we do…. because it gets a lot of national attention…which is one reason we continue to do it. People love Hollywood and celebrities.
“That complaint really does get to me.
“But what it shows me is that we need to do a better job of communicating what we’re doing.”
And part of that might not be just doing the job of reaching out to the Hispanic population and integrating that group in NASCAR’s Southern California fan base but also of explaining her programs and its successes and then showcasing that wide-ranging effort, as an example of how other tracks might also reach out.
“We would like to have a media tour, to show the Spanish language programs we have in place, and to show the Spanish language media, on a national basis, what we can do and how we can be more inclusive,” Zucker says.
Adrian Fernandez poses for a picture with a fan at a driver autograph session during the NASCAR Mexico 200 in Mexico City (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Even though in LA it’s hard to be heard no matter what you’re selling and no matter how loud you’re screaming, Zucker insists she not discouraged: “The reason we’re not discouraged is we’re seeing enormous progress. For example, we have seen print media coverage increase 300 percent, which is not a small amount.
“Sure, when I first showed up here, there were people who didn’t even know this NASCAR track existed. That is not the case today.
“I truly believe all our people here have a single-minded mission of making this California track part of the NASCAR Nation. And we’re well on our way.
“Everyone wants to wave a magic want or sprinkle pixie dust around and say ‘We’re done, we’ve got it.’
“But it’s not like that. It’s hard work and a lot of grassroots market.
“And it’s working. We are really making NASCAR relevant to this region.”
Agree? Disagree? Don’t just brood. Express yourself here, and make your voice heard clearly in NASCAR headquarters in Daytona and Charlotte and in NASCAR race shops throughout North Carolina and the rest of the country.
We want your reaction, so please comment on this story and offer your own opinions and insight, on this topic, on our NASCAR videos, and anything about NASCAR. Any questions, just ask Mike at [email protected]. And bookmark this page for continually updated NASCAR reports: https://independenttribune.net/index.php/sports/mulhern/
Looks like any typical NASCAR short track afternoon…except NASCAR’s Potosino Oval is in the heart of Mexico, halfway between Mexico City and Monterrey…in San Luis Potosi, one of the most beautiful cities in Mexico…part of NASCAR’s Hispanic initiatives. (Photo: NASCAR)