Red Necks, White Socks, And Blue Chip Sponsors

`Ladies and gentlemen, start your six-packs," yells the front-page headline of the Birmingham Post-Herald for Friday, July 22. Early the next morning, the serious beer-guzzling has begun. Horns are honking, Confederate flags are flying, and a line of cars and pickups stretches four miles down Alabama's Route 77 toward Talladega Superspeedway, home of the Die-Hard 500 stock-car race.

This is NASCAR, and these are 100,000 of its fans. Most are wearing gimme caps and T-shirts bearing the likenesses of favorite drivers or of local hero Davey Allison, a second-generation stock-jock from nearby Hueytown, Ala., killed last year in a helicopter crash. "These people are a little different breed," says Tony Black, a 38-year-old Birmingham firefighter. "They're groupies. People get in fistfights about these races."

That's the rockin' redneck image many Americans have long had of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. But that picture is about to change. On Aug. 6, 400,000 fans will crowd into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch the Brickyard 400--the first race other than the Indianapolis 500 to be run on the fabled track. The purse: a record $3.2 million.

"BRIGHTEST MARKETERS." Stock-car racing is on a flat-out roll these days. Event attendance is expected to top 3.4 million this year. Corporate sponsorships, which can cost as much as $5 million, are at an all-time high. And sales of NASCAR-licensed merchandise could speed past $1 billion by 1996. "The NASCAR guys are the brightest marketers I've known," says Steven M. Bornstein, ESPN Inc.'s chief executive. "They understand who they're trying to appeal to, and they've developed some of the brightest racing stars."

Now, NASCAR is stalking a more upscale bunch that is showing up at the track as the sport expands its geographic base. Races now are held as far north as New Hampshire and New York and as far west as California and Arizona. The strategy is working: Indy 500 fans, who earn slightly more than old-line NASCAR fans, were given first crack at Brickyard tickets. Speedway executives were blown away by the response--a sellout in three days.

Since 1970, Winston cigarettes has been the biggest NASCAR sponsor. This year, NASCAR approached companies with no prior identification--or clear product tie-ins--with auto racing about sponsorships. NASCAR's roster of sponsors now includes the likes of Canon, Eastman Kodak, Gillette, and McDonald's.

It's easy to see why such big names are giving NASCAR the checkered flag. For one thing, stock-car fans make a lot of money (chart) and are 64% more likely to buy a consumer good from a company that is a NASCAR sponsor than from a competitor that is not, says a recent study by MBA students at Wake Forest University.

Moreover, NASCAR fans respond more favorably to a company logo on the hood of a supercharged Ford than to one on a ballpark billboard. More than 70% say they would almost always or frequently buy a product involved in the sport, estimates Performance Research, a sports-marketing company in Newport, R.I. For Major League Baseball, the figure is 58%. It's 52% for tennis and 47% for golf, two sports with much higher brows. That 70% figure puts a gleam in every marketer's eye.

FLUSH FANS. And, boy, do they market to NASCAR fans. At the Talladega Superspeedway gift shop, folks line up four deep to buy souvenirs. T-shirts of Bill Elliott and Kyle Petty race out at $20 a pop. Talladega sweatshirts are $35, and models of defending Winston Cup champ Dale Earnhardt's black No.3 Chevy go for $15. Merchandise sales, $80 million six years ago, should hit $600 million in 1994. Earnhardt just sold $900,000 worth of garb and gewgaws in two hours on home-shopping channel QVC.

What's so appealing about race drivers whose lineage can be traced back to moonshine runners? Marketing experts say NASCAR drivers are down-to-earth types, and fans can picture themselves driving the cars. "Unlike other athletes, these guys come across as good ol' boys just driving as fast as they can," says Gordon Kane, a vice-president at Clarion Performance Properties in Greenwich, Conn.

And as long as NASCAR keeps luring such loyal fans as Tony Buckner, its future looks as bright as a candy-apple-red paint job. The 23-year-old plumber drove four hours from Knoxville, Tenn., just to see his hero, Earnhardt, in action. Buckner spends at least $250 at a race, with $85 going for tickets. The rest will be spent on a hotel room, food (most likely at a nearby McDonald's, which sponsors Die-Hard 500 winner Jimmy Spencer's Ford), and souvenirs. Today in Talladega, Buckner's idol will burn a piston on lap 80 and drop out of the race. NASCAR, however, won't be blowing its engine any time soon.

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