Ask someone for a job description of a racing driver, and the response likely won't go much beyond “someone who drives fast for a living.” Increasingly, though, getting the opportunity to do that at the highest levels requires proficiency in other areas ranging from people skills and networking to public speaking and even acting.
As the commercial involvement by sponsors and manufacturers has ramped up over the years, so has the need to justify that investment to shareholders with quantifiable marketing gains that can't always be achieved solely by prowess on the track. Such efforts are naturally a hit-and-miss process, but expanding the envelope of promotion has served to expose the sport to new audiences. Here's a sampling of the highs, lows and trends of this rapidly evolving phenomenon.The medium is the message
Red Bull has worked tirelessly to establish an edgy brand identity via backing of extreme sports and quirky events like the Red Bull Flugtag (in which participants try to fly home-built flying machines off a 30ft ramp). So, it was a natural fit to incorporate the energy drink company's racing programs into that oeuvre. Red Bull's F1 team has cut against grand prix racing's buttoned-down image with a series of public events aimed at taking the cars where the people are, including Mark Webber's run through the streets of London ahead of the British Grand Prix, and the team's “ambassador” David Coulthard's similar jaunts in colorfully improbable locales like the city center of Bogota, Colombia.
It's a familiar trail for Coulthard, who helped blaze it with McLaren during its association with West cigarettes in the 1990s. The Scot and then-teammate Mika Hakkinen were dispatched on a series of attention-grabbing activities in Eastern Europe (where West could avoid EU prohibitions on tobacco advertising tie-ins), such as experiencing zero-g in astronaut-training aircraft. It was a significant change, given the indifference-bordering-on-hostility F1 drivers had traditionally expressed toward sponsorship commitments. As Bernie Ecclestone told AUTOSPORT of his World Championship-winning driver at Brabham, Nelson Piquet, “In seven years with [sponsor] Parmalat, the only time he spoke to them was 15 conversations in three days when we were thinking of [Ayrton] Senna for the second car…”
The sheer audacity of some of the West productions upped the ante for edgy promotion. These may have reached a nadir in 2008, when Vodafone – which had replaced West as McLaren's primary sponsor – put together a ludicrous publicity stunt in which Lewis Hamilton was obliged to take on the role of the Greek god Apollo in the sacking of Troy!
Ahead of the Turkish Grand Prix that year, a sheepish-looking Hamilton found himself “flying” onto a stage on which a mock battle was being fought, as a cross-promotion for the race and a Turkish stage show (of which Vodafone was also a sponsor) based around the Trojan War.
Happily, Vodafone's more recent promotional work with McLaren has struck a much more responsive chord, via a series of clever made-for-web videos that have become YouTube successes by revealing irreverent sides of drivers Hamilton and Jenson Button. The best to date depicts the duo trying to assemble a pile of parts into a running McLaren after being abandoned by the team's mechanics, who've wandered off to the team cafeteria. It's engaging, it's funny and a subtle but effective ad, demonstrating the utility of cell phones by having Button call his wayward mechanics for assembly tips.
Renault also has gone the viral promotion route to increase exposure of its F1 program beyond traditional sports media. In appearances at the Goodwood Festival of Speed captured for YouTube posterity, Renault utilized the sonorous nature of its F1 engines to play musical numbers, via software-controlled rev changes, including a “God Save the Queen” salute to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II
. It's just the kind of video oddity that gets forwarded around the world by e-mail – expanding the number of eyeballs on the car's sponsors with every hit.Love the players, love the game
In America, NASCAR has long been king of motorsports promotional endeavors, as stock car racing's ascendant popularity drew in sponsors eager to tap into the audience's fervent interest in and loyalty to the participants. But while the drivers have become a staple of commercials and even television drama (see below) they've also been tapped to promote attendance at the races by special appearances on behalf of NASCAR's Winner's Circle program. These appearances have evolved beyond traditional autograph sessions into orchestrated photo-ops, with drivers posed in attention-getting ways. Ahead of Atlanta's Sprint Cup race, for example, Kurt Busch found himself slinging hot dogs at a drive-through. Such stunts may be good for prompting local TV coverage, but they've also generated some blowback.
“If somebody can show me how a paintball fight is going to sell tickets and fill the grandstands, I'll gladly be a part of that,” series champ Jimmie Johnson grumbled. “I don't believe that's the case, though. Do hot dogs really sell tickets?”
Some tension is inevitable between drivers who'd just as soon get on with their real jobs and those who see them as an asset to be utilized in other ways, and the pressure to promote in untraditional ways is only increasing in a down economy that has made tickets a harder sell. The IZOD IndyCar Series, too, has expanded its outreach at race events, including fan/driver interaction via “Festival of Speed” events at host cities on the IndyCar trail. The latter may be a touch ironic, given the scorn the first-generation IRL and many of it fans had for such events when CART/Champ Car was doing them back in the day, but most now see the value in mixing such events with IZOD's more orchestrated promotional events.
The street-fests tie in with the “Race to the Party” ad campaign pushed by IZOD since it took over IndyCar's title sponsor role. The campaign, which IZOD says “incorporates the sport and its drivers into the IZOD brand lifestyle,” includes a series of commercials featuring Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti racing different high-speed vehicles to a party. IZOD has also continued its Indy 500-based commercial featuring cameos from actor Mark Wahlberg and Mario Andretti, rounding out a package that lends an aspirational lifestyle element traditionally missing from IndyCar marketing. It's all a long way from the head-scratching “You had to be there” print and TV ads for the fledgling Indy Racing League.
Of course, the communications revolution that has transformed marketing since then has increased opportunities for promotional activity. While photo-ops like fly-alongs with the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels have been staged for many years, their use was largely limited to video B-roll during race broadcasts, as filler during down time. But in the YouTube age, producers and promoters have a much wider canvas on which to paint the message they'd like to get across. When IndyCar drivers rode the Blue Angels' Fat Albert C-130 transport prior to last year's Watkins Glen race, the resulting videos could be tailored to the various needs of the participants.
Of course, there's no guarantee that the message won't get lost. In some ways, the unlimited horizon of the Internet merely provides more scope for getting off on a tangent. The BAR Honda F1 team's effort to establish a new straightline speed record for F1 cars at Bonneville and promote it via online video was one example. The mission was accomplished but made no more waves than the team did on the racetrack. “F1 car goes fast” wasn't much of an attention grabber.
Such pitfalls are part of the learning curve of 21st century communications. If the variety of marketing alternatives is shaping motorsports careers in new ways, it also is providing new options for justifying the expenses involved to those being asked to pay them.
READY FOR THEIR CLOSEUP
Jeff Burton's first thought upon being invited to guest star on the TV serial General Hospital was one that any working stiff might have. “Why in the hell would they want me?'” Burton recalled. “That was my initial reaction. Why me? I don't much look like an actor.”
Actually, they had pretty good reasons. The massive increase of TV coverage of NASCAR in recent years has forced the most taciturn of drivers to become media friendly, just as rising commercial pressures increased the push to incorporate them into advertising. All that screen time has helped them move beyond the deer-in-the-headlights look seen in racers' endorsements of yore, into comfortable, projecting personalities. Actors, even. Some, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., have even become sought-after pitchmen in commercials that make only passing references to their racing personas.
The trend has largely been limited to NASCAR drivers, although Danica Patrick's transcendental popularity has landed her a dramatic role on CSI: NY and Helio Castroneves parlayed his larger-than-life personality as much as his dancing moves into a spiking Q-rating on Dancing with the Stars. IZOD's ambitious efforts to market the IndyCar Series promise to introduce more of its drivers to the general public and, as Burton and company have found, once the media gravy train gets started, it can lead in unexpected directions.
Whether such breakthroughs help the sport is another question. TV ratings remain problematic, and traditionally minded fans may be turned off by what they perceive to be promotion of style over substance. But if curiosity about a personality leads to the creation of new race fans, the rising tide really will have raised everyone's boat.